There is no perfect plan for transforming a teenager into a respectful and honourable adult. Parenting is hard work. In the early years, it’s hands on and more physically interactive. As the transition into and through the teen years develop, parenting becomes more mentally challenging as we try to maintain a meaningful connection with a child who is changing (see “What Happened to my Kid?” for more on these changes) and testing everything we say and do.
This list is not intended to make parenting easy. Some of the ideas are intended to help you think from a different perspective which can make a positive difference in your experience and family relationships. Others are more practical, hands on. Try one or two ideas for a while, and add more as you integrate them into the daily lives and routines of your family.
1. Know the desired destination
In the day in day out routines and busyness of daily life, we often don’t take time to think beyond just getting through the day. Although this is a common experience in life and parenting, just like knowing a destination for a road trip guides the decisions of which roads to take or not to take, knowing the destination of your child can help guide decisions in our parenting.
We don’t know the exact “destination” of our child. We also don’t want to make them into robots of our choosing or replicas of ourselves. We do want to teach, guide and equip them to be adults who make the world better. The more thought and effort we put into the adult we see them becoming, the better prepared we will be to deal with life as it happens. What are the traits you see in your child that you want encourage? What passions and interests do you want to nurture and guide toward helping others?
As you write down your ideas and sketch a “portrait”, don’t focus on what they will look like, or what job they will have. Focus on the kind of person they are, and the adult they can become. For example, she can be gracious, respectful, eager to serve, honest, etc. As your list begins to describe the adult you see your child becoming, you can begin to think about how you can nurture those character traits along the way. Instead of being stuck in the moment of discipline, this vision of the adult he or she can become gives perspective and depth to the situation in front of you and how to handle it in a way that teaches rather than merely punishes.
2. Have a discipline plan
As adults, we have developed a worldview of morals, behaviours and attitudes that guide us. Many of us haven’t articulated the details of our worldview, and some of us could rattle off the fine points with ease. Regardless of how much thought you have given to the way you see and interact with the world, your worldview determines how you parent your child. You teach, interact with and discipline your children from the perspective of your worldview.
Your teen does not and cannot yet understand your viewpoint. Even if you have explained every detail of what they should believe, how they should act, and the attitudes they should have, they couldn’t and shouldn’t just become a clone of you. They have a different personality, a different perspective, and are just learning about the world in which they live.
In order to parent them, you need to have a discipline plan that allows them to become their own person, explore, grow and learn, but also provides boundaries and consequences that protect them.
This discipline plan is best when it is flexible and “grows” as your teen grows. I believe the most important job a parent of a teen has is to protect and guide their heart (their attitudes and motivations). Where is their heart? What one or two behaviours or attitudes need to be addressed in order to protect their heart?
Sit down and make a plan (with your spouse if you have one) that provides relevant and appropriate boundaries in that area with fitting consequences when those boundaries are crossed. Then sit down with your teen and explain your concern with their behaviour, what you expect from them, why, and what will happen when those expectations are not met.
3. Have a support system in place
If you haven’t figured it out by now, parenting takes a lot of work! It can be physically, mentally, emotionally and socially exhausting. Who do you have around you to support, encourage, and help you be the best parent you can be?
Who do you know that has gone before you (raised teens of their own) who you respect and admire as parents? Ask them out for coffee and share your concerns, struggles and difficulties and start taking notes! Find other parents of teens that you can meet with to support and encourage one another on an ongoing basis.
What are organizations or social circles include a group of parents who are also raising teens that you could become a part of?
The more you pursue healthy in every aspect of who you are (emotional, physical, mental, social, spiritual) the more you will be able to guide your teen to whole health. Although they may not show it, your teens are watching and imitating you. They pick up and become who you are way more than what you say. What are you doing to become the kind of person you want your child to become?
4. Recruit other adults you respect to be involved
As your children mature, they need more people involved in their lives. Ideally, the sphere of influence moves progressively outward. Mom and dad will have the most influence through childhood and adolescence, but in later childhood and through adolescence, influence from friends of parents, and those with significant roles such as teachers and coaches.
Understanding that this is good and healthy helps us as parents to be involved intentionally in this process. Who are the people in your life that you respect? Pursue them. Invite them over for dinner. Talk to them about your kids. Ask them if they will spend some time getting to know your teen. If they have children, take an interest in their children as well.
The old saying, “it takes a community to raise a child,” is true. There will be times and circumstances when your teen will want to talk to someone other than you. Who are the adults in their lives they will turn to? Wouldn’t it be great to know who that will be and to be confident that they are giving solid advice? The alternative, of course, is that they turn to their peers (who are themselves in the midst of this difficult stage of life).
5. Be a loving parent, not a pushover friend
The transition from childhood to adolescence is not the time to become a friend instead of a parent. You are still the parent. As a parent, you provide food, shelter, clothing, guidance, and yes, even rules.
Don’t be afraid to continue being the parent. Your teens will respect you less if you try to be a friend rather than a parent.
Parents are the anchor in a child’s life. We may feel like we don’t have everything figured out, and we don’t. But for a teen who is going through so many changes in their lives, they need us to provide firm boundaries and continual love, support and attention.
Being a parent does not negate being a friend. Enjoy your teen. Ask questions. Play games. Joke around. Have fun together. But do not give up your responsibility as a parent to provide rules and boundaries and enforce consequences with the idea that you can connect better with your teen as an “equal.”
6. Be a part of something bigger together
Teenagers are very aware of themselves. They feel what they feel. They want what they want. They see and experience life through how it affects them. As their minds, bodies and emotions change, they become aware of more ideas, emotions and abilities going on inside of them which compel them to explore and experience new things.
As you can see, this is a very self-centered process. Teenagers’ worlds revolve around themselves. As parents, part of our job is to help them widen their horizons not only in their self-awareness, but also (and especially) in their ability to understand and help others. We want to expand their worlds beyond themselves.
A wonderful way to help our children care about more than themselves is to join something that motivates them to think about something bigger than themselves. Sports teams are a great example because a team needs every athlete to work together to accomplish the objective. Clubs, musical or theatrical productions, and churches are other ideas.
Joining something together as a family helps you have something in common, gives you something to talk about, and puts you on the same team.
7. Serve together
Even better than being a part of something bigger together for combating self-centeredness is serving together. Serving other people helps both the server and the one being served.
Everybody, including teenagers, love to be useful and helpful. And there are numerous ways to serve, ranging from service trips to other countries to helping a neighbour pull weeds.
If you know someone who has a need, do something about it together! Look for opportunities through your community like feeding programs for homeless people or internet searches for serving your community. Find a nursing home to visit with homemade gifts or flowers.
It may be difficult to motivate your children to serve with you at first. Do not give up. Try different opportunities until something resonates with them. This is something that will benefit your family now as you reap the rewards of helping others, and it will also profit your children immensely as they carry this serving mentality into their adult lives.
8. Have regular “coffee” meetings
When I want to connect with someone, I usually ask them out for coffee. Rarely do I mean that we’re both going to drink coffee. The idea here is to set up regularly times in your weekly schedule to connect, one on one with your teenager to connect.
Most likely, your teenage child likes to eat. Take him out for breakfast (or better yet, brunch) on Saturday “morning” (you know what I mean, you have a teenager who thinks Saturday at 12pm is early morning). If she would rather go shopping, take her to the mall!
Find something to do that is all about your son or daughter, and do it together. Now, here’s the hard part, keep your mouth shut. Don’t lecture. Don’t try to teach life lessons. Just be with your child.
Plan some questions ahead of time that demonstrate you are interested in your child and what he or she thinks. Do your best to avoid fishing for information, rather be curious about the person in front of you.
Ask open ended questions (questions that cannot be answered with a yes or no or “I guess so”). Make the questions interesting to teenagers, “If all your teachers came down with an epidemic 24 hour flu tomorrow except one, who would you like that to be? Why?” This is an interesting question, and it also helps you learn a bit about your child’s world from their perspective.
9. Study your teen
As parents, we feel we know what’s best for our children. How much do you know about how they think and feel? What are the important things in their lives that they think and dream about? Who are the people who make them smile or cry?
Don’t flippantly answer these questions without really studying your child. Listen to them talk to their friends as you drive them to their various activities. If you have the opportunity to drive them one-on-one, use that as an opportunity to ask them what song they would keep if their whole play list got destroyed.
Teenagers act as if they don’t care what you think. They really do care. You can demonstrate your care by taking an interest in their world, from their perspective.
10. Give real responsibility
Before the last century, people were considered adults in their teenage years. They were given responsibility for things that really matter and depended on for life and death matters.
Teenagers are blossoming adults. A large part of being an adult is being responsible. We do a disservice if we do not give teenagers real responsibility.
If your teen has not handled much responsibility before, start slowly. Teach them how to do the wash, and make them responsible for washing their own clothes. When they run out of clean clothes and run to you to save them, be kind but firm. They can wear something else, hand wash the spot, or wear something dirty. Doing their own wash is their responsibility now.
Many teenagers are not given much real responsibility. This will be difficult, but your job as parents isn’t to keep up with the status quo. Your role as parents is to raise mature adults. Mature adults know how to take responsibility and not blame others for their mistakes or unfortunate circumstances that inevitably change their plans. We prepare them for this by gradually increasing responsibility and the freedom that comes with it.
11. Talk positively
Talking positively is important in any area of life. The way we talk reflects the way we think. However, when pay attention to the way we talk, we can change how we think. What I mean is this… controlling your tongue takes a lot of effort. If you make a real effort to speak positively, over time you will begin to think more positively.
Begin talking about all the good things about your teenager as often as you can. This discipline will force you to pay more attention to and notice what you enjoy about your child. And, believe me, your teenager will notice. Imagine them walking in on you as you’re praising them up to your friend over the phone!
12. Don’t overreact
Your teen comes home and tells you his friend got drunk, climbed into the car, and drove his buddies home. Your first reaction is to freak out! There’s no way my kid will ever get in the car or even look at that kid again!
This is a critical moment. Your teenager is testing you. How will you react? What will you say? How you react here determines whether you are to be trusted if it’s your child doing the foolishness next time.
Everything in you wants to protect your children and make sure they never make thoughtless and irrational choices that could ruin their lives. And this is the time to work towards that by doing exactly opposite what you want… remain calm.
When you’re caught off guard like this, a great thing to say is, “tell me more.” This demonstrates interest in what your child just told you, provides you time to calm down, and gives you more information.
Your goal is to establish a safe place for your teenager to turn and share what’s going on inside. If you lecture, he will walk away and rarely share. If you freak out, it will affirm her understanding that you can’t understand. But if you remain calm and show interest, your teenage children will be drawn to you.
If your child comes to you upset, it’s another opportunity to establish and build communication lines between you. Your first reaction no matter what she’s upset about is to match emotion with emotion. Imagine your daughter comes to you all upset about her best friend breaking her confidence and revealing a secret they shared that’s really embarrassing. Your first reaction may be to ask what she did that may have contributed. But remember that connection is your first priority for communication to continue. So drop everything and match her emotion, “oh, I’m so sorry, that must really hurt.”
A list like this may be overwhelming if you try everything all at once. Pick one and try it out for a week. Take notes, and see what happens! I would love to hear about it! Send me a note to let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org)!