Insight Is 20/20

Exploring the pervasive, and unperceived, patterns that govern our lives

How Parents Can Protect Teenagers, Keep Them Safe, Trust

Some parents actually like their children's teenage stage the most.

The bookstore - if you're lucky enought to find one these days - is filled with books on how to establish and maintain a positive relationship with teenage children. Most parents feel like this is the most difficult to stage to navigate, though a handful of parents actually prefer this stage above all others. The mind of a teenager is certainly a mysterious place, and their behavior often sends the parents running for the hills - or indulging in a very infrequent homicidal fantasy.

A client of mine recently said, "Their minds are so fascinating at this stage - not yet adults, but not children, either - because the way they look at the world is so unique." My client continued and said that she never had problems with her two kids during the teenage years because she trusted them and "didn't need to exert total control over them." I reflected on this for a moment until she made her final pronouncement: "I told my kids, 'If you are honest and always tell me the truth, no matter bad whatever it is you did, I promise I will never be punishing or judgmental.'" Obviously, she gave the writer-psychologist in me a lot to think about.

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After thinking about it more, I thought about my work over the years with clients, parents of all demographics who felt anxious and frustrated during their kids' teenage years because they couldn't control the kids' behavior. So, how should the parents of teenagers approach trust and handling punishments when their kids do something bad? The goal for parents during these years is to simultaneously guide your child and start to let go. It's the 'letting go' that's so difficult for your parents, and understandbly so: kids can make some very serious life mistakes during this period, mistakes they could spend many lears - or a lifetime - paying for. (Note: Bristol Palin comes to mind).

There's not been a study that shows the percentage of parents who have made this statement - "If you are honest..." - to their teenage children, but, odds are, there are many parents who haven't said it. Why wouldn't some parents say that to their children? Because they assume that the child already knows they have an open door with their parents, or because the parents don't feel that way. Such parents include men and women who parent with a much stricter and authoritarian parenting style. For these parents, they rule by fear, and the children behave but develop resentment toward the parent and often act out in pronounced ways later.

Telling your child that you will never be punishing as long as they tell you the truth - no matter what happened, no matter how bad it is - is something every parent should say to their teenage children. Sure, the child may face some negative consequences, but the consequences are issued in a more I'll-help-you-learn-this-lesson way than a now-you're-gonna-pay-for-this way.

Teenage children need to be respected and given a certain level of freedom and authonomy to grow up, make mistakes, and become a full-fledged adult. Remember this message most of all when your teenage child does something wrong. Obviously, in such a situation, the child should be spending more time understanding the reasons why what they did is wrong, as opposed to spending time all that time resenting a parent for not listening to them and being so harsh.

Seth Meyers, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

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