By Dana Harris


You may not feel like you have much influence on your child these days but think again!  I have discovered that most parents instinctively know the answer to a bulk of the questions but are bombarded with mixed messages on how to do it right. They just need validation of their instincts amidst all the social media rantings on parenthood. As you prepare yourself and your child emotionally and mentally for the young adult years, it will suddenly seem as if the entire world is caving in on your shoulders. Your teen is sure to be exposed to some overpowering external and internal struggles. Such changes will include hormonal adjustments, puberty, social and parental forces, work and school pressures— just to name a few.

Adolescence is a time of growth and learning, and kids have the right to get it wrong as many times as it takes.  As they navigate their way from childhood to adolescence they will certainly wobble, fall and rise. This is indeed a big learning adventure with lots of teachable moments. Your teenager will clearly need your love and support more than ever, but more so on their terms. The fact of the matter is… with adolescence things start to change. Some mourn it. Some rejoice it.  Either way, it is the start of a new era.

We might wonder whether to hold on tighter or simply to stand back. The answer is, we do both.  We are parents. We are human. It’s what this parent thing is all about. It stirs the fears and anxieties in us like nothing else. But it also give us the strength and courage to do things we never thought we could— like standing back far enough to let our children fall so they can learn to walk, and eventually fly, but remaining close enough to reach them when they need us. Some days you will wonder if aliens have abducted your 14-year-old teen and replaced his brain with someone else’s.  While other days you will simply envision these crazy hormones as moody body-snatchers, making your kid do and say strange things.  Knowing your teenager is crossing a temporary, yet mandatory threshold may allow you to refrain from speaking harshly in the moment and remember not to take his behavior too seriously.

At the end of the day, one of the best things we can do for our teen is to remain steady and keep the communication channels open for times when it is needed. And if you are willing to embrace the challenges, empathize every now and then and prepare to be patient and discreet, your job is half done. Every generation of teens is shaped by the social, political, and economic events of the day. Today’s generation is no different.  Their lives are undoubtedly saturated by mobile technology, social media and the need for positive peer relationships.  And although teens these days experience different difficulties than previous generations, they are growing up in vastly diverse worlds and face problems that are unique to each individual.

One of the most important tasks facing teens is to find their place in society, while being recognized by peers and accepted for who they are. Navigating this juncture brings anxiety and insecurity to most. They begin to rebel against their parents, take on calculated risks, and form their own judgments about the world and everyone around them. Teens today are forced to live at a very superficial level, on the edge of society with no acceptance and very little encouraging support. What’s more, they are expected to identify with the internet, Facebook and television, where there is little emphasis on moral value or personal accomplishment.  What a confusing paradox is the life of a teenager today!

Of all the people, parents are the most important/influential when it comes to building self-confidence in teenagers.  Your actions speak louder than your words.  What’s needed more than anything else during this critical phase in their lives is that you do what you can to spend quality time with your teen to show him or her that you care.  They need to see us present, hear us cheering them on, and most importantly, they need to know that we love them unconditionally no matter how many mistakes they make. Keep in mind, however, that unconditional love doesn’t mean unconditional approval.  Teens tend to live up or down to parental expectations, so always set your expectations high.  Instead of focusing on achievements, such as getting straight A’s, expect your teen to be kind, considerate, respectful, honest and generous. When it comes to day-to-day accomplishments, remember that teens gain confidence through small successes, which can prepare them for the next challenge.

We all strive to be the best parent to our kids. Therefore, it’s essential during the teen years that parents remain their children’s emotional and moral compass. What we need is a paradigm shift of teens who are a brighter view of us as parents.  Provided below are a few helpful suggestions that may serve as a roadmap through these challenging years.

• Set Reasonable Expectations. Teens tend to live up or down to parental expectations. When establishing your expectations, keep your standards high.  Your teen wants to be his or her best self.  Our job as parents is to support our teens in doing that. Discuss what behavior is acceptable and unacceptable at home, at school and elsewhere. Create fair and appropriate consequences for how your teen behaves.  When setting consequences, avoid ultimatums. Be clear and concise, explain your decisions, and avoid any rules that your teen can’t possibly follow. For example, set specific curfews, keep your rules short and to the point and make consequences immediate and linked directly to your teen’s choices or actions. Your children are not puppets and you are not a puppeteer.  There is no way possible you can control every move your child makes or everything your child says, especially outside of your home.  Children have their own free will and will act on their own accord— and often in self-interest.

• Watch What You Say.  Being mindful of what we say when we are frustrated, angry or tired. Hurt goes a long way.  Moms may have eyes in the back of their heads, but teenagers have ears everywhere, even if they pretend they didn’t hear you.  Our words truly set the tone and atmosphere of our household.  If we are continually complaining about our teenager, saying snide remarks about how they cleaned up, or using bitter sarcasm, we are setting up our relationship with our teen to fail.  Be diligent to watch what you say so your relationship can start out on the right foot every day.

• Set a Positive Example. Parents spend a lot of time with teens and influence them through their actions and words.  Teenagers learn skills such as nurturing, socializing and decision making through observation and communication with parents.  The relationship usually influences their outcomes in life.  Show your teen how to cope with stress in positive ways and be resilient. Listen to your teen when he or she talks and respect his or her feelings.  Supporting passions and encouraging explorations will help identify your teen’s unique voice.

• Know the Warning Signs.  A certain amount of change is normal during the teen years.  But a drastic or long-lasting switch in personality or behavior may signal real trouble, the kind that needs professional help. Look out for signs of stress, anxiety, lack of concentration, poor eating habits, poor oral and personal hygiene, sudden change in friends, failing grades, talks or even jokes about suicide, signs of tobacco, alcohol, or drug use, run-ins with the law, disturbances in sleep and plummeting of interest in social activities.  Any other inappropriate behavior that lasts for more than six weeks can be a sign of underlying trouble.  Your doctor or a local counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist can help you find proper counseling.

• Truth, Honesty, & Grace.  I am much more truth-oriented in my marriage than my husband tends to be. I have a strong sense of what needs to be done and will always perform tasks with high standards. I’m not afraid to speak directly about my expectations, especially when they aren’t being met.  My husband is graceful.  He forgives easily and allows for leeway when the situation calls for it. I vividly recall the positive and enduring relationship that my daughter and husband had during her teenage years that continues to flourish even today. With teenagers, both need to be present.  Strong boundaries need to remain in place with consequences clearly understood by all. Teens desperately need truth, honesty and grace in order to thrive and stretch their wings.  Be truthful enough to set reasonable boundaries with your teen, honest enough to accept the consequences and graceful enough to thank, appreciate, and love them at every possible occasion.

• Respect Kids’ Privacy. Some parents, understandably, have a very hard time with this one. But that’s okay.  It’s part of our job description as a parent and head of the household.  You do not make decisions based on what your kids will like, tolerate or be okay with.  Instead, you make the decisions that are best for them and your family, then follow through. Just consider yourself the chief executive officer of your ‘family business.’  As CEO you must learn how to set emotions aside and to parent as objectively as possible.

• Stay connected.  Build lines of communication that are so strong that your children always look to you as allies instead of enemies. It’s critical during the teen years for parents to remain their children’s emotional and moral compass. Communicate positively and avoid commands and “I-told-you-so” remarks. Let them know that you don’t always have all the answers and you are not always right. Listen to their opinions and offer help whenever needed. Spend time with your teen to show him or her that you care.  Listen to your teen when he or she talks and respect your teen’s feelings.  The teen years often are a time of experimentation. And sometimes that experimentation includes risky behaviors.  Don’t avoid the subjects of sex and drugs, alcohol or tobacco use. We can’t always control our kids, but we can influence them by the limits we set and the consequences we give.  As the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”— but you can make him thirsty.

As our adolescents maneuver their way from childhood to adolescence there will be times of triumph and failure.  They will be driven to find their independence from us, not disconnection from us.  Sometimes they will defy us, disagree with us, ignore us and resent us.  As hard as it seems, this isn’t who they are, but rather it’s all about what adolescence is.  It may feel awful sometimes, but we don’t need to change it and we don’t need to control it.  We couldn’t even if we wanted to. In the meantime, relax, you’ll cross through it.  Clearly, none of the fighting, the pushing, the resentment, the defiance and the struggles will ever change how much they love you and need you. And over time, the seeds you plant will begin to grow into something truly wonderful.  Our ultimate duty as parents is to prepare our children to face the big bad world without us through the plumb lines of communication and gentle influence. And should you ever find yourself at wits’ ends, refer to the tips provided above or simply repeat the famous motto of many parents with teens:  We’re going through this together, and we’ll come out of it – together.  Good luck!

This article appears in the September/October 2019 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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