By Kimberly Selchan
Clearly every adult had a different upbringing and culture that impacted the values instilled in us, but if we are parenting teens today, they are sharing a homogenous experience that likely differs – on a very large scale – from the teen years that we experienced. They have luxuries we deservedly may be a little envious of, but there also exists a teen culture that frightens and overwhelms us.
“In my day” my parents’ number one concern was whether I would get into a good college and earn a degree so that I could provide for myself and future family. That was really all there was to it (I asked them to be sure). Things such as social media, self-harm, vaping, anxiety, suicide, and losing motivation to even try at school were almost completely out of the periphery, if even in existence, at the time we were teenagers. Today however, my network of fellow parents, mentors and business owners who commit their energy and vocations to helping teens and their families, often find that outside factors carry an elusive and greater force of power than our parenting can overcome.
As parents, we must accept that we are not prepared for every challenge of the generation; no parent ever was. But we are not raising children, we are raising adults, and if we maintain an awareness of that bigger picture, we may be able to stay ahead of newest trends and distractions that seek to suck our teens away from us.
Every good grade, bad grade, break-up, and act of defiance is an opportunity to listen and grow with our children. As adults, we are smarter, faster at doing chores, making dinner, doing homework (unless it’s calculus, oof!) but we need to remember that this chapter of life is being written for our kids; ours was many pages back. It inarguably feels more comfortable and efficient to impose our opinions, do the laundry and prepare the meals, than it does to spend countless minutes teaching and reteaching our kids how to separate clothing for different loads of laundry, and endure eating soggy pasta and over-salted sauce when they are first learning.
Our intentions are good, and in the moment, it really does seem like we are being helpful – the clothes are ready for tomorrow, meals are in their bellies, the homework’s done, and we told them exactly what to about that mean track coach. But consider our role as Parent. It isn’t to prove and re-prove what we have already mastered, it is to model what “adulting” looks like. When we mow down obstacles for our children (you may have heard of the “Lawnmower Parent”), we are actually impeding their growth, denying them the opportunity to make mistakes and to fail safely in their homes while they are developing their sense of identity. And what about purpose? Self-assurance? If we give them a purpose within our households, such as “Because of Cade, the trash always gets taken out,” can we imagine that Cade will be more likely to feel he has a purpose and a belief that he can succeed in the world beyond our front door?
Parents, when we are not feeling over-burdened, it is okay to admit that it gives us a sense of importance and fulfillment to do things for our kids because we recognize they need us less and less as they gain independence. In those opposite moments, when we are feeling exhausted and taken for granted, it seems justified to yell at our teens for not remembering to do something we have told them to do no less than five times! Or, when we see our teen struggling with something that to us seems mundane with an obvious solution, that we want to impose our opinion of what our kids “should” do. This may work in the short term but will likely develop a resentful or falsely complicit young adult (which sounds like: “yeah mom/dad” or “sure, whatever”).
If we can’t do everything for our teens or tell them what to do, and we certainly cannot do nothing – what DO we do with them? Here are three condensed ways to reposition our parenting to raise children into adults we can look forward to knowing.
One: Ask and Listen with compassion.
Assuming and knowing are not interchangeable. By asking and truly listening, you may discover what you thought was their worry or source of frustration, is not. They may not answer you at all. However, when you are consistent in showing them that they can count on you to be there, they will talk to you. They really need your compassion in a world that may seem so judgmental and unfair.
How to begin: Start with just 15 minutes. No phones. No driving. Make eye contact. Ask an open-ended question like: “how are you feeling about ___ (school today, getting your driver’s license, your friend’s rude text…)?” and listen. With compassion. Repeat. Repeat again.
Two: Know your family values
Ethics, values, and self-identity start in the home or family unit. Values do not need to be preached, lectured, or yelled. Most importantly, we cannot assume our children know our values unless we regularly discuss them situationally and model them. We all need to stand for something, and we all crave a sense of belonging. If our teens do not know what we stand for, or what they stand for, they will follow the path that beckons them in the moment. Conversely, if our teen believes that they are healthy and worthy of living a life of their own design for example, they will not see how drugs and sex fit into or improve that sense of self, so saying “that’s not for me” becomes almost involuntary for them.
How to begin: When a “learning opportunity” arises (in other words, when we may be tempted to judge or scold), take a calm breath and try saying:
“We are a family who believes in ____ (ex. helping others when they’re down on their luck, eating healthy, higher education…). When you did ___, it ___ (ex. “goes against that value and makes me sad to see you in that light.” Circle back to Number One: “How are you feeling about ___”
Three: Steady the handlebars, then let go!
If life were a bike, there is only one seat. Once we have shown our teens we are here to listen, and have helped them define their belief system, it is time to steady the wobbly handlebars and let go! We will always be in the grass to cheer them on, or mend a scuffed knee, and embrace them when the tears come. They may just find a better route than we thought – if we get out of the way and let them pedal.
What I am coming to realize with my own growing children, is that teens are much like big toddlers. The “no’s” from the toddler years are often replaced by silence and one-word answers, but these are all ways of testing boundaries and discovering which rules stick, whether we will let them get away with it, or follow-through on our words. Our teens may never realize or admit, but they still want boundaries because they provide safety and show our love for them; which are two of the seven fundamental human needs.
It is not “your teen” or “my teen” – it is all of them and all of us. We will not always parent the most effective way but as bittersweet as it is, there will always be another opportunity for us to try again. Let’s not let them down.
Kimberly Selchan is the mother of two children in middle school and is the owner of Tutor Doctor of Phoenix-Scottsdale and Chandler-Gilbert. She focuses her business on providing academic support and mentorship to pre-teens and young adults to prepare them for adulthood.