Raising teenagers is hard. All of your parenting errors come back to haunt you when your children are old enough to rebel. Teenagers push your boundaries and are notoriously insensitive to their parents’ emotional needs. As a parent, you have to deal with your own feelings of grief at the impending loss of your child, and the process of breaking away seems both too fast and too final. It hurts that your child wants to accelerate the break, and it seems horrible that your job is to let them go. If you feel that your child is also your best friend, that adds to the pain. If you’ve put your career on hold and built your life around raising kids, then the departure of your child will force a simultaneous, daunting sea-change in your own life. What should you do now? Who are you? What do you care about? Finally, once your kids are gone, you will either be living alone again for the first time since your own youth, or facing a transformation of your relationship with your partner. How will you get along once the shared task is mostly done and children are no longer a constant buffer between you?
I want you to know that the journey is rewarding; that teenagers eventually get over their bad behavior and rejoin the human race as young adults. Someday in the not-too-distant future, you will look back at their teenage years and you will laugh together, and cringe, and apologize to each other for the bad moments. Your relationship doesn’t end when they finish high school. I love having young adult children, sharing in their discoveries as they come into their own full power, and having my life enriched by meeting their friends and partners. Your own life and your relationship with your own partner will evolve as you are both able to give it more attention. But I am not going to talk about that. I just want to share a few parenting principles that I learned along the way. I was lucky to have a brilliant partner, and many of these lessons I learned from her.
- A teenager’s most important responsibility is to break away from his/her parents and to join society as an independent young adult. Navigating the momentous changes that are required is an incredibly difficult and emotional process for the teenager. Being somewhat insensitive to their parents' needs helps teenagers to succeed in their primary task of self-discovery. Remembering this helps to put their sometimes hurtful behavior in context.
- Your job as a parent is mostly just to be present. Ninety-nine percent of the time you’ll be ignored or rejected. The other one percent of the time, your teenager will revert to their child role and will want your help, protection and guidance. Your job is to be paying attention at those moments. You have to put aside your work, forget about your own needs, and really listen. What you have to offer is uncritical support, plus your perspective on the world.
- The Golden Rule: You must parent as if you have no control over your child. Your job is to help your child develop his/her own judgement. Your goal, in other words, is to convince your teenager to adopt your perspective on the world, at least insofar as it comes to dealing with its dangers. This rule will steer you through many difficult and confusing situations that you are going to face. Realize that you already have less control than you think you do; for example, your child has access to other people and situations when they are at school or with friends. More importantly, your child will be truly and completely beyond your control in a few short years when they leave home. A child with good judgement can handle all of the things that you worry about: dangerous people and situations, online violence and pornography, drugs, sex, rock and roll, the whole list. A child with bad judgement will be lucky to avoid disaster, even if you manage to protect them from some of it.
- There are still a few situations where you should exercise authority. Teenagers benefit from, and are actually grateful for, some boundaries (although they will fight them all). It’s a biological fact that teenage brains are not fully developed and teenagers have a limited ability to recognize the consequences of their actions. Evolution has selected for human parents that stick around through the teenage years because a parent’s life experience is invaluable in protecting teenagers. However, you should use your authority very sparingly. You are going to argue about nearly everything with your teenager, so you must be willing to lose unimportant battles in order to win important ones.
How do you know when to put your foot down? Here is a simple rule: Do not yield when there is an actual threat to the life or wellbeing of your child or another person. In all other cases, consider yielding; at least be willing to talk about it. For example, your teenager’s texting habits are not life-threatening, but some online behaviors are dangerous. Online dating is not life-threatening per se, but one should take certain precautions. Marijuana isn’t generally life-threatening. Driving drunk is. Opioids are. You know the difference! The guiding question is not “How do I prevent my child from exploring?” The guiding question is: “How can I allow my child to explore the things she wants to explore, while being safe? How can I help her to develop her judgement so that she sees, and handles, the potential dangers?”
- Keep the communication channels open. This could be called the Other Golden Rule. To convince your child of anything, your child must feel that you are listening. The only way to achieve this is to actually listen. Take an interest in your child’s life! The world changes fast, and they’re ahead of you on the latest changes. Admit that there are lots of new things that you don’t really understand (their high school social scene, social media, online dating, fashion, music, whatever). Get your kids to explain them to you. Ask about them with an open mind, and acknowledge the good side of things that you instinctively dislike, before being critical. It’s not easy to be open-minded, but it's lots of fun to have your kids as a guide, and your openness will buy you the goodwill that you may need to spend later.
The subjects your children raise are clues about what they want to know. You must be honest, but you can tailor your responses to their ages; an 11 year-old and an 18 year-old have different needs. When appropriate, you can use your own experiences as a cautionary tale, and being honest about the wild highs you felt makes your stories more relatable.
If your teenager hurts your feelings, either express that hurt or wait for a moment when you are communicating well to discuss it. Teenagers need to be reminded that other people’s emotional boundaries should be respected, including their parents. Teenagers do not have an inherent right to trample other people’s emotions. It falls on you to time the feedback so that they receive it when they are not deafened by their own internal turmoil.
Three practical examples
You will probably face these challenges yourself, and they help to illustrate some of the principles above.
- Learning to drive. Our kids wanted to drive. I was not in any hurry to let them drive until it occurred to me that if they didn’t, they would inevitably end up being driven around by other teenagers who had gotten their licenses earlier. We trusted our own childrens’ judgement, and so we decided to let them drive as soon as it was legal. We built in some guidelines, among which was that they had to take a Driver’s Ed class and had to maintain clean driving records. We are lucky to live in a state that has excellent young-driver laws: 16 year-olds are not allowed to drive non-relatives at first, to text or to play music, or to drive at night. We added a few additional restrictions such as not allowing them to drive long distances or in full city traffic, and we gradually relaxed these as they became more competent. In short, we let them explore, while helping them to develop their judgement to keep them safe.
- Driving drunk. I learned this valuable lesson from a friend. One of his daughter’s teenage friends had been out drinking at a party. She was worried about getting home on time to avoid her parents’ wrath. She tried to drive home drunk and was killed in a crash. My friend was so devastated by this that he made a pact with his children. He told them that if they ever needed a ride home from a party, anywhere and at any hour, he would come and get them. Here is the part that shows brilliant parenting skills: he promised that they would enjoy the ride together and that there would be no recriminations at all. None. We made that pact with our children, and they actually took advantage of it a few times. I stuck to my side of the bargain and bit my tongue. I didn’t say a single critical word, just went and picked them up, gave them a hug and brought them home. The next morning, I still said nothing--and they started the discussion themselves. They were very sheepish and sorry, and had learned a lesson. They were telling me about the downsides of drinking. The best part of it was, I had hardly said a word. I had achieved the Zen goal: Teaching Without Teaching. I felt like a hero.
- Doing drugs. Drugs are not all equally dangerous, and we tried to honestly explain the differences. Never, ever try heroin, opioids, methamphetamines, or crack cocaine, we told them. Be cautious about long-lasting effects of psychadelics (mushrooms, LSD). Limit your exposure to party drugs such as Ecstasy and Molly that may affect your brain’s reward system. Don’t waste too much of your life with marijuana and be careful of alcohol, which is socially encouraged and much more likely to bite you in the long run. Above all, use Ann’s rule before you experiment: Safe Drugs, Safe People, Safe Place. Ann’s rule is deliberately not black-and-white; its goal is to encourage the teenager to evaluate the situation before diving in. Our hope, to be honest, was to extinguish their desire for all drugs, but we calculated that the most effective means to that end was to allow some experimentation and to keep the lines of communication open. We knew that their own good judgement would ultimately protect them better than we could.
- Friends and lovers who you disapprove of. This one is short: if you want your child to consider your misgivings at all, then you must strive to understand what they like about the person, and you must verbally acknowlege those good qualities. You must listen carefully and express your disapproval very mildly, or better, not at all. It’s a delicate dance. You probably see things that your child is missing, and they probably know things that you don’t see. Asking questions can help you to develop a shared perspective, which sets the stage for them to come to you for advice when the person does something hurtful or confusing.
Life will teach your kids a lot, without you. Most of the time, they just need a little support and understanding. Occasionally they need some boundaries, and you know which ones really matter. So relax and do your job. Be there, take the hits with as much patience and grace as you can muster, listen and learn, and share your experience when it is needed. Don't ignore your own needs; being happy with your own life makes you a better human. One hand for yourself, one hand for the ship, as the old saying goes. It can be an exhausting, exhilirating, frustrating, and deeply moving journey, and it is so worth taking. Don’t miss it!