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Having a Meaningful Influence on Teens’ Behaviors

Connection over control.

Key points

  • Teens need parental guidance.
  • Respecting teens' self-determination creates connection.
  • Control measures are counter to connection.

Parenting teens poses many dilemmas. One particular challenge for parents is how to guide them toward thoughtful, healthy, and safe decision-making while not alienating them. We want our kids to work toward goals, interact with peers who bring out the best in them, and work for and earn positive results in their endeavors. Remember, it is the adolescent’s charge to assert and practice their independence, an important set of skills if they are to develop into responsible and self-sufficient adults. It also seems a parent’s unspoken wish that teens do all of these things without ever making mistakes and through execution by our design. If parents are going to impart their wisdom effectively, teens need to feel their self-determination is being respected in the process and that errors are expected for growth to occur.

1. Give up efforts to control

Parents and helping adults tend to be excellent problem solvers. After all, we have years of experience that inform us on how to predict, plan, respond, and recalculate our decision-making in a variety of contexts with a fair amount of success. In light of teens’ immature decision-making skills, it can feel tempting to exert measures of control to maneuver them to a specific end. The ability to physically control through managing little bodies and the environment diminishes post-childhood.

Efforts to use control for immediate compliance as kids enter adolescence have their pros and cons. When employed as routine parenting, control measures can jeopardize a sense of connectedness, and therefore the relationship. Pulling teens to a parent’s desired result tends to look like nagging, power struggling, judging, and sometimes name-calling, restricting or even punishing. These adult management behaviors can lead to teens’ rebelling, withdrawal, lying, or arguing, not an experience of connectedness.

Alternatively, when parents and helping adults patiently help teens articulate their own goals and use those as a basis for offering guidance and encouraging thoughtful contemplation, they can more effectively guide them to their own answers. Using language like, “Have you thought about…” or “There are pros and cons to everything,” allows for guidance, while respecting their decision-making process. When we walk side by side with our teens through trials and errors, rather than walking ahead and pulling them along our path, we offer opportunities for connection.

2. Shape values by articulating and modeling yours

Parents and helping adults understandably want to influence teens as they shape their own beliefs and values and find what feels meaningful. At critical moments, caring adults have an opportunity to share their values, beliefs, and feedback honestly with teens. If teens feel our efforts are an infringement on their ways of thinking, they are likely to tune us out, which is disconnecting. When we offer our thoughts, values, and beliefs as our own, acknowledging theirs may be different, we create an exchange of ideas and dialogue and an opportunity to connect. When we live our spoken truth and teens observe this in us, they are more likely to walk away with an openness, curiosity, and, minimally, an acceptance of these values as meaningful for us.

3. Create accountability based on how much you care and what you see in their potential

Consequences can be influential when executed through an experience of connection. When teens inevitably engage in unacceptable, inappropriate, unhealthy, or unallowed behaviors, responding thoughtfully while accepting their mistakes without judgment creates an experience of connectedness. When we assume that making mistakes, even really big ones, is part of the growing up process and necessary for learning and growth, we are less likely to engage in the emotionally driven responses that lead to feelings of disconnection and potentially shame, neither of which contribute to emotional health.

Before imposing consequences, catch your breath, manage your own valid emotions, and then express the reasoning behind the expectation. Fundamentally, parents hold their teens and emerging adults accountable because they care about their safety and well-being, want them to have opportunities, and believe they are capable of what is being expected. When our responses to their behaviors make sense, we convey belief in them to learn, cope in healthy ways, and exhibit responsibility. We are lifting them to our standard while helping them build their own higher standard, creating an experience of connectedness. Remember, any consequence to a behavior will not change what already occurred. It is to cope and learn for the next time.

As you reflect on your connections with teens, ask yourself which interactions, behaviors, and responses result in connectedness and which may cause disconnection. Remember, the benefits of feeling connected represent a powerful force in the fight for teen mental health and wellness.

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