Teens: Rocky road ahead?

boy-379657_1280In a meeting with a new contact this week, I discovered in casual conversation he was a new parent. For a few minutes we chatted about this, and I was impressed at the relaxed and confident approach he was taking to parenting. Then he asked me if I had any kids. When I answered I had two young teens, he blew out with a low whistle, leant forward and asked with concern, “How’s that going?”

If there’s one debilitating myth I’ve discovered over the years whilst talking in parks, at school events and everywhere in between, it’s this: parenting youth is a guaranteed disaster zone. The number of mums or dads who’re fully expecting to lose their children in a whirlwind of trouble never ceases to amaze me.

I worked in the field with youth for 13 years. I looked and listened a lot. I also made a point of watching good parents at work around me, figuring it might come in handy should I ever have kids of my own! I’m glad I did. Here’s what I learned: the common perception is wrong.

Not every kid necessarily turns 11, 12 or 13 and suddenly loses control. Having a teenager is not a guaranteed sign of a rocky road ahead. In fact, if you want me to break it down, I reckon it goes like this: About a third of kids – maybe three in ten, go right through their teen years without a hitch. The next four of every ten hit a few bumps but things sort out and they do ok. It’s only the final three young people who seem to get stuck, and even some of them make it back onto the highway over time.

That’s pretty good odds I reckon, especially when there’s things you can do to increase their chances of successfully steering through this stage. It certainly beats media implications that all parents are doomed to lose their darlings to the rocky road of youthful adventuring! Here are three things I’ve made a priority as my two have headed this direction. They’re doing ok now – although there’s no guarantees til it’s over!

Priorities for parents approaching the teen stage:

1.Stay ahead of the game.

This attitude acknowledges I’m the adult here. I have a lot of life experience on my side; including making a range of interesting mistakes myself once! I don’t have to be threatened by that – heck, it gives me insights which could be useful. You had a rocky road too? Use it to your advantage!

If I don’t want the ties with my kids severed, there’s also stuff I can do to limit the chances of that happening. Making a point of being buddies with them from seven or eight upwards is a start. Most parents who have trouble (there are always exceptions) don’t have a strong relationship well before any trouble sets in.

Also, there’s nothing stopping you jumping on the web and doing some research into any interests your kid’s developing. Getting information is easier these days than ever before! Avoid being passive.

2.Set positive expectations

On a few occasions I’ve been with my two where some youth have behaved less than ideally. In such situations I’ve made a conscious effort to neither condemn “all stupid teenagers” nor condone ridiculous behaviour. I’ve avoided drawing a line and making a ‘them and us’ competition. I’ve wondered (out loud) if in actual fact the behaviour was bringing the desired results…

At the same time, whenever I see an excellent parent-teen interaction or behaviour, I affirm it. My kids know what I think’s possible! Summary: Ignore or challenge unwanted behaviours through observation; direct expectations to the good examples you see.

3.Control the strings positively

At this stage your kids are moving towards independence – at least, they should be. And you should be helping it. A study by RMIT revealed that most parents think their darlings are ready for new freedoms on average a year and a half after the kids do! Be aware of the coming stages and pre-empt them. Your kids aren’t going to want to hang with you at the shops soon? Start releasing them on little errands now.  “Can you just run ahead and grab the paper? Here’s $10, go and buy your lunch, I’ll sit here. We’ve got to buy a present for X, can you check out (these three shops) and give me your recommendations?” As they manage each skill, give them more. Given many of the rocky road experiences come from being given too much freedom in one go, you’re training them to succeed – and they probably won’t even know it! This applies to everything from choosing their clothes and food to going to parties with friends.

As you extend their capacities, make sure you let them experience the consequences of less than ideal outcomes. My kids have an annual clothes budget. They’ve run out early before. I don’t bail them out. Consequences are an excellent teacher. With freedom comes responsibility. Give one without the other at your own risk. Debrief the awkward near misses too – the times your kids feel stretched are great times to ponder what might have caused a better outcome.

Should you find yourself bumping around on the ride along this rocky road, stay calm and do what you can. Ultimately your baby becomes an adult – and adults make their own decisions. But a rational parent in the passenger seat can still have some saving influence. Keep your seat belt fastened and don’t cut the relationship!