Time to Change How We Relate to Our Teens

Each stage of our child’s development requires a different set of skills from us. When they are infants they require a great deal attention and consistent affection. We need to assure our babies that the world is safe and that their needs are being met. Helping them to build trust, we are their windows to the world. As toddlers, our children rely on us to teach them limits. We reassure our 2 and 3 year olds that the world is safe, while encouraging them to explore and take risks. We exercise persistence and patience as our toddlers potty train. The worlds of our preschoolers (ages 3-5) begin to expand and they begin to play with other children. They are frequently like sponges, learning not only from us, but also from teachers and peers. We frequently find ourselves answering the “why” questions. In addition, busy-ness often ramps up during this stage: arranging play dates, enrolling them in school, and exposing them to learning opportunities, for example. Once our children are in primary school, they begin to rely on what they learn from their peers who act as a social barometer. What’s cool? What should boys be interested in? What should girls wear and whom do they want as friends? But, they also still need us as an anchor. They need our unconditional love and faith in them as people. This is often an even busier time for parents. Taking them to dance lessons or baseball practice. Arranging spring and summer camps. Signing them up for tutoring or swimming lessons. Carpooling them and their friends to soccer practice. We parents often feel worn out during this stage. But, our school age and pre-teen kids still seem fairly open to our feedback and affection. Though, this comfort may seem to fade a bit as our pre-teen gets older.

Then there are the teen years. During this stage, our teens are frequently forging their identities. Who are they? What’s important to them? What are their talents? Are they like their friends? Do they believe that the adults around them are in touch with what’s really going on? Our teens are often developing a world separate from their families. They often have their own interests, and may not want to spend time with family members. There are so many changes that are unfolding during this time. So many parents seem to not recognize their children at this phase, thinking, “Who are you and what have you done with my daughter/son?” So what is our role as a parent of an adolescent? We are challenged to maintain interest in our teens’ lives, while giving them space. Sounds paradoxical, I know. Sounds like it’s important to be a virtual contortionist. But, there are a few keys that others and I have found helpful. I believe that it is very important to learn flexibility and to be patient with your teen and yourself. In the face of conflict or confusion it can be helpful to practice mindfulness, deep breathing and compassion. It can also be helpful to remember what it was like to have hormones coursing through your veins. Remember what it was like to feel insecure about your worth, and deeply hopeful about finding a sense of belonging? When we can take ourselves back to that place of such vulnerability and possibility, it can help us to be there for our teens in a way that is supportive and patient. It is time to let our teens discover who they want to be. To be there for them when they ask, and to let them know that we love them unconditionally. Even though this can feel challenging, it’s a magical time that can be filled with joy and tenderness. It’s a stretch...but you can do it.

The Oversexualization of Young Women

Lately, I have found it difficult to watch media: commercials, movies and music videos, for instance, without feeling a great deal of sadness and frustration. Many young women in the media have been placed in the position, and feel compelled to make themselves sexually attractive, primarily to men. The message, then, is broadcasted to several states and all over the world, and young women, as well as young girls, get the message that their worth is almost solely tied up in their bodies and their sexuality. By no means am I suggesting that women not celebrate their bodies or their sexuality. In fact, there is remarkable beauty is women’s bodies. And our sexuality is to be proudly cherished. But, I long for young women to value themselves fully. I sometimes wish that I could hold up a mirror and ask young women to look, not so much at the bodies, but to look in their eyes. To see their beauty. To see their value. To see their hopes and dreams. So much emphasis on the physical can render moments of self-scrutiny that are primarily impacted by scrutiny from others. I find it curious and sad that we as a society feel we have the right to approve or not approve of women’s bodies. The damage that this is doing to our community of teen girls is far reaching. It shows up differently in various cultural communities, some teen girls moving towards attempts to control their bodies through food restriction; other young women using their bodies to make money or to survive, i.e. exotic dancing or sex work. Whatever the manifestation, the messages are the same: to communicate that something is not quite right with some aspect of a young woman’s body, or that the way to be loved and appreciated is through putting her “self “out there. I do not mean to trivialize these very complex issues or to pathologize young women as if they make these decisions in a vacuum. I know that there are so many influences that support these decisions. I just long for a broader, richer conversation about how young women can reclaim their worth from the hands of those who would advertise their bodies as a product for sale. I support young women in celebrating their bodies and their sexuality, and am most appreciative when I hear women of influence in the media celebrating women’s minds and hearts.

As parents, it is important to talk with our teens about this. Not only is it important to equip young women to stand up to such forces that would reduce them to their sexual body parts, but to talk with our sons to exam these ideas about girls and women

Thoughts on Parenting Adolescents

It occurs to me that it would be important to state that my daughter has approved of me writing about our experiences. For the sake of helping others, she has been willing to sacrifice a certain degree of privacy. And, writing about these experiences has helped to solidify my learning.

My daughter turned 17 last week and I experienced both a sense of joy and of loss. With each year that has passed I have had to adjust to the many changes that she has experienced developmentally. For instance, right now as she learns to drive and increasingly goes out with her friends at night, I have had to learn to trust that she would be okay. I remember a conversation that I had with co-workers about 5 years ago when I was unable to locate her after school. She was to get out of school around 2:30 pm, and I was trying to reach her at home around 3:30. It only takes about 20 to 30 minutes to walk home from school, so I began to panic when she wasn't at home. I was about to jump in my car and look for her. The fear had gripped me so that I did not care that I was in the middle of my workday. This was sometimes the way that fear worked on me. I was imagining that some stranger abducted her or that she was somehow injured "out there" in the big scary world: many parents' nightmare. Thank goodness that my friends were there. My colleagues talked with me, helped me to see the humor in my over-reaction, and helped me to settle down. They pointed out that, reasonably, I did not have to worry because Melody had shown such trustworthiness while growing up. I told them that I wasn't so much worried about her trustworthiness, but about the people out there who prey on others, the people over which I have no control. And, that is the bottom line: I have no control over the big world out there. I could spend my life sheltering her from potential harm, or I could allow her to have some space to breathe, to explore, to grow. I thank God for my friends that day. They helped me to stay on the ground when I was spinning out of control with fear. Sometimes we need others to help us to keep things in perspective. I will say this, however, I bought her a cellphone shortly after that experience so that I could keep closer tabs on her whereabouts.

Let's Talk Money

Yesterday, I had a talk with my daughter about money. She and I recently opened a bank account strictly for her to deposit checks that she earned from her part-time job. A few months after opening the account, my daughter overdrew her account. I could have gone into panic mode or yelled at her for not keeping close tabs on her spending, but I really wanted to use this as an opportunity to learn and grow. Most important to me, was helping her to have compassion and to hold herself in high regard, despite the fact that she had made these mistakes. I wanted her to see that she could learn from this experience. Shame and blame had no place in this conversation and no place in our relationship, for that matter. I am very proud of the way that I handled the situation. I calmly gathered information about the overdrafts, and showed her the facts on paper. I asked how she wanted to rectify the problem. My daughter was extremely appreciative of the way that I approached her, especially since I did not yell at her or expand feelings of guilt and disappointment. I encourage parents to breathe before addressing problems. Sometimes that bit of space that staves off reactions can connect us to a greater intention that we want to express.

Talking with our teens about money matters is very important. If we want them to be responsible with their money, and to develop a healthy relationship with money, then it is incumbent upon us to teach them that their worth has nothing to do with money, and everything to do with the fact that they are living, breathing human beings. Notwithstanding the fact that financial wealth opens doors, it does not define a person. Our teens are at the point of understanding their value and the value of others. Is a person more valuable if they have money? Are those who have less, worth less? Teens, and adults alike, feel pressure to consume and to emulate others. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements and messages that we are not enough, and that we can be more if we only owned (fill in the blank). I am calling for a different set of values: values of generosity and self-love. As parents, we primarily teach by example. And, when we demonstrate good relationships with money, our teens learn that they are more than how much money they have or don't have. Instead of seeing money as connected to their worth, they can see that money is an instrument of giving and receiving. I wish you well as you talk with your teen about money and other important matters.


Moving from Old Fashioned to Openness

I recently had a conversation with my daughter about tattoos and piercings. She attempted to explain to me that tattoos and piercings are a matter of self-expression, individuality, and art. I talked with her about character, appearances and the possible effects of living with decisions that we may later regret. The more we talked, the more she labeled me as out of touch with the times. I found myself making sweeping generalizations, and my daughter called me closed-minded and old-fashioned. When did this happen? When did I become the generation that was "old-fashioned?" I've always thought of myself as open-minded, but I have to admit that there are a few things for which I hold restraint. I don't quite understand the commonplace way in which teens are now getting tattoos and body piercings. However, despite my resistance, I have begun to move towards a "harm-reduction" approach, meaning I have talked with my daughter about where she wants to place tattoos or piercings versus whether or not to get them. This has been remarkably challenging because I have had a visceral reaction to this. Ultimately, it boils down to fear. Fear of loss of control over what happens to her. Fear that I won't be able to protect her. I don't want her to miss out on future opportunities. But, this is where our work as parents lies. Can we hold the fear at bay, while finding ways to quiet it? Can we stretch beyond our comfort zones? Can we move to a more centered place? Can we make room for different kinds of conversations that affirm our teens, as we make clear our intentions and hopes for them? Parenting our teens brings great opportunities for our own learning. As challenging as it is, it is still an amazing honor. There is no more important job in the world.