I was never a Girl Scout growing up, but for whatever reason the “Be Prepared” motto has landed near the top of my list of practical guidelines. This motto isn’t just for young girls and boys out doing good deeds, but is also for parents whose children are fast on their way to adolescence.
What does it mean to prepare for your child’s adolescent years? In his book Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence, Carl Pickhardt suggests “five realities” of adolescence that are helpful for parents to prepare for by making some adjustments in their relationships. These realities include feelings of ignorance, estrangement, abandonment, loss of control, and conflict.
Ignorance: Feeling Like You’re “In the Dark”
Most parents of teens will tell you that their once communicative child has become much more private as an adolescent. While this is a normal part of developing one’s independence, it can also be anxiety producing for parents to be kept in the dark about their teen’s thoughts, feelings, activities, and choices. When a teen begins to share less about their life, parents run the risk of allowing their imaginations to run wild with all the possible reasons why their teen is less communicative. As always, it is important to set standards for the sake of safety and to be generally aware of what your teen is up to. However, excessive worrying and anticipating the worst does not result in helpful parenting. When it comes to this reality of adolescence, parents may need to be prepared to get by on less information than they would like to have, recognizing that this is a part of their teen’s development toward adulthood.
Estrangement: A Sense of Disconnection
Parents, who once shared interests and activities such as music, games or sport with their child, may find that their child-turned-teen is no longer interested in such things. Part of the adolescent developmental process is exploring one’s identity, interests, and self-image. For example, young girls who liked princess tea parties may go through a phase of gothic teen. Parents need to set guidelines for experimentation, but should not stop the process of exploration and change. Their task here is to mourn the loss of the things they no longer have in common with their child, while continually building bridges of commonality to their teen. For example, if your teen mentions a good book he read in English class, offer to read it too. Whether or not you’re interested in the book is not the point, but it is important for you to continue creating opportunities for connection with your changing teen.
Abandonment: Redefining Relationship Roles
As many parents of teens know all too well, the son or daughter who once wanted to spend all their time with Mom and Dad may now want to spend all their time with their peers instead. It’s not uncommon for parents to feel lonely as this transition takes place, particularly if they are used to their child being a constant (and welcomed) companion. This is another part of the adolescent transition that parents may need to mourn, because in many ways they have indeed lost a close friend. Parents can prepare themselves for this transition by making sure that their other relationships are strong and supportive, so that their needs for companionship are met. It’s also important for parents not to interpret their teen’s distance as a loss of love, for this is often not the case.
Control: Navigating Independent Behavior
In my experience this is a particularly difficult reality for parents and families to adjust to. The adolescent years are a naturally more combative and assertive time for young people as they forge their way to an independent adulthood. What this often means for parents is that their once cooperative child no longer feels the same need to please and obey. The new reality here is that the parent’s authority now depends on the teen’s willingness to cooperate. As always, the parent needs to set guidelines and standards of behavior, and to provide consequences when those are not met. However, the adjustment parents need to make is to recognize that their ability to control their child has been exchanged for an ability to influence, communicate, and guide. Parents who are prepared for this transition are more likely to begin this process early by helping their child develop good decision making skills, as well as by creating a relational dynamic where the child feels safe to turn to her parents when she has made a mistake.
Conflict: A Normal Part of Communication
In order to adjust to the increasing conflict that the teen years bring, it’s important for parents to work through their own fears and struggles regarding conflict as a form of communication. Conflict is a normal part of human communication, and learning to effectively manage conflict is a significant step for teens on the road to adulthood. If parents view conflict as something stressful that invariably leads to high levels of anxiety, yelling, and relational disconnect, this adjustment may be a difficult one. The more parents can be prepared for increased conflict with their teen, and the more calmly they can engage in that conflict, realizing that it will teach their teen important relational skills, the better off everyone will be. To prepare for this change, parents can often benefit from time spent improving their own conflict management skills.
Christian Counseling for Preparing Parents
Pickhardt’s first words of advice to parents of adolescents is to “Govern thyself wisely” (2). As tempting as it may be for parents to focus on controlling their teen’s behavior, so much of effective parenting begins with parents’ behaviors, including how parents adjust and respond to the five “realities” discussed above. If you would like help preparing for your child’s adolescence, or for parenting your teen, we have a number of professionally trained Christian counselors who are ready to walk through that journey with you. Feel free to give us a call if you have questions or would like to set up a “risk-free” first session.
Pickhardt, C. (2013). Surviving your child’s adolescence: How to understand, and even enjoy, the rocky road to independence. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Images from freedigitalphotos.net: “Family” from photostock and “Mom and Daughter” from stockimages.