When my children were little, I always imagined their teen years would be fraught and challenging. Why was this? Probably because that’s all I heard from acquaintances and neighbors. Everyone had a story to tell.
The reality is more nuanced. My kids have not changed fundamentally from who they were as tots.
“People always talk about what’s annoying or troublesome,” said Ken Ginsburg, a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “We can psych ourselves out and it can hurt our relationship with our kids.”
Ginsburg is a co-author of “Letting Go with Love and Confidence.” I recently spoke with him by phone about fostering independence in teenagers. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Kogan: What should our goals be in raising a successful, happy teenager?
Ginsburg: It’s too easy to just focus on their happiness. Think about raising a kid who will be a happy 35-year-old: an adult who will be content with what they do, thrilled about their contribution, be hardworking, have social/emotional intelligence, and a collaborative spirit.
Kogan: What can parents do to better ensure this?
Ginsburg: We need to support the fundamental questions of adolescence, which are: “Who am I?” and “Am I normal?” We can help them develop their independence one step at a time under our watchful eye.
Kogan: What about when a teenager pushes you away?
Ginsburg: Pulling away during adolescence is normal. When teens push away, it’s not because they don’t love you, it’s because they love you so much. You want your kids to understand that you have their back and that your goal is to let them fly. Your child might be sending explosive messages about being “ready” to be on his own. But the truth is that just as you have ambivalence about him leaving, he has strongly conflicted feelings about going.
Kogan: What are some practical steps to navigate the different stages of independence a teen may go through?
Ginsburg: You can start by doing some observing. Think back to when you baby-proofed your home. If you just guessed what needed safeguarding, you might have missed some opportunities to protect your baby. The first step was to walk around on your knees and see the surroundings at the same level as your toddler. Once you saw the world from his vantage point, you knew to turn that pot handle inward. That same sort of observing — getting a “kid’s eye view” of the mall or the route to school — will heighten your senses about the challenges your teen is likely to encounter.
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According to Ginsburg, teens who feel controlled can rebel in adolescence and may seek lives separate from their parents as adults. Ultimately, parents want to have a relationship with their kids that is interdependent and that lasts a lifetime.
Ginsburg says the trick is to know when to give your teen a little bit of rope and when to tighten it. He suggests the following steps for parents:
1. Consider your teen’s temperament and unique developmental needs.
2. Listen respectfully to what your adolescent thinks she can handle and ask what guidance or support she seeks.
3. Invite her to develop a plan with you.
4. Generate a map of each step that needs to be mastered to gain the skills and confidence that will prepare her to meet the overall challenge.
5. Help her understand that she will continue to gain more independence and privileges as long as she continues to demonstrate responsibility. When she knows that your goal is to help her achieve her goal, she’ll be much less likely to complain that you are monitoring the process.
For more information and practical strategies for teens and parents, check out Ginsburg’s Web site, www.fosteringresilience.com.
Jennifer Kogan is a clinical social worker in Northwest Washington who works with parents