If you think about the teenage years as ages 13 to 19 and fudge a little around the edges and make it 12 to 21, you know there is a lot of difference between a 12-year-old and a 21-year-old. Those years between 12 and 21 see many more changes than any other time span in our lives.
Typically children go from living at home to living outside of the home. They go from not being all that interested in romantic relationships to having a strong interest in them. They go from being financially dependent to hopefully making inroads to a living of their own. They go from having you guide and manage their decisions to mostly managing their own life.
Being a parent is a learn-as-you-go thing. You can try to study up on what might be coming your way, but we know the real learning is in the moment and in reflecting back upon our actions.
You learn how to change a diaper, hold a crying child, explain things you don’t really understand, worry when he has his first sleepover, be disappointed when he doesn’t do as well as you had hoped, and then you get to learn about his leaving home. You don’t know how to do any of these things when you start out. You do some better than others. You have regrets about this and pride in that.
Many of the changes from age 12 to 21 result from your child pushing you. He wants more freedom, more space, and for you to be less involved in his life. Some parents are extremely skilled at knowing when their child is ready to go to another level of independence and they help facilitate that shift. Other parents try to hold the line as long as possible until eventually the child rebels.
Parents often don’t know things have shifted until after the fact. When your child took his first steps you probably were there and eagerly cheering him on. When he sneaks his first drink you probably won’t be there and may not be eagerly cheering him on if you hear about it.
Children need to learn to live within the boundaries and to push against them. They need to find what works for them and what doesn’t.
It is helpful when a parent can smooth the way to independence, but it is also helpful when parents are steadfast in enforcing rules and boundaries so the child can learn patience, acceptance, persistence, and how to get around obstacles. While skill is necessary in all instances, I would imagine the part about obstacle clearance is not what you want to deal with on a frequent basis.
The bottom line is parenting a 12-year-old is different from parenting a 21-year-old. As he grows so too must your interactions with him. How you interact will always be fueled by love and concern, but today’s guidelines will need to be adapted and usually before you are ready. Just like you need to buy back-to-school clothes each year, so too will you need to review last year’s curfew, weeknight outings, and whatever other new freedoms your child seeks.
Your role as a parent evolves. As much as you would like to freeze moments in your child’s life, it does not work that way. We all have to keep on moving on. The no-going-out-on-weeknights rule that was held pretty firmly in 9th grade is going to come under heavy attack as your child moves through high school. The more you can embrace or at least open your mind to those changes, the easier it is going to be for everyone.
I remember in graduate school a group of us students were sitting around talking about what specialty in psychology we wanted to pursue. Someone mentioned they had heard that adolescents were the least desirable group to work with. Not because they wouldn’t be enjoyable, but because of economics. My classmate explained that most teenagers are not able to pay their way and their parents may be unwilling as well. While parents will spend any amount of money on their younger children, by the time their kids are teenagers they may no longer want to continue to invest in someone who has not demonstrated a positive return on their previous investments.
Needless to say if you bought this book you don’t totally follow that belief. From my experience when parents have serious concerns about their teenager they want to spend the time, energy, and money to help. Maybe dollar for dollar they spend more on supportive services for their younger children. I don’t know. I just know when things are not going well for a child, my phone rings.
As challenging as it may be to raise a teenager, it is way too early to throw in the towel. In fact, the teenage years are prime time to invest in the wellbeing of your child.
There is still time to be influential in your child’s development. (My hope-inducing statement.)
But it is dwindling. (My anxiety-producing statement—sorry.)
However immature they may seem at times, teens have far greater insight into themselves and how the world works than their parents ever had at their age. Children now learn in vastly different ways than previous generations and are exposed to an influx of information from across the planet.
You still have a considerable advantage over all the other learning that he is engaged in. You live with him. You have more up-close and personal time even though you may be seeing him less than ever.
If you have read my other relationship manuals you already know I am a believer in the curative powers of relationships. Simply put, if you want to improve your child’s teenage years, you need to improve your relationship with your child. As you witness your influence over your child decline and his ability to stand his ground increase, you may be mourning your loss of control. Not that you ever had all that much, but I am sure all of us parents fondly look back to those days when our children looked up to us for guidance and approval with open, endearing eyes.
Those days may now seem like a distant memory. But don’t despair, help is on the way. We are going to spend the rest of this book focusing on:·
How you can continue to be a positive influence on your child
How you can help him to make sound decisions
How you can help him to be more responsible
How you can help him have greater enjoyment and fulfillment in life
All this can happen while you:
Feel closer to him
Respect him more
Trust him more
Enjoy him more
You feeling better
Him feeling better
This is not an “in your dreams” promise. I write this with the firm belief that you have within you the ability to make all that happen. Will life be perfect? Of course not.
Will everything you do and he does bring you high levels of satisfaction and gratitude? Of course not.I imagine that by the time you have a teenager in your home, you would have learned that neither are you the perfect parent nor is he the perfect child. You both are perfectly imperfect.
You have seen your limitations and his.
You have been proud and pleased and disappointed and hurt. By yourself and him.
The longer you live the more you realize the hopes and aspirations you had for yourself when you were young have had to come face-to-face with reality. Hopefully in some ways you have exceeded your dreams for yourself. You have also probably seen some of your hopes go by the wayside. Life does that to us. However you look at your life, your child’s life, and your relationship with your child, every day presents opportunity anew.
Six weeks ago I adopted a puppy. Four weeks ago I started going to puppy class. The instructor had some beliefs about dogs and how to train them that guided the classes. He told us his job was really to train the owners. Since the dogs were going to follow us and learn from us, we were the ones who needed training. We needed to learn what to do with the dog to get the dog to behave in desired ways.
The way to become the master of our dog was to control the resources. You want the dog to behave in a certain way—you give the dog a treat when he does what you want. He doesn’t do what you want—you don’t give him a treat. Dogs learn quickly.
Lest you think I am going to liken parenting a child to raising a dog and will want you to become the master of your child, let me tell you why I mention the puppy class. It was obvious to me and the other participants that our teacher knew how to establish a clear relationship with each dog. It didn’t matter how unruly each puppy might be, he had the skills to get that puppy to behave the way he wanted. Even if we didn’t.
I realized at that point that the quality of my parenting of the dog was going to go a long way towards having that dog become my best friend. If I didn’t train the dog well and the dog ate my slippers, barked all night and pissed on the floor, I wasn’t so sure how much I was going to want her as my best friend. I needed to do my best to help her be her best.
As the instructor taught us ways to communicate with the dog, it was apparent that some of us in the class had already taught our dogs behaviors that would need to be unlearned. We all had interacted with our dogs in some ways that did not promote the behaviors we desired.Consistency was something none of us did consistently.
Which brings me to a truth the instructor taught us about dogs, and this one I do think directly applies to humans: dogs do what works. If they can yelp or beg for food and get you to come or feed them, they will continue to yelp and beg. As long as you eventually give in they will persist, having learned that the yelping/begging will sooner or later pay off. If you don’t give in, they will get tired and give up. If you give in, they learn to wait you out.
Researchers do experiments with rats where they put them in a maze and when the rats find their way to a buzzer they get a yummy rat treat. The researchers reward the rats with a treat a few times in a row and then don’t reward them for a few times. They alternate giving and not giving a treat and soon the rat is hooked. It will keep banging on that buzzer hoping that eventually the treat will come. The rat has learned that the reward is not consistent, but if they bang away long enough the reward will ultimately follow.
Since humans are mostly smarter than rats it does take a few more reinforcements to get them to keep coming back. I think we all know that slot machines are set up to eventually take all your money, but the possibility that maybe you would be the one who gets the big prize encourages people to keep on pushing the button.
Psychologists call this “intermittent reinforcement” and it is a very powerful way to affect someone’s behavior. Later on we can consider some ways to intermittently reinforce some of your teen’s desirable behaviors. For now I mention the yelping/begging dog and rat to suggest to you that most likely there are behaviors you have taught your child that you are going to have to undo. He likely has learned what works and what doesn’t. He is not going to change what is working for him. You are the one who is going to have to change your approach and reconsider how you balance your reinforcements.
Reevaluating your parenting approach is on an ongoing task. Just like the dog owners who came to that puppy class with various less-than-desirable behaviors already in place, the instructor needed to start with each of us where we were and help us learn how to train our dogs and ourselves.
I am not implying that your child is an animal and that you need to train him. What I am saying is he has been trained and so have you. We all are shaped by our environment. There is nature and nurture, and both have had their way with us.
In order to improve the conditions of your life you may want to explore some new ways of doing things. You may want to reflect on how you are parenting and consider how your actions align with your values and desires. I learned in the puppy class that I needed to pay attention to how I was interacting with my dog. I also learned that as a parent it was incumbent upon me to attend to how I parent. Which is often easier to say than do.
So, let’s start.
Whatever you are or are not doing with your child is what it is. It is not good or bad, right or wrong (unless it is, but that is another chapter). You don’t need to judge, blame, or chastise yourself.
I know people feel guilty for actions taken or not taken. They feel remorse for how things have turned out. They wish they had chosen another path or been more of this or less of that. I don’t want to take those feelings and thoughts away from you. But I do want to suggest that dwelling on those subjects does not guarantee future actions will be any different. Instead, look forward and plan actions that will likely yield better results, rather than just berating yourself.