Sixteen years later nothing has changed. My confident, strong teenager can still stop me in my tracks with one of his smiles. I am still wanting to protect him. I am still hovering outside of reach, but always ready, just in case. I allow him to learn his own lessons. I allow him to make mistakes and discover his victories.
In the process, I am also learning, and making my own set of mistakes.
Here are my five lessons for parenting a teenager (so far):
1. Stay on top of technology
Teens are usually the first adopters of new technology and new social media platforms. While you may not hear your kids talking on the phone late at night, it doesn’t mean they aren’t chatting. From texting to Twitter to Snapchat and Skype, teenagers are just as (if not more) communicative as we were growing up with only our house phones. They are just more stealth in their conversations. This is why we have to make an effort to learn what they are using and join their networks. Friend and follow their friends. Read their Instagram comments. Check in on their tweets. Who are they following? What are they sharing? What apps are they downloading on their phones? Make sure you know their passwords and occasionally ask to see their texts. As my son has gotten older, I have felt less of a need to monitor his private text messages. But he knows I have the right to ask. Perhaps even more important: I have always shown an interest in what he is using, so now he shares the latest fun apps without me even asking. He is the one who introduced me to SoundCloud and Instacollage. He taught me how to create Vines and explained the purpose of creating a story in Snapchat. Staying on top of technology is a way for me to keep up with him, but it is also a way for us to connect over common interests.
2. Help them find a passion
A teenager who is engaged in an extracurricular pursuit, whether it be with athletics, music, art, acting, student government, youth group, volunteering or even working part-time will be less likely to get into trouble. This doesn’t mean you have to overbook them or force them to participate in something they hate (or outgrow). This also doesn’t mean your teen can’t or won’t make mistakes just because they play the violin or participate in soccer. But a teenager with accountability to not only you, but to teachers/coaches/teammates/employers is less likely to drift. For my son, sports is his anchor. His motivation to work out, excel in school and focus on specific colleges has always in some way been driven by his passion for sports. I am grateful for this, even if it does place pressure on all of us to keep up with demanding schedules. My wish for all of my children is to find that one thing that drives them. Helping my kids find their passion is just as important as anything else I can do for them. It will set them up for success and teach them that there is more to life than academics, report cards and standardized testing.
3. Get to know their friends
Giving your teenager space and freedom doesn’t mean you lose track of who they are spending time with. Open your home and invite their friends in as much as possible. Ask questions and try to remember names. Pay attention if someone isn’t coming around anymore. The social dynamics of teens change so much that their group of friends will fluctuate many times. This is normal. But you can ask why. Was there a falling out? Is someone getting into trouble? Is your child the reason for the changed relationship? My son isn’t always great at giving details or voluntarily sharing, so I am always asking him specific questions (usually in the car). Sometimes I am surprised by what he is willing to tell me. Sometimes he opens up when I least expect it and I get a glimpse into his world. With each year, I have to adjust to his shift in priorities. I have to accept, understand and remember what it was like for me as a teenager. But I also have to make sure he knows my expectations. I don’t want him to get so lost in that world that he forgets the importance of spending time with family or putting his own interests and needs above those of his friends.
4. Force family time
My son is the oldest of four children, with the next oldest being seven years his junior. This means our family outings are often geared toward the younger ones. As you can imagine, he doesn’t always want to go with us. So I have learned when to force family time and when it’s okay for him to do something else. I want him to prioritize his family, but I also don’t think it’s fair to drag him to every animated movie. So sometimes I let him retreat to his room and sometimes I make him play along because even though he is a growing teenager, he is still part of the family. Also, secretly I know that despite his protests, he still enjoys himself. When we went to Disney World over winter break, I knew it wasn’t how he wanted to spend his time off of school, but even he wasn’t immune to the magic of Disney. Family time is important for children of all ages, even if you have to occasionally force it on them.
5. Learn to let go
As our teens grow and change, we have to grow and change with them. We have to allow our children to take on more responsibility and make decisions for themselves. We have to allow them to earn our trust as well as their increasing freedom. We have to be open to saying yes, which means learning to let go and taking a step back. I struggle with this every day. My son will soon get his driver’s license and one of the hardest things I have ever done was to sit in the passenger seat while he learned to drive. I had to have faith in his ability to learn. I had to trust that he would be okay. I had to let go and allow him to be in control. I still don’t know what I will do the day he drives off in the car without a parent. But I know this is part of the process of what it means to raise a child into a teen and then eventually into an adult.
We have to allow our children to fall once in a while because that is what growing up is about. They learn just as much from their mistakes as they do from their successes. They are not always going to get everything right, but then again neither are we. With the right amount of support, guidance and forgiveness, our teens can transform into amazingly independent and productive adults, while we stand ready to help, just in case.
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