We all worry about high risk behaviors in teens. No one wants their child using meth, drinking until they are sick, starting fights or having sex before they are ready. Yet we see all of these behaviors, consistently, and our communities, unfortunately, often point at the parents to blame.
So the tendency for parents is to control their children. Monitor their behavior closely and rein in their behaviors often. The “Just Say No” anti-drug slogan of the ’80’s has in fact become parenting mantra of today. After having worked with teens and families in Vermont, as well as worked with first year college students in universities in Canada and the U.S., I have realized that what we need to do is not constantly pull back on the reins for teens. Instead, we need to urge them forward.
The trick is to urge them forward with gentle hands, not forceful kicks. Otherwise, you’ll see your teen buck and turn away from the direction you are pointing.
Let’s revisit childhood. Remember when your child was merely a baby? Remember when you could not wait for his or her first steps?
Consider what a baby’s “risky behavior” might be. Taking those first steps was risky! It is a great leap of faith. Remember how you treated your baby in that process: encouragement, gentle hands, supportive words. There was likely a lot of sympathy and wiping away tears, when your baby fell in his/her attempts. You never scolded for missteps. Instead, you lovingly wrapped him or her up in your arms, comforted them and allowed them to try again. Over and over. No matter how many times it took.
Now consider what happens when your teen starts trying to take his/her first steps into adulthood. It’s not gentle encouragement, sympathy for mis-steps, or supportive words. It’s scolding, punishment, disappointment and sometimes even open frustration and anger.
So what has changed?
It’s you and your fear. It’s scary for them to step outside of your comfort zone. It’s scary to see them make mistakes, because as teens or tweens, mistakes have more consequences. It’s scary to have to see them walk down paths that lead to things you don’t know about, or approve of. It’s scary to trust that they will somehow learn to make the movement, all on their own, without needing you at all.
So I look forward to taking some steps with you, to help your teen and tween step into adulthood. Next entry, I’ll talk more about a Teen’s Job versus a Parent’s Job, so that we can clarify everyone’s roles.
All my best to you and your family,