This is a two-part blog to encourage and equip parents of teenagers. In this part 1, we share an encouraging big-picture truth. In part 2 we share strategies to help you implement it. Pass this along to a parent who needs it!
As a mom who has been launching young-adult kids into the college and career phases of life, I was delighted recently when my daughter wanted help shopping for clothes for her first “real” job. As she walked up to the cashier with her selections and presented her own debit card to pay for what she would be wearing the next day, I smiled a little inside. I thought about what a remarkable thing it has been to gradually shift, over twenty-two years, from parenting that focuses on teaching obedience and discipline, to parenting that focuses on steering and coaching teens to handle increased freedom … and now to parenting that focuses on mentoring and friendship.
Here’s the encouragement for parents who are one parenting phase behind me, with kids in high school: you can do it! Stay the course and finish this phase well rather than skipping it because it gets exhausting. If you’re like many parents in our research, you may be tired from your teenager’s constant pushing and pulling at boundaries during these increasingly independent years. It may feel as if you have an active, willful colt that wants to run and is not happy during those times when you rein them in! You may be grappling with the temptation to drop the reins of steering and enforcing boundaries for your child, become the “cool parent,” and skip straight to the “friendship” phase.
Don’t! Finish strong. There will come a day when transitioning to the friendship and mentoring phase is essential, but believe it or not, your kids themselves realize they aren’t ready for that yet! I’ll prove that to you shortly. What matters most is not that your teen now sees you as the “cool parent” because you let them do what they want. What matters most is that, in a few years, your adult child will look back and say, “You were such a great parent, and you set me up for a great life.”
Here are six action steps that will help any parent of a teenager hang in there and “finish strong,” before you hand over the reins. (The first two today, and the other four next week in Part 2.)
Action #1: Recognize that your teenager secretly wants the parent, not the friend
My guess is most parents of teens have tried to take the best-friend path at one point or another. Sometimes, as noted, this comes from the sheer exhaustion of teenagers pushing back on our boundaries. In other cases, we may be overcorrecting for our own strict upbringings – and so we determine to give them way more freedom than we were allowed. And let’s face it, sometimes we just want to be liked.
In the end, though, this is why we really hand them the reins: We think that’s what our teenager wants, and it will stop all the drama. We think our child is pushing for us to transition to the “cool parent” who will let them do anything they want. We think if we do so, we’ll finally – finally – have peace.
We think all that … and we would be wrong about all of it.
Here’s the astounding truth revealed in a nationally-representative survey of teenagers ages 15-17, for For Parents Only: Teens see you taking charge as a form of love and security. And they see you not taking charge as both a sign that you don’t really care about them and as a character flaw in you that is worthy of their secret (or not-so-secret) derision.
Your teen will probably never tell you this to your face – at least until after the high school years! But when asked to choose how they’d like their parents to relate to them, 77% of these anonymously surveyed teens preferred parents who set reasonable rules, stayed on top of them about homework, cared about who they hung out with, and stayed involved in their lives. Only 23% preferred parents who let them do what they wanted, didn’t bug them about homework, and didn’t enforce rules.
As one teen we surveyed put it: “I have friends at school. I need parents!”
As teenagers practice running free, they tell us it is exhilarating, it is what they are overwhelmingly motivated by… and it is also a bit scary. In the national survey, they confessed that no matter how much they might say otherwise in the moment, they know they need your guidance and reasonable enforcement of gradually-lightening rules. Your presence gives them the security they need to thrive.
Action #2: Use your authority to develop their capacity
That said, for the kids to (secretly) want your rules and enforcement, they also have to believe one very crucial thing: It has to be very clear that your authority is being exerted to help them develop their own capacity for responsibility.
All bets are off if a teenager sees their parent operating from a place of “showing them who’s boss,” or setting and enforcing rules just for the sake of having rules – rather than setting rules that they see as helping them grow in character, self-discipline, and responsibility. Showing them who is boss might have been crucial for a younger child dealing with a rebellious attitude. But by the time that child is in high school – especially by the time they are driving age – the harsh reality is that they probably can figure out how to do whatever they want to do. Whether you have rules against it or not.
It makes sense that whether your teenager submits to your leadership at a heart level is heavily influenced by whether they see you as wanting to help them become a man or woman of strength and character, and whether they see you being there for them even when they make mistakes. (There’s a lot more to that than we can cover in this post, so if you want to know more about that, we suggest you order a copy of For Parents Only or pick it up from the library, and look especially at Chapters 4 and 5.)
So. As you grapple with this truth that your high schooler secretly wants you to have the reins for a little while longer, how can you make it through these next few years well – even when you’re tempted to just give up and give in? That is what we’ll cover in Part 2.
This article was also published at Patheos.
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