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Ask anyone who’s done it, and they’ll tell you: Parenting a teenager presents unique challenges. Unlike younger children, teens are old enough to do most everything for themselves. They can wake up, get dressed, and brush their teeth on their own. They can make their own breakfast and pack their own lunch. Once they can drive, they can even navigate their way from home to school to extracurricular activities and back. They have jobs and dreams and goals, and they regularly make decisions without your input. Some days, you may only see them for a few minutes — long enough to ask them if they did their homework or how their science test went.
But just because they are older doesn’t mean they aren’t still children, no matter what they may think. Teenagers just haven’t been on this earth long enough to be entirely autonomous. The truth is, even the most responsible, mature teen still needs an engaged, attentive parent in his or her corner. Unfortunately, looking out for your child’s health and safety may make them feel as if you don’t trust their judgment, don’t respect their privacy, or don’t want them to be happy.
Many parents before you have fought this same battle. Long before online bullying, sexual predators, and detergent pods made daily headlines, parents of teens have struggled to find the balance between protecting their children and granting them the freedom to make their own decisions. The good news is, there is a way to do both. And though it won’t be easy, it will be worth it.
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The Power of Conversation
Experts refer to this stage of parenting as “the facilitator stage.” As your child grows and matures, your responsibility as a parent is to help them navigate from childhood to adulthood. A vital part of this changing relationship between you and your child is open communication.
Making communication a priority requires persistence and compassion as a parent. You have to be willing to do the work, even when it’s difficult. That may mean stepping outside of your comfort zone at times. You must also consider how your child is feeling, even when they won’t tell you. We were all caught in the awkward space between childhood and adulthood ourselves at one point. Here are a few tips every parent should try.
- Make time to connect with your kids. Turn off your phone, sit down for meals, and take an interest in their hobbies. These activities not only strengthen your bond, they are great opportunities to talk about what is happening in your child’s life, get to know their friends, and just check in.
- Make small talk. Talking to your kids about sensitive subjects like sex, drugs, and bullying will be easier if that’s not all you talk about. Once you get their input on the weather or the score of the basketball game, you can move on to their weekend plans or who they’ve been talking to online.
- Model open communication. If it’s an open dialogue you want, lead by example. Ask your spouse or partner, as well as your kids, for their opinion. Use open-ended questions to encourage more in-depth responses than just a simple “yes” or “no.” Most importantly, listen without interrupting, and always thank them for their input.
A Basis of Trust
The teenage years are a time for pushing boundaries and asserting independence. Unfortunately, if a child feels like they do not have room to explore, a parent’s efforts to establish rules for a child’s protection and safety during this time may not be well received. Establishing a basis of trust with your child can help them feel protected while still allowing them the freedom they crave.
For many parents of teenagers, the “sliding trust scale” is a good starting point. Occasionally allowing your child to stay home alone or letting them shut the door to their room at certain times can positively influence how you parent. The flexibility will give your child the opportunity to earn more and more trust, and it will help you determine how much freedom they can handle. In addition to building trust through flexibility, here are a few more tips to try.
- Ask for your child’s input. Instead of setting rules for your kids, set rules with them. Teens are more likely to respect curfews and screen time limits if they’ve had a hand in creating them. You should also discuss the reason behind each rule and the consequences for breaking them.
- Pick your battles. Having access to their social media usernames and passwords is non-negotiable. What color hair they have or what music they listen to might not be. Choose what issues are most important and, whenever possible, let your child express himself or herself however they choose, as long as it doesn’t threaten their health or safety.
- Give them an out. At some point, every teen finds himself or herself in a risky situation. They may be at a party with drugs, in an uncomfortable situation with a member of the opposite sex, or about to get into a car with a friend who has been drinking. Together with your teen, come up with a no-pressure plan for those instances before they happen. It may be as simple as a code word or phrase. When they call or text you with that code, you can respond with an excuse for them to exit the situation without their peers knowing.
Trust Your Gut
From your own mother and father to the ever-reliable internet, there is no shortage of parenting advice out there. But there is one thing every parent must remember: When it comes to your kid, you are the expert. You know your child better than anyone. Your instinct is one of your strongest, most valuable tools as a parent.
So, when it comes down to protecting your teenager from common threats, go with your gut. If your child undergoes a sudden shift in attitude or appearance that concerns you, look into it. If someone your child is spending time with rubs you the wrong way, get to know them. If the time your teen is spending on social media seems to be impacting them negatively, shut off the screens. Conversely, if your gut tells you your kid is telling the truth, believe it.
The thing is, instincts are strong and frequent. So, how do you determine when to do something about it, and when to wait? One parenting coach suggests you stop, look, listen, and act.
- Stop. Take time before you run a Google search or call your mother. Give yourself time to process the situation, and make a rational decision.
- Look. Find actual evidence to support or contradict your instinctive response. Anxiety and fear can make your initial instinct seem worse than it is. Insecurities can lead us to minimize things that are really important or urgent.
- Listen. Pay attention to what you, your child, and people you trust are saying about the situation. Separate what is true and valuable from what is speculation and fluff.
- Act. Based on the data you’ve collected, you can make a decision in your teen’s best interests.
Parenting is hard. Being a teenager is hard. You will both make mistakes, and you will both need grace. When something goes wrong, talk about it. Apologize, and accept apologies. Above all, focus on loving your child, and you’ll both find your way.
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