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Parenting Adolescents and Keeping a Healthy Perspective

One challenging part of parenting is deciding if an issue is major or minor.

 Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.

“If you had one piece of advice to give parents with teenagers, what would it be?” This question got me thinking, and what follows explains the response I made: “Keep a healthy perspective.”

By “perspective,” I mean the mindset that parents maintain to decide what matters most and what matters least, what is major and what is minor, what to confront and what to ignore in their teenager’s life. Perspective shapes the vision they have, which affects the actions they take.

It can get complicated. “Right now, doing her exercises to heal the injury is more important than keeping her room picked up.” Perspective can shift priorities as circumstances change.

Then parents can disagree: “It’s no big deal!” or “It could be very serious!” And now, they discuss downplaying or enlarging what happened to reach a compromise perspective both can support.

An adolescent is not a child

While a child certainly gives parents much to keep track of, an adolescent gives them even more. Growing up complicates the young person’s life as she or he pushes for more room to grow—for freedom of action to develop independence and for freedom of definition to express individuality.

Adolescence begins when children (somewhere between the ages of 9-13) decide that they no longer want to be treated and defined as a “little child” anymore; they want to spend more time in the company of friends, they start testing and contesting parental authority for control, and they are increasingly interested in a worldly experience outside of the family circle. No wonder there is a lot more for parents to deal with.

To maintain a healthy parental perspective during this coming-of-age transformation of a girl into a young woman and a boy into a young man, I believe parents have to 1) focus on the big things, 2) not make big things out of small things, and 3) give small things the importance they deserve.

Focus on the big things

While parents will differ on what constitutes the big parts of their teenager’s life, consider 10 dimensions of growth they might want to monitor: emotional well-being, self-acceptance, physical health, personal safety, academic effort, peer companionship, family membership, individual responsibility, and social compliance.

Big problems that go unattended often get worse. So, when any of these dimensions of young life become troubled, there can be a big thing for parents to pay attention to.

Don’t make big things out of small things

Because adolescence can be more challenging than childhood for a girl or boy, it can be a more challenging passage for parents as well. By comparison, the younger child felt simpler and easier for them to live with.

For example, now they may have to contend with a young person who is more frequently argumentative, or forgetful, or distracted, or disorganized, or restless, or discontent, or messy, or self-preoccupied, or secretive, or uncommunicative, or resistant, or impulsive, or irritable, or critical, or unappreciative, or some combination of these normal changes.

In response, it can be harder for parents to remain “calm, cool, and collected” with their teenager. However, when they lose their patience or temper, they can lose perspective and overreact, in the process making a large issue over a small matter. “That’s it! I’ve had it! Coming home to your dirty dishes in the kitchen after a long day at work is not OK! It just shows how irresponsible you are!” And now a messy sink is treated as a serious character flaw.

Although very good informants about significant goings-on in their inner and outer worlds of experience, emotions can be very bad advisors when parents start “thinking” with their feelings. They are better served by using their judgment to cope. It can take adult maturity and self-discipline to keep normal adolescent changes from inflaming parental perspective and turning minor irritations into major offenses.

Give small things the importance they deserve

Then there is the need for sensitivity. Certain little things parents do can make a big, positive difference in the relationship for their teenager because they can represent so much when regularly given, and make a big negative difference when they’re not. For example:

  • Smiling communicates warmth of feeling. Not given: “You never look glad to see me!”
  • Listening gives worth to what is said. Not given: “You never hear my opinion out!”
  • Appreciating honors efforts made. Not given: “You never even thank me!”
  • Courtesy shows consideration. Not given: “You never just ask me first!”
  • Memory keeps in mind. Not given: "You never remember promises!"
  • Apologizing truly regrets. Not given: “You never say you’re sorry!”
  • Noticing pays attention. Not given: “You never see all that I do!”
  • Assisting offers help. Not given: “You never lend me a hand!”
  • Compliments value. Not given: “You never praise me!”
  • Empathy supports. Not given: “You never care!”
  • Hugs affirm. Not given: “You never like me!”

So, to maintain a healthy parental perspective, don’t shy away from dealing with big things. Don’t emotionally make small things larger than they are. And don’t forget how little acts can matter. Because they can signify so much, small things are often big things in disguise.

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