Adolescent Advice to the Parents

As you probably know, a major goal of adolescence is for the adolescent to become a responsible mature adult.  The only way this can happen is if the adolescent is given increasing age appropriate responsibilities and is offered the opportunity to experience the consequences of his or her actions.  Although this may sound obvious, caring and well meaning parents often shield their teenagers from consequences and do too much for them.  Obviously this is because they love their children and it is sometimes hard to watch them experience adverse consequences and not meet their expectations and obligations.  It is also sometimes easier to do things for them, rather than to struggle with them to do it themselves.  Although this is well intentioned, I believe it does the adolescent a disservice (except of course if the consequences are life altering or the adolescent is in serious trouble).

Adolescence is a perfect time for kids to practice some of the skills required in adulthood, while they still have you as a safety net.  There are many ways you can help your teenager learn skills that are needed in adulthood.  For example, many parents take their kids school clothes shopping before the new school year or a few times throughout the year.  Make it a learning opportunity for your child (and perhaps less of a struggle for you) by going through all your child’s clothes with him or her and making a list of the things he/she needs.  Then make a budget using prices from a catalog.  Bring the budget with you and let your teenager make the hard choice between that vest that he/she really doesn’t need and the more expensive sneakers.  In other words, if your adolescent falls in love with something that is not on the list, he or she will either have to go without something else or compromise (i.e., spend less on some things to have money left over to buy something not on the list, or kick in his/her own funds).

Parents are often frustrated by their kids’ poor money management skills and their tendency to spend all their money versus putting some in a savings account.  Again, an example from adult life may be fruitful.  You can offer your children to match their (or some portion of their) savings, like a 401k plan.  As they approach driving age, the goal of saving for a car is good inspiration.  As your adolescent gets older a part time job is a good responsibility/learning experience.  Encourage your adolescent to open a checking account and learn to balance a checkbook, pay a bill or two, and/or contribute money towards their insurance once they are driving.  It is a good idea to teach them the importance of establishing good credit and eventually opening a credit card and learning not to abuse it.

A major concern of most parents of adolescents is to make sure their teenager gets through adolescence safely.  Ideally, it would be great to begin adolescence with full trust in your teenager.  I think it is a good idea to sit down with your teenager and discuss the importance of trust in the next few years (see adolescent lecture to the kid).  It may be helpful to let them know that you have certain values and standards of behavior you want them to adhere to and yet you do not expect them to be perfect.  Obviously they should also be aware of how to keep themselves safe (issues regarding drinking and driving, safe sex, getting in a car with someone they don’t know well etc).  It is a good idea to have some kind of policy in place, where if your teenager feels he or she is in a tough/risky spot, they can call you to pick them up and not have to worry about being in a world of trouble.  If your child has used the good judgment to call for help when he/she needs it, it may be time for a good talk rather than a restriction/punishment.  It also makes sense to tell your kids if they are honest with you and tell you they made a mistake the consequences are likely to be more lenient.

As your child heads into adolescence, if there is no reason not to trust your teenager, you may need to give him or her a bit more freedom or leeway than you are comfortable with.  Because parents’ comfort zones can vary considerably (even within the same household) it may be helpful to discuss curfews and other standards with other parents (of peers) and then both parents should agree on a curfew all can live with. The situation you want to avoid is restricting the trustworthy teenager too much and putting him or her in the position where they feel they have to lie in order to have any fun or in order to do the things their peers are able to do.  Once you head down that path, it can be a long and painful road.  Trust is one of the most important things to maintain during adolescence. It is quickly and easily broken and difficult to rebuild.

Although safety may (rightly so) be foremost in your mind, understand that for the teenager their social life is and should be, a very important aspect of their lives.  Some parents are frustrated that their teenagers suddenly want to spend little time at home and with their families.  While this is a loss for the parent, it is perfectly normal.  (As you know they will eventually want to spend time with you again, and if adolescence goes really well it may not even be that long!)  Trying to persuade your adolescent they should (or making them) spend more time with the family may back fire.  On the other hand, acting as if you don’t care may also backfire, because just as the toddler explores the world and then checks back in with the parent, the adolescent too may oscillate between wanting their freedom and wanting the comfort and attention of their parents.

Parents of teenagers need to strike a careful balance of not hovering too much, and yet showing they care. For example, an issue that often comes up is the teenagers’ grades.  If grades are slipping or poor, parents often get upset and often remind the adolescent about doing their homework or studying etc.  Teenagers often feel nagged and hovered over.  My suggestion is to first try to approach the issue by saying something like, “I noticed your grades have been dropping, what is your plan to address that?”  Statements such as that show you are concerned and yet put the responsibility in the lap of the adolescent.  It communicates to them that you see it as their responsibility and that you have confidence in their ability to manage it.

Parents often want to know (reasonably so) where their teenagers will be for the evening.  Unfortunately teenagers don’t always plan things out as elaborately as parents usually have to.  Therefore many teenagers and their parents agree to a basic plan for the evening and then ask the teenager to call home if something changes.  It is a good idea to have the teenager check in (by phone) at some point while they are out if they will be out for a longer period of time.  And of course as a parent, it is always wise to know who your teenager will be with (e.g. do you trust the parent who will be supervising the party, if trust is an issue with your teenager? have you verified that there will be a parent supervising? etc).  Obviously the amount of freedom and leeway will increase as the teenager progresses through adolescent (that is, if things go relatively smoothly).

If the adolescent lies and trust has been broken, parents frequently begin restricting the adolescent.  This is a logical consequence.  It is important however, that the adolescent knows exactly how long the restriction will be and/or what he or she needs to do to earn privileges back.  If restrictions are vague or excessive, adolescents feel hopeless and then lie more and get restricted more and so on.  It is helpful to have very clear and consistent consequences, such that the adolescent will quickly learn that coming home after curfew for example, results in a certain restriction and that it is not worth it!

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