What pops into your head when you think about teenagers? About being the parent of one? It seems to be the stage of parenting that people fear most. I believe teens may be the age group most mistrusted, disliked, feared and judged, based merely on them being…. teens! And that is prejudice. I remember overhearing someone voicing concern about parenting teens once, and the reassurance that was given was, “It’s okay. They arrive as babies, remember?” True, but still, they end up being teens, and that’s scary, right?
When I was a girl, I dreamed of being a teacher. Of little people. Definitely not those scary teenagers, thank you very much. I just could not understand what would lead anyone to choose high school teaching! Of course, I now realise my perception was partly formed by what I was observing of how teens behave in the artificial, controlling setting of compulsory high school and I wasn’t liking what I saw.
When I was a young mum, we lived in a christian community for five years. After our initial two year training period, we had to decide whether we wanted to stay on as staff and you know what freaked me out the most? Working with “scary teenagers”! Funnily, one of the teen girls that most freaked me out is now a good friend, and the mother of three young triplets who all have muscular dystrophy. It turns out she was a human being just like me. Oh, and for the record, those “scary teens” were actually heaps of fun and many of them became good friends, and they certainly enriched our life more than we could have imagined. It was a privilege and honour to journey with them for a few years.
Do you know what I think scares people the most about teenagers? It’s not the clothing or hairstyles or body piercing or music. Heck, more than a few adults have similar tastes these days! What’s more frightening about teens is that they’re uncontrollable. I mean, teens these days are “out of control” aren’t they? Teens “these days” seem to cause their parents about as much grief as … their parents caused THEIR parents! It gets you wondering, doesn’t it?
Perhaps teens seem uncontrollable because they’re not designed to be controlled! Mira Kirshenbaum and Charles Foster, in their brilliant book, “Parent Teen Breakthrough“, assert that the strongest drive (yes, even stronger than you know what) during adolescence is the drive for independence. And what do they experience during all of their teen years in the high school setting? Control. What do they experience at the hands of 99.9999% of parents? Control. Or rather, attempts at control. Because the truth is, they cannot really be controlled. Not fully.
And neither should they be.
When parents have used controlling, punitive methods to manage their children’s behaviour during the younger years, the teen years can come as quite a shock, because it is during this phase of life, when teens are biologically wired to move towards independence (in lifestyle, values, thoughts and ideas) that parents suddenly realise control no longer works. “Where there’s a will there’s a way….” And if parents keep on pushing for control, they will often push their child behind a big brick wall of resistance and distance. And parents aren’t the only ones facing the reality that teens are moving into a new phase of life.
Teachers have it tough, too. Not because all teens are “bad” or because all teachers are hopeless. But because we have created an artificial, controlling environment for teenagers and called it “high school”. We take away as much of their power and autonomy as we can and then wonder why they rebel. We have placed many great teachers in those schools, but each of them is given the same task of attempting to control teens, and trying to prepare them for life by keeping them away from real life. By keeping teens in this artificial environment throughout the years in which they’re destined for courageous acts, independence and autonomy, we have created a dynamic called “adolescence” – the wasteland between the wonder of childhood and autonomy of adulthood. And while they’re there, we expect them to sit still, listen quiety, and do what they’re told.
Teens don’t need to be controlled, although they certainly benefit from mentorship and influence. They need relationship. And grace. And forgiveness. And respect. They need parents who believe in them, see the best in them, and create a safe sanctuary for them.
Yes to guidance, no to coercion.
Yes to information, no to lecturing.
In short, teens need connection. They may at times give off a vibe that says they don’t, but deep down they need to feel connected to those who love them; not judged, feared and despised by them because they aren’t behaving in the exact way the parent wishes they would. Yes, they will almost certainly make some choices that parents wish they wouldn’t, but when the connection is strong, and there aren’t the ongoing power struggles so common to many parent-teen relationships, there is more likelihood that parents will have something far more effective than control: INFLUENCE.
Teens also need communication. The type of communication where they are listened to. Really listened to. Not just to the spoken words, but also to the message that lies beneath the angst, the “bad tone”, the swearing….. So many parents talk AT their teens. And they usually don’t want to hear anything scary that their teen might have done. In the Parent Teen Breakthrough book mentioned above, the authors state that if your teens aren’t occasionally telling you something scary, they are probably just not telling. They need to know their parents are SAFE to talk to. And they rarely ever need lecturing. Actually, they never need it! They need information and feedback. They need compassion and safety. They need to have their feelings validated and their needs honoured. They need a safe place for exploring potential strategies that might meet their needs, and the needs of other family members too. Some people refer to this type of process as Non Violent Communication (or Compassionate Communication). And yes, this model includes parents being honest about their needs and feelings too. It isn’t about any one person walking over, or lording it over, the other. It is about mutual respect.
While attempts at controlling teens may seem to result in compliance, any compliance that is gained usually comes at a great cost to the relationship. Is it really worth it?
So does this mean “letting them run wild”? When I think about a teen “running wild”, I think that perhaps they have something to run FROM. They are much more likely to run from control (or the absence of connection), than from connection. They need parents who truly, genuinely care about THEM, even more than they care about whether they are good poster children or not. When all is said and done, if your teen makes some choices along the way that make your hair stand on end, it helps to remember that they are human just like their parents. In the midst of those choices, if they feel unconditionally loved by their parents and connected to them, and if they feel safe in their relationship with their parents, the relationship will remain long after the choices and their consequences are like dots on a distant horizon.