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From managing to mentoring your older adolescent

Change from managers to mentors when adolescents leave parental care.

Some parents think that when their son or daughter graduates from high school, adolescence comes to an end, adult independence begins, and their parental involvement is mostly ended. Better to heed Yogi Berra's warning: "It ain't over till it's over."

What parents often don't understand is that now the last and hardest stage of adolescence actually begins, trial independence (ages 18 - 13.) As I describe in my book, "Boomerang Kids" (August, 2011), at this age young people are faced with a daunting task of having to live apart from family, to scramble to catch a responsible hold on life, and to begin to chart a path into the unknown future.

Now they must keep a firm footing while they spread their wings; they must watch where they're going while they are not sure where they are headed; and they must act more maturely while they are making more mistakes. There is a lot to learn. To adolescent regret and parental dismay, in this final lap around the adolescent track is when more serious mishaps often occur. (This is the age when about a third of young people "boomerang" or move back home for a while before trying independence again.)

That your older adolescents must rely more on themselves (or at least try to) doesn't mean they don't still need you to be involved in their lives. In fact, because of the challenges that come with trial independence, parents are needed more than ever before. However, you are needed in a different way.

At this last stage of adolescence, the ground rules for effective parental involvement significantly change. The age of managerial parenting is over and the time for parental mentoring has arrived. At this last stage of adolescence it is essential that parents change their role from being MANAGERS (imposing supervision and regulation) to becoming MENTORS (offering problem solving consultation and advice.)

Fortunately, come their son or daughter's trial independence parents have an opening for involvement they didn't have before. While still at home, high schoolers were mostly not inclined to ask for parental advice because that would admit to ignorance or incapacity at a time when they wanted parents to think all was firmly under adolescent control, and so leave them alone.

Then comes a surprise. Once they have moved out in trial independence, young people suddenly encounter challenges of living on their own for which they were not fully prepared. Suddenly they encounter the impact of their inexperience coping with more complicated demands, and as they do perception of parents tends to alter. These adults who were not credited with much knowledge worth offering in high school suddenly become people valued for worldly advice they have to give. In trial independence, as a young person's confidence starts going down, appreciation of what parents know starts going up.

However, if as a managing parent you barge in and try to control the adolescent's troubled life at this late stage, you risk rescuing your child from learning life lessons that facing consequences and taking responsibility have to teach. Help out too much and you risk protracting dependency.

And if as a managing parent you are quick to fault failures and to blame shortcomings, you may estrange the relationship and reduce communication with a child who refuses to be censured anymore. As one angry young person declared: "I would rather have nothing to do with them than to hear their criticism. And I won't let them interfere! It's my life, and they need to get used to it!"

To become a mentor, parents have to shift position in relation to their son or daughter. Parents have to forsake their old managerial, VERTICAL RELATIONSHIP where authority placed them in a superior or dominant position from which they evaluated conduct, directed behavior, and dictated terms on living from above. In trial independence, however, when a son or daughter does not usually tolerate being judged, directed, or having terms of living dictated by parents, parents must reposition the relationship.

To maintain a workable connection at this time, when this connection is sorely needed, parents need to establish a mentoring, HORIZONTAL RELATIONSHIP where there is more equity between them, where they are living alongside each other on terms of mutual respect. The mentoring contract states that the parents will respect the young person's right and responsibility to make independent decisions, and the young person will respect the wisdom of life experience the parents can offer.

Mentoring needs to be a consensual, consultative, and collaborative relationship where parents help with problem solving, sharing what experiences and ideas they have to offer. "Based on the difficulty you describe, here is how you might want to choose your way out of this problem. Of course, this is your life, you know it best, and the decision is entirely up to you."

What parents have to offer are lessons that were often learned the hard way. So they can say: "From how it was for me, here is a possibility you might want to manage your resolve your organize your remember your maintain your keep up your motivate your reduce your stress. This has worked for me and it might work for you." Mentoring allows last stage adolescents the chance to profit from their parents' longer life experience.

The parents who have the hardest time shifting from a vertical (managerial) to a horizontal (mentoring) relationship tend to be authoritarian. They want to control, they never messed up, they know best, they are always right, they will be in charge, and they insist on getting their way.

To effectively discharge this new parenting role, you must let go of all corrective discipline. You neither criticize nor punish. If you want your young person to come to you and learn from you, you must forsake all expressions of frustration and disapproval, disappointment and worry, impatience and anger. You must respect the young person's right to make her own decisions, even when you do not agree with those decisions. You are no longer in the business of trying to control or to determine the young person's choices by bending the conduct of his or her life to your will. Facing real world consequences will provide discipline enough. Your job is to empathize, encourage, and advise.

There are three principles for providing mentoring that parents might want to consider.

1)ACCEPTANCE BEFORE ADVISING. If parents cannot accept the young person's right to independent choice without giving the respect conveyed by that acceptance, their son or daughter, feeling disapproved, may "wall off" from parents for self-protection during a hard and vulnerable time. Parental acceptance opens the door for parental advice to get in.

2)BY INVITATION ONLY. Mentoring needs to be at the young person's request. He or she needs to take the initiative by asking, thereby creating the opportunity for parental consultation to occur.

3)OPERATIONAL NOT EVALUATIVE. To ensure that advice given is considered and not rejected out of hand, it needs to be judgment-free. No criticism allowed. And the focus needs to be on specific behaviors and events, simply discussing what the young person might helpfully choose to do or not to do.

Obviously, the willingness of a young person to come to parents for mentoring when confused, undecided, in need of counsel, or in difficulty depends on there being comfortable and trustful communication. To that end you must be non-interfering, affirmative, constant, and loving. To be an effective mentor means that as parents you are emotionally approachable.

You express:
Faith, not doubt ("I believe in you");
Patience, not irritation ("Keep after it");
Consultation, not criticism ("You might try this");
Confidence, not worry ("You have the capacity it takes!");
Empathy, not disappointment ("It's hard to manage independence.")

Finally, mentoring takes patience because young people can be so ambivalent about independence. They really want to be responsibly self-sufficient and to operate on their own, and they really don't. They want to take care of themselves, and they still want to be taken care of. So, paraphrasing the words of Simon and Garfunkel, the closer last stage adolescents get to their destination of independence, the more they may start "slip sliding away." This is why, when respectfully done, parental mentoring can help them move through this ambivalence and claim young adult standing at last.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week's entry: Adolescence and the age of intolerance.

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