Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Parenting Teens

I'm giving up.

Control, that is. Or, at least a lot of it. With my teenagers. I'm not letting go of them--no way! They are still children in the sense that they are not quite ready to take on life all by themselves and need my care and supervision, but I am learning (painfully!) to give more of their life decisions over to them. And then, I am watching, fascinated, by what happens before my eyes.

This was a summer of learning for me. I was being schooled by my Heavenly Father, the best teacher, and the best parent that I know of. The learning began, as most true education does, with a question. A longing, yearning question in my soul about one of my children, whom I have felt deep concern over. And because I had asked, and because I was ready to learn, I was given the answer.

And then I wished I hadn't been. Sometimes the truth is so painful, and so convicting. But mercifully, I was given the information that I needed to help understand the heart of this beloved child. This child of mine, who has my eyes and my freckles, but who also has a completely different way of looking at the world. This child of mine who was making decisions that were dangerous and detrimental, all in an attempt to break free and stand alone.

But who really wants to be alone, right? We all want the same thing: to be heard, understood, and validated. Easier said than done. There is a certain level of fear involved when a mother raises a child and then witnesses the child choosing differently than what she had chosen for her child. Kind of hard to not say, "that's wrong"--even with a tone of voice or look of the eye. Unfortunately for mothers, kids are real keen on tones of voice and looks of the eye. It's even like they have supersonic powers of observation for those very things and once they catch them, they grab onto them like trophies and run straight ahead, smack dab into the wall of her will and wishes.

The good thing is, they still get bruised with the impact, and bruises come faster from a full-bodied, full speed ahead collision, than they do with Mom in between them and the wall while they just kick against it around her. Does that make any sense?

Here's what I have learned this summer:

1. What control I can give away, I should. Teens like to feel empowered. For example, I did away with bedtimes for my teens. They still have curfews for being out, talking on the phone, and being on the computer, but they can choose when they go to sleep. The conditions are, they still have to be up and ready for Seminary on school days and church on Sundays. If they want to stay up till midnight, more power to them in getting through the next day. The thing is, when they have the option, they end up choosing going to bed at a reasonable hour, since they're the ones that have to pay the next morning.

2. I can express my feelings or opinion, but ultimately leave the decision up to the child, as long as it doesn't put the child at risk or go against a clearly set boundary. For example, "I'm surprised you enjoy hanging around with that person. Usually you've always chosen friends with better standards." Funny how when they know how I feel, without the element of control, ("You may not hang out with him.") they actually consider my perspective.

3. Listen, listen, listen. And then validate. Even if you don't agree. Sometimes all I can muster is, "That's too bad," or "I see." Other times, when my hot buttons are being pushed (as they frequently are) I can say, "Well, everyone has his agency."

4. Get into your child's life. Get into his/her face. And then sit and wait for what they let you in on. In other words, show interest and be available, be present. Don't interrogate them, just offer your attention and concern. You'll be surprised what they'll open up to you about when they feel you genuinely interested in them.

5. Set clear boundaries for your home. A child can have lots of individuality and freedom of thought and choice, but certain rules cannot be broken, and if they are, you better be prepared to be all up in their faces with the consequences, without emotion. Except love, of course. In all things, love. This has been a tough one this summer. Some very difficult consequences had to be executed, but because they were given in a spirit of complete love and compassion, bridges were built instead of burned.

6. God makes the best parenting partner. He knows and loves our children even more than we do, because they are His children first. There is an incredible power given to a praying parent for her child, enlightenment that would otherwise not come. I have witnessed that in a powerful way. Pray, pray, pray for your children. It works.

7. Get out of the way of God working in the lives of your children. Sometimes what I see before my eyes in my children's attitudes or behavior brings sorrow to my heart, but the more I try to guilt or manipulate, the more they push against me. I can have great faith in the promises of God concerning my children because I have done my part as a parent. I have taught my children right from wrong, and I will keep on teaching them. I will set a proper example before them, and I will not let fear of this moment destroy my faith in His plan for each of them. If I focus on love and acceptance, I can back off the details and trust that God is working on their hearts and will make himself known to them in His way, and in His time.

8. Teach your children your family's values over and over and over. If they don't know how you feel deep in their bones, they will follow what everyone else is doing. They may anyway, but when they have a solid foundation of family values that has been instilled in them, their "rebellion" will usually be short-lived. Never assume that your kids just "know" right from wrong. Especially in the teen years "right" gets confused with "the norm", and if everyone else is doing something, it doesn't seem as wrong anymore---unless you keep telling them that it is. We have many, many Family Home Evening lessons about sex, pornography, drinking and drugs, more sex, and this last week, "Sexting". They need to hear everything from you first. (By the way, for an excellent post about sexting---I even read the entire thing to my kids---go here.) You better believe that even the most horrifying things are happening all around your kids.

9. Kids care about how you feel, and how you feel about them. They really do want to please us, they just want to do it on their terms. This one is my latest case study. I have one child who loves to say shocking, rude, and completely inappropriate things just to get a reaction out of me. Sometimes he pushes the limit way too far and I have to cut him off sternly right then and there. Other times, I am so disgusted and disappointed by the things that go through his mind and that come out of his mouth that I just look him in the eye, so that he knows I see him, and then I turn and walk away, rather than lecture him (which really never makes a difference anyway.) It's always curious to me how when I do that, when I walk away, he'll never come and apologize or address the issue, but he'll find a gazillion other ways or excuses to come see me or talk to me or be around me to try to regain my good graces. And when he is around me, even in those circumstances, I always give him positive feedback for whatever positive thing he is doing. He could have just been the biggest jerk, but if I walk away, within 5 minutes he's knocking at my door to show me a picture he drew, or to ask my opinion about something, or to share some news with me. And though I can see right through it, I always welcome his positive efforts.

10. Have enough going on in your own life that you don't have to be swept along by the tide of teenage volatility. Sometimes they make you so proud, sometimes they make you want to drive off a cliff. Sometimes you feel like the best parent around, other times a dismal failure. Let them ride the wave, under the foundation you've provided for them. Be available for them, but have your own life too, even for your sanity's sake. It's all going to work out in the end. Some things that are going on in their lives, or the lives of their friends you don't really need to know. (Sometimes my kids open up way too much for me. Nice, I guess, but do I really need to worry about that too?) Knowing will only add to your anxiety and worry--and maybe even tempt you to jump in and start controlling again.

And we're trying to give that up, right?


Annette Lyon said...

Awesome post. I think this should be required reading. (I read that same post on sexting and thought I need to do an FHE on it. ASAP. Scary that it's even necessary.)

Maybe you should write a book on this!

Andrea said...

It's so hard to give up control of anything.
So glad you are ahead of me with teenagers so I can learn all your great wisdom. Thanks.

Luisa Perkins said...

You always make me cry (in a good way). What a wise, wise post. You're an excellent mother.

isshou ni said...

This is me, sitting in the front row of class, waving my hand wildly--"excuse me, but can I be excused from the teenage years of my kids lives?" Really it is only a year or so away for me and it scares me to death! You sound like you are handling it really, really well. I need, need, need to stop nitpicking my sons behavior and start complementing like crazy and listening instead of lecturing--so much easier said than done!!!!!

Cynthia said...

Fantastic post! I have pre-teens and I'm already beginning to see the push for individuality. I will re-read this post a number of times because I am sure I'll need all the help I can get with my boy. He's already sulky and obstinate. Gah!