By Nicole Zasowski, LMFT
The teen years are often characterized by turmoil and parents often feel at a loss for how to impact their teens. In addition, our culture supports several myths that make it almost impossible for parents to have confidence in the influence that they DO have. Below are common myths and ideas for how to tackle them.
Kids Will Be Kids
The old adage, “Kids will be kids…” implies that the older generations (parents, role models, youth leaders, teachers, pastors…) have no impact in the lives of youth. Further this phrase implies that kids don’t need limits, boundaries, and direction in terms of what it means to take healthy risks.
I worked with a 15 year-old girl who had become involved in heavy drinking. Her parents were aware that she was “experimenting” with alcohol but never voiced a great concern. A few months into our work together, this young girl told me that she felt like her drinking was out of control. When I asked if she needed me to “help her stop herself” and enlist her parents to put some boundaries and limits in place, she burst into tears. She was longing for an adult in her life to tell her to stop. She craved the love and security that comes from limits and boundaries. With the help of her parents, we were able to provide what alcohol couldn’t give her – a sense that she was important and that she mattered.
Yes, teens need freedom and they need to take risks. As a parent, you can play an active role in the kind of risks they take by providing opportunities that expand their experiences in healthy ways such as taking a few of their friends on a backpacking trip, including them in a service project, or encouraging them to join a small group where they can learn to share their heart in a safe environment. “Risk” doesn’t have to mean “dangerous” or “harmful.” Broadening teens’ experience to include new emotional and physical experiences is beneficial and will expand their sense of self and perspective on the world in a positive way if they include limits and boundaries.
Teens also need boundaries. Boundaries include knowing when to say yes and when to say no, knowing when to step in and knowing when to let your teen handle a situation on their own. Always choosing to step in and handle situations and make choices for your teen will leave him or her with the impression that they are incapable, which will likely make them feel insecure. By never involving yourself in your teen’s life will leave them feeling alone and unsafe with no one to turn to. Balanced boundaries encourage an emotionally secure teen who is capable and also likely to reach out for help from trustworthy sources when needed.
Peers Are More Powerful Than Parents
In his book, The Adolescent In Family Therapy, Joseph A. Micucci agrees that peers are powerful influences in teens’ lives. However, he offers research that supports the fact that the quality of relationship teens have with their parents moderates peer influence, meaning that a strong relationship with one’s parents will likely be more powerful than peers for the teen. Yet, parents often feel discouraged by the overwhelming concept that “peers raise their peers.”
Last Sunday I noticed a young girl reaching out for a hug from her dad and his arms were open wide ready to receive her as he held her for the remainder of the song. I was so encouraged to see a young lady who clearly knew her dad loved her and it was easy to see she felt safe in his arms. I was equally encouraged to see a parent that did not hesitate to embrace his daughter. He wasn’t afraid of her vulnerability. Theirs was a strong relationship and the kind that has more power than peer relationships.
How can you foster a strong relationship with your teen and help them develop healthy relationships with their peers? First, these develop when no feelings are off-limits. If your teen can discern and articulate his/her feelings to you as parents and you can receive them, both sides will have a sense of safety. You will likely hear your teen’s heart more often. Second, don’t put yourself in opposition to your teen’s friends as a parent. Partner with your teen and discuss ways you can help them develop their friendships in a positive way. Third, don’t be afraid to be close with your teen. They may walk and talk independently, but teens still have a deep need for a meaningful relationship with their parents. Teens need to know they are cared for and loved.
They’ll Turn Out Okay…
Not without your investment now!
My husband I work with the student leadership team at our church. We are consistently impressed and blessed to hear the hearts of these students. On one particular Sunday I was struck by a comment one of our young men shared. This student said, “It really bothers me when people don’t ask of me what they would ask of an adult. I don’t like it when adults expect me to make poor choices now and trust that I will clean up my act later. It makes me feel as though people are giving up on me.” This young man was speaking out against a common cultural bias. Our society says that heavy drinking, drugs, and risky sexual behavior are socially acceptable for young people and even if we tried to stop them, they wouldn’t listen. This is false. As our student so wisely communicated, “our kids need truth now!” I had a high school teacher and coach that used to say, “you perform how you practice.” What he meant was that one cannot expect to commit to healthy choices in the future without committing to the same healthy habits now. One of the ways we can foster this in our teens is to commit to these standards ourselves. Adolescents will only go as far as we expect of them. By being involved in their life choices and speaking truth into their lives, we can help prepare them for a bright future.
A therapist can partner with you to help your teens develop a healthy relationship with themselves, you, and their peers. Therapy can also bridge communication gaps between you and your teen to get to the heart of issues you face for healing and growth to occur.