As a professional counselor for well over twenty-five years, I’ve devoted a good portion of my practice to working with teenagers. I’ve found them to be amazingly forthright and courageous, while at the same time vulnerable and confused. Often, they are doing what seems best to them to address their situation. Unfortunately, they often turn to risky and destructive behaviors as coping strategies through this turbulent time. When these coping behaviors end up taking on an ugly life of their own, the roller-coaster ride turns very dangerous. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Teenagers are on the cusp of their future. They’re still grounded in childhood but can easily see adulthood just off in the distance. They’re chomping at the bit to grow up and dragging their feet at the same time. Teenagers are on a mission toward that adulthood in the distance; they just need help navigating the path. You can’t take the steps for them, but you can help make the way clearer. It’s important to their development that they navigate this journey well and on their own, supported by you.
Detours at this age have long-range consequences. Closing the bedroom door — either as the teen or as the parent — on the problem isn’t going to make it go away. As a parent, you need to be ready to assist, even if your teen insists he or she absolutely does not want your help. This isn’t meddling; it’s parenting.
Because teenagers see themselves differently and consequently see parents differently, your commitment to your teen’s future is more complicated. When he stubbed his toe on the sidewalk curb at four and a half, a kiss, a hug, and a cartoon Band-Aid did the trick. When he stubs his heart on his first romantic rejection, it’s a little more complicated. When she refused to like the outfit you picked out for her at five, you had others to choose from. When she refused to like herself at thirteen, it’s a little more complicated. When it became a contest of wills with him at eight, you could win and still get a hug at the end of the evening. When it’s a contest of wills at fifteen and there’s no way he’s prepared to give in to you at all, it’s a little more complicated. When she was ten and you wanted to spend time together, there was nothing she wanted to do more. When she’s sixteen and you want to spend time together and she just looks at you with shocked disbelief and adopts a when-hell-freezes-over expression, it’s a little more complicated.
Each phase of life has its own challenges. Parenting has never been for the weak-stomached (especially during the early years), the fainthearted, or the halfway committed. It can be tempting to take a backseat when you kid hits the teen years, figuring you’ve done the bulk of your work and you can just coast into his or her adulthood on all your previous parenting momentum. You’re older, more tired, and your less-than-active participation in their lives pretty much seems what teenagers want anyway. It’s tempting, yes, but don’t give in. You’re still the parent; you’re still the adult, and you still have work to do. Even if it doesn’t seem that way, your teenager desperately longs to be connected to you. He or she needs (notice I didn’t say wants) your acceptance, acknowledgement, and approval. No matter how much they argue to the contrary, teenagers — including yours — do not have life figured out yet. They don’t need you to live their lives for them, but they do need your guidance and your support, even when that’s the furthest thing from their minds and hearts.
And when that roller coaster goes off track, teenagers need someone to notice and take immediate steps to get things on the right path. Partnering together with your teenager to successfully navigate adolescence is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. It also has the outrageous potential to be the most rewarding.
Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 35 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.