Although it is important for parents to learn to sail through “teenage storms,” your eventual goal should be to hand over the ship’s wheel to your teen, confident that you have passed on the skills needed to manage the ship. The ultimate challenge is to help our teens learn to sail their ships, without sinking our own in the process.
How do you help teens gain the necessary knowledge, attitudes and skills to sail their own boats? With this question in mind, an old sailing observation is useful –
"You cannot direct the wind, but you can adjust the sails".
In other words, to help you and your teenager reach the relatively safer waters of young adulthood, and enjoy smoother sailing along the way, check whether you have adjusted your own attitudes and behaviour instead of trying to direct the 'winds of change' blowing your teenager's way.
A good sailor has real knowledge of sailing as well as the right charts and good gear. Parents also need to be equipped. They need some real knowledge about teenagers and the “winds of change” affecting them. Getting the bigger picture first, before discussing the specific skills can be helpful in deciding when to do what.
The first point to note is that teenagers are not children. Therefore, while parents of younger children help them feel safe and secure while in “the nest,” one of the main jobs of parents with teenagers is to help them feel safe and secure while “leaving the nest.”
Parents must help their teen to gradually leave childhood behind. Sometimes letting go of childhood is as hard for the parents as it is for the teen. It brings to mind the picture of wailing, teary-eyed Grade One children on the first day of school saying their sad good-byes to equally sad, teary-eyed parents. It is not always easy to let go of our children and embrace them as teenagers.
In order for teens to leave their childhood behind, they have to simultaneously accomplish two tasks. On the one hand, they have to renegotiate their relationships with their family members. On the other hand, they have to come to terms with their own, newly emerging sense of self. To an adolescent, it’s like taking a big bowl of stew and separating it into two different bowls. One bowl is for what belongs to the family and one bowl is for what belongs to the new “self.” Once this is done, the teen can then decide which parts in each bowl to keep, and what new things to add to each bowl. Only when this is done, can the adolescent then take the psychological risk of putting the contents of the two different bowls back together again. This is the task of “finding oneself” which is so important to an adolescent. By the way, those who do not do so well with this task at this age often take a second shot at it when they turn 40!
This separating out of self from family is not without struggle. Unfortunately for teenagers, the question about just who the struggle is with - self or parents - is not always clear. Often teens have very definite opinions about “who” the problem is, even though they are not always right. And if parents still have unre-solved teenage issues of their own, the waters can get even murkier.
Imagine a teen feeling pressured by peers to join a current teenage fad. Maybe the friends have all adopted an outrageous hair style. Your teen may not be able to decide and may unwittingly attempt to manoeuvre you into an argument. Now, instead of struggling with her own conflicting thoughts and feelings, the teen is able to make the “inside war” an “outside war.” Parents who are unaware of what is happening, or unsure of how to proceed, may allow them-selves to be drawn into an unnecessary battle. The result: the parent makes the decision and the teen is “rescued” from having to resolve the internal struggle. Instead of learning how to “chart the course” herself, the teen has managed to keep mom or dad at the wheel.
One of the best ways to learn about oneself is by having to solve problems. During adolescence when teens are learning about themselves, they have a good chance to learn effective problem-solving. This promotes responsible independence - the ultimate goal. Like learning anything else, problem-solving takes practice and, of course, the challenge and the art of helping teenagers is knowing which decisions one should let the teen struggle with, and which decisions are too big a task, at this time.
Many of the so-called typical adolescent behaviors are an attempt on the part of adolescents to transform themselves into real, separate individuals with minds of their own. Knowing this, it is easier to make sense of what often seems like hurtful or irrational adolescent behaviors.
For example, when your teen insists on walking 20 feet behind you at the mall, regarding this behavior as an unspoken need for independence, rather than a statement about your worth as a person, may enable you to tolerate such behavior more easily. Allowing this now may make it easier to later request your teen do something that you see as important. In this way, your teen will learn more about the give and take in relationships.
Smoother sailing will be found by keeping your eye on the larger picture, with a few important attitude checks and behavior adjustments.
While there are many other things a parent can do to help calm the waters of adolescence, observing these hints will make for smoother sailing, and help you weather some of those inevitable stormy times. By staying on course, there may even come a time when your teen will appreciate Mark Twain’s words. “When I was 16, I thought my father was the dumbest man on earth. By the time I was 20, it was remarkable how much he had learned.”