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August 25, 2009

How to be a parent for teenagers

Ingar sent me a link to an article called "5 steps to understanding teenage girls". I talked to my mom on the phone a couple of days after reading the article, and we talked about her own parent-frustrations.

My mom isn't frustrated about teenage girls. She's frustrated about their parents - specifically the way other parents talk about their teenagers. When my mom claims teenage girls aren't monsters, parents react either with "You don't know what we're going through. Your daughters follow the rules." or "You have no idea what you're talking about. You think your daughters are following the rules? Puh-lease!"

By the time my youngest sister turns 20, my parents will have spent 15 years of their lives being the parents of teenagers. The article from Ingar and my conversation with my mom both got me thinking: What did my parents do right?

First of all, my parents know better than to listen to the worst advice. For example, when there was some newspaper/magazine debate about reading teenagers' diaries and text messages to check on what they were up to, I told my parents that I would never, ever, forgive them if they invaded my privacy that way. I think I was about fifteen, and I kept a very honest journal. Which they better not have read.

(Shortly after this, my dad set up a blog for me, so he could legitimately read some of my thoughts. Pretty sneaky.)

I've been an ex-teenager for a couple of years now. Looking back, I never felt like my parents were ruining my life. We fought, but I never fundamentally thought of them as enemies. In fact, I would say that my parents and I have had more serious disagreements before I turned 13 and after I turned 20 than during those supposedly difficult teenage years. Which brings me to my most basic tip for being a good parent for teenagers: Stop imagining that those seven years are so very different from all the other years of your lives.

I think that by the time your children become teenagers, they should know the following:

  • What your general definition of acceptable behavior is.
  • That while you will be disappointed if they go against this, you trust them to make their own decisions.
  • That in a worst case scenario where they make all the wrong decisions (according to your definitions) and everything blows up in their teenage faces, you will still be their parent, even if you're angry.

Really, that's it. Start the supposedly awful teenage years with mutual trust and half the job is done.

Beyond that, be consistent and predictable when it comes to rules - and within the ground rules, be flexible and reasonable. I usually knew what to expect from my parents. I also feel like my parents communicated the difference between what was really unacceptable and what was just not recommendable. For example, lying about my age and sneaking into clubs was something I got away with. Taking drugs while at those clubs would not have been ok. I've stayed home from school because I didn't feel like going - with my parents' permission. But not caring about school at all, or cheating on a test, would have gone against their values, which I think would have been different.

The point is that I felt we had a shared understanding about what the limit was. Sometimes I went beyond that line, and crossed over into unacceptable, they-better-not-find-out-about-this territory, but I always knew that was what I was doing. I think that kept me in check a bit; it kept me from going too far.

In the comments to the article, "Former Teenager" wrote:

I was pretty wild from 16-18 (sex with older men, smoking, taking ecstasy at weekends in nightclubs and bunking off school whenever I knew I wouldn't get caught) though had the good sense to keep very schtum about it as my parents were quite strict... although I now realise she knew about the majority of it, worried about it and monitored it quite early on and never believed my lies and ommissions.

Her 'talking' about this stuff with me wouldn't have made a blind bit of difference to my behaviour but knowing where her tolerance levels were absolutely helped keep me in check. I would never have dared get pregnant, fail an exam, need my stomach pumping or get caught playing truant. As a result I got fabulous A level grades, a good degree from a good university and now have an excellent career and an eminently lovely and sensible man, despite my teenage high spirits.

A bit of wildness does teenagers no harm provided parents are there to set firm objectives, maintain order and pick up the pieces every now and then.

In other words, don't underestimate the power of "My parents will be so disappointed in me." That thought has kept me from doing some pretty stupid stuff.

Throughout my teenage years, I perfected my defense for the day when my parents would be really, really disappointed in me. It varied, but followed this basic idea:

Mom, dad, I'm not pregnant. I've never been arrested, I've never taken illegal drugs, and I don't smoke. I've never committed any serious crimes, and my grades are still good. But please, don't try to make me stop __________. Because I probably will continue to do so anyway. And you should be glad that's all I'm doing.

I never needed to say it.

Usually, the blank was filled with some variation of "going to parties with people who do things you don't want me to do". But as it turns out, my parents trusted me to be able to be in a potentially risky environment without putting myself at risk. (Or they just had no idea what I was really up to, but I'm going to assume my parents are smarter than that.)

The point is that if someone wants to for example start smoking, it's really hard to stop them. I've tried and failed repeatedly. When I wanted my friends and family members to stop smoking, I didn't have the resources parents have with their kids. I couldn't lock them in their room, for example. But locking up children is usually frowned upon, even though that's really the only way to forcefully stop someone from breaking the rules.

Which brings me back to mutual trust and shared understanding of rules: I think my parents knew they couldn't stop me, but they relied on me to stop myself. And that was good for me.

I can just hear the other parents saying: "Yeah, but they're not all goody two-shoes like you,", and I could probably write a whole separate blog post to answer that kind of comment. But any parent who thinks I was born "a nice girl" while their own children are actually impossible, simply does not get it.

The point here is that while "My parents don't want me to do this." may deter some teenagers, it isn't really a genuinely good reason not to do something. You need to teach them why drugs/cheating/lying etc. are bad in the long run. If they want to do something, and they can't see for themselves that it's bad for them, then you can't stop them by force. 

And beyond that, remember that your kids are growing up. That's kind of the whole idea of being teenagers: they are no longer children. More and more of their world is separate from your world, and more and more of their problems have nothing to do with you. The plus side: It might not be your fault. The minus side: It might be completely out of your control.

I'll finish this with another comment from below that same article:

I've always thought that if you expect trouble with teenagers, that's what you get. Too many people batten down the hatches and prepare for war with a giant list of 'Don'ts' before anything's even happened.

It's important to like teenagers... my daughter's nearly a year old and people say 'Ah, but wait til she's a teenager', and you know what? I'm really looking forward to it.

I'm well aware, though, that maybe I was lulled into a false sense of security - there was no door slamming and squawking with the three of us in our teens, but I still don't think we were that exceptional. Our parents trusted us not to do anything stupid, we paid them back by not doing anything (too) stupid, and they didn't make a fuss over things that weren't worth it.

- Claudia Conway

Posted by Julie at August 25, 2009 12:35 AM

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