The Upside of Adolescence

Preparing ourselves for successful parenting during the teen years.

Posted Apr 24, 2016

Ken Ginsburg
Source: Ken Ginsburg

Parenting a teenager can bring some of the greatest joys of parenting.

Haven’t heard that too often, have you?  That’s part of the problem. Too many parents are warned they should hold onto their children while they can because adolescence will turn them into people they don’t know and may not like.  In turn, the fear and low expectations of teens imposed on parents is subtly (and not so subtly!!) transmitted to their developing children.  Because older children and tweens are searching for clues of how they should behave and which personas they should try on, the worst thing we can do is poison their environment with poor expectations.

Adolescence is a wondrous time filled with growth and discovery. It’s when we begin to see who our children will be as adults and envision how they will make their mark on the world.  It’s a time to enjoy their more highly developed senses of humor.  It is a time when idealism and righteous indignation reign. Because it is each generation’s job to imagine and build a better future, our children’s teen years is our opportunity to see the hypocrisies and inconsistencies we have grown blind to, but to which their eyes are wide open.

Adolescence is quite simply the time to see your boy grow to be a man and your girl to become a woman.  This itself is a miracle to which we are blessed to bear witness. 

Changing the lens through which you view adolescence will undoubtedly enhance your relationship with your teen and likely create a much better foundation upon which your child will answer the fundamental developmental question of adolescence, “Who am I?”  But adolescence will bring challenges. It will. It must. 

Here are a few key points that will help your relationship with your child continue to strengthen during the teen years and position you to better navigate those occasional challenges:

Unconditional Love Lasts a Lifetime.

Your unwavering, loving presence is the root of your child’s lifelong security.  It must have no conditions attached, neither performance nor behavior.  You never want your child to think his worth is equated to a bumper sticker you might place on your car.  Instead, know who your child really is.  Really is.  You have known it from the time he was three or four years old.  Always remember his passion, creativity, humor, commitment to fairness – whatever it was that amazed you as his values unfolded before your eyes.  The most protective force in your child’s life is your loving him.  Love is seeing someone as they deserve to be seen, as they really are, not based on the behaviors they might be displaying.  No matter the temporary behavior, it is your continuing to see your child as he really is that will bring him back to his best self.

Maintain High Expectations

It is critical to bear in mind that teens live up or down to our expectations of them.  

But, we must be very careful when we use performance standards as expectations.   A focus on grades, scores, and awards can make a young person feel as if they are not acceptable unless they meet those standards.  This unstable footing can undermine the key ingredients needed for success, and even for healthy moral development.  We certainly can, however, expect and demand effort. 

We should hold our children to the highest expectations in terms of character.  In fact, by doing so we help them remain stable, centered, and self-aware as they navigate life’s waves.  The knowledge of who they really are, the same knowledge that makes our love unconditional, is what positions us to hold them to the high standards that match their character.

Notice the Continued Miracles of Development

We went out of our way to catch our children being good when they were two-years-old.  They delighted in our pride and kept doing what it took to earn our praise. Teens would be no different, but we forget to notice the continued miracles of normal development.  We focus our energies and attention on the problems that arise. Your teens want your attention as badly now as when they were three or four years old, and will do whatever it takes to gain it. If you focus on the negative, they’ll produce those worrisome behaviors that will earn your focused attention.

Focus on High Yield Interactions

As our children become teens we focus our attention on their performance (grades, trophies, etc.) and behaviors (the bad ones!).  This can backfire in two ways.  They might get anxiety thinking they are only acceptable to us under certain conditions.  And, they might just act out with the very behaviors we don’t want because they think it is all we are noticing.  High yield interactions are those where you enjoy each other and notice all of the ways in which your child is growing.  Just be together.

Understand Why Teens Push Us Away

It is so easy to feel rejected by our teens.  After all, sometimes they tell us they can’t stand us!

We need to remind ourselves our children sometimes hate us precisely because of how deeply they really do love us.  Adolescents are preparing for what might be the toughest developmental task of their lifetime - to fly from the nest.  Who would want to fly from a warm, cozy, and comfortable nest?  They have to imagine it as prickly at best, maybe even uninhabitable. In order to separate from us, and figure out their own identities, they sometimes have to see us as offensive, as hopelessly embarrassing at the very least. So, the next time your teen is yelling at you, say to yourself – “Wow, I have done such a good job being close to her, that she is really struggling with how much she cares about me.” If you genuinely know this, you can get through anything.

Understand Risk-taking is a Necessity of Adolescence

Once we understand that the teen years are about preparing to take the largest risk of our lifetimes – flying from a cozy nest into uncertainty – we can begin to view adolescent risk taking as necessary practice.   If we forbid any risk taking, we prevent our teens from successfully launching.  Our challenge is to allow risk taking within safe boundaries that still guarantee safety and morality.

Don’t Install Control Buttons

We want to set limits in a way that actually enhances our children’s freedom.  Limits are restrictive when given with the goal of controlling rather than protecting.  They are smothering when they prevent someone from trying something they are perfectly capable of handling.   They are disorienting when inconsistent.  They offer security when they are clear markers for what is in- and out–of-bounds. 

Our goal in raising children should move beyond creating independent adults.  Our goal should be to raise children who are so secure in their independence and competence that they will choose interdependence.  We can create the intergenerational relationships in which we all will flourish when our teens leave our house knowing that we supported, even celebrated, their growing independence.   If, however, we install “control buttons,” we may undermine their desire to maintain a close connection with us.

Allow for Experimentation Within Safe and Moral Boundaries

Imagine a table covered with 10,000 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The puzzle is titled “Who Am I?” – the fundamental question of adolescence.  Not realizing he has a lifetime to complete the puzzle, the teen ferociously tackles it because he believes he needs to get it done by the time he writes his college essay.

How does someone put together a puzzle? One begins with the corners and then creates the borders.  Only once the borders are in place does a person have the confidence to work out all of the pieces in the middle – occasionally trying to force even those together that don’t quite seem like a natural fit.

It is the boundaries you create and the monitoring you insist upon that creates those trustworthy borders that your teen can push against as he tries to manipulate the harder inner pieces on his own.   It is your job to have firm boundaries that assure safety and morality . . . then it is equally as important that you get out of the way as he struggles with all of the irregular pieces within those boundaries.  It is with those puzzle pieces in the “safe and moral zone” where he must learn life’s lessons, make mistakes and recover, and safely test his wings.

Be a Role Model

Once the borders are securely in place, what is the next step of putting together an impossibly complex puzzle?  One looks for matching pieces and imagines how the patterns might fit together.  A wise person looks at the picture on the lid – over and over again. 

You are the picture on the cover your child compares himself against.  When teens have a role model of what healthy adults looks like, it becomes easier for them to complete their own puzzles.

Be the Kind of Parent Who Will Know What is Going On

Effective monitoring is not about what you ask it is about what you know.  You’ll know what your teen chooses to tell you.  Be tellable.  The secret to being tellable is to tone down your reactions and choose to be a sounding board that offers guidance when asked.  That means turning off your “parent alarm” (“Mom I met this guy.” “You’re too young to date!!”); dialing down catastrophic thinking (“You got a C-, you’ll never make it!! We’ll move you to a school that knows how to teach!!”); and avoiding over-empathizing (I don’t blame you darling, she was never good enough to be your best friend.  And, I’ve always hated her mother!”).

Preparation is Protection

There is no role more fundamental to parenting than to protect our children.  However, we also know that overprotection can harm them because they will believe we consider them incapable and will never learn to navigate the world.  Our challenge is to temper our protective instincts so that we can offer the needed balance of protection and guidance, while allowing life to be an effective teacher.  Don’t get me wrong - when safety is at immediate risk, jump in with full protective force.  But our job as parents is to set clear boundaries, and then (mostly) get out of the way AFTER we have prepared them with the knowledge about risky behaviors and the social skills to deal with pressures.

Failure is an Opportunity for Growth

Our kids need to experience failure while they are under our watchful eyes. If we treat the stakes as too high now, they’ll suffer later when the consequences of failure are much greater.  When young people learn their limitations, they learn the compensations and “work-arounds” they’ll need throughout their lifetimes.

Failure is such a harsh word. It has an unforgiving, finite tone.  More appropriate words would be mistakes, missteps, misadventures, or misfortunes; all of which suggest a temporary state. A first step to becoming comfortable with allowing failure in your children’s lives is to see it as a passing event.  It is sometimes a wake up call, occasionally devastating, but always an opportunity for growth.

We must celebrate our children when they test their limits and go beyond them.  We must support them through their disappointments, encourage them to regroup, and to try again.  We can help them learn that they will find the solution only after testing many paths, or devoting time to practice.  Again, failure is allowed only within the safe borders of safety and morality we have created.

Be a Lighthouse

Parenting can not be approached as a fad where our approaches change like flavors of the month.  Too often, parenting ideas are designed to grab headlines.  Often extreme views with no evidence behind them generate the most attention.

Wherever there are extremes, the truth is usually to be found somewhere in the middle.  Parenting is about finding the approaches that fit your child’s temperament, needs, and circumstances.  So you shouldn’t hover like a helicopter, but you should watch carefully.  You shouldn’t pressure like a tiger mom, but out of respect to your child’s capabilities you should hold him or her to high expectations.  You shouldn’t clear an obstacle free path like a snowplow, but you must look ahead for dangers. You don’t want your children to encounter the world freely with limitless freedoms, but you must understand their ingrained need to forge their own paths successfully. Lighthouse parenting is rooted in decades of research that show good educational, emotional, and behavioral outcomes of authoritative or balanced parenting.

We should be like lighthouses for our children; beacons of light on a stable shoreline from which they can safely navigate the world.  We must make certain that they don’t crash against the rocks; but trust they have the capacity to learn to ride the waves on their own – and prepare them to do so.

Final Thought

Remember while it is lovely to have someone always agree with you, it is a blessing to watch somebody you love develop, grow, and mature into his or her own person.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg is the author of “Raising Kids to Thrive: Balancing Love with Expectations and Protection with Trust” which he wrote with his daughters while they were still teens.  See fosteringresilience.com.