When kids become older, they crave independence. Parents ask themselves where they can pull back and let go. As a parenting coach, parents come to me asking how they can navigate this next phase—the illusive tween and teen years. Early childhood years, though exhausting, feel easier in knowing we need to be involved in all aspects of their development.
Parents will ask, “How can I help my teen know the importance of their choices so they can avoid making mistakes?” My answer is always the same. Instead of asking, “How can I help my teen so they don’t make mistakes?” ask, “How can I create a space so they will come to me when they make a mistake?”
Teens will gravitate toward their social circle. So much of their identity lies in how they’re perceived among their social group. We need to provide them with a safety net, a space they can come to when things feel overwhelming.
Here is my advice to parents about ways to navigate the uncertain terrain of peer pressure and the teenage years.
Avoid using fear-based tactics
Though it’s tempting, using excessive fear to deter your kids from engaging in undesirable behaviors won’t yield long-term success. An example of a fear-based tactic is when you pair an unreasonable consequence with a particular behavior. For instance, “If I catch you doing this, I’ll take away your phone for good.”
The problem with using fear is it prevents your teens from coming to you with questions when they’re feeling overwhelmed, desperately needing somewhere to turn. When we resort to fear-based tactics, it’s more about our fear—the fears we have about our kids becoming independent. How will they navigate this world without our constant input? We fear losing them to social circles we disapprove of. Watching our kids spread their wings, while beautiful, also brings our insecurities to the surface. As a result, they sense your fear, and they resist coming to you.
Use storytelling to connect
As a parent, I have used storytelling in all phases of development because it is an effective and powerful tool. With teens, start by telling them what your experience was like when you were their age. How did you feel when you weren’t comfortable going against the grain or saying no to something everyone else was doing? What mistakes did you make? How did you recover?
Once you share your story, impart the lessons you learned. What were your takeaways? What impact did the experience have on you? Give your teens the chance to ask questions. In some cases, if your story doesn’t have moments where you experienced peer pressure, talk about someone you knew who went through it.
Two powerful things happen when we use storytelling. One is that you connect with your teens, who can feel seen through this process, and see you as an ally rather than someone to fear. The second point is it allows you to share solutions to the problem or ways to work around it. Instead of giving cold directives with severe penalties, you share feasible and successful ways for your teen to navigate his challenge.
Get ahead of it
Once you have an opportunity to share your experience, talk about your expectations as they embark on the school year. Explain why they can or cannot engage in certain behaviors. Stay open to their questions. Don’t get annoyed or frustrated if there’s pushback. Teens love to argue. It doesn’t mean rules shouldn’t exist. Hold your boundary, and explain where you’re coming from. And then leave it alone.
When you discuss your rules, let them know that they can come to you no matter what. I have seen too many teens get into trouble because they fear telling their parents that they did something wrong. They were terrified of disappointing them. Remember, their brain is still developing. Couple that with the fact they haven’t had enough life experiences to make sound decisions consistently, and you have the perfect breeding ground for poor choices.
Teens love to argue. It doesn’t mean rules shouldn’t exist. Hold your boundary, and explain where you’re coming from. And then leave it alone.
We can guide them down a better path by keeping the dialogue open, clearly sharing rules and how to work through specific challenges. It’s easy to become impatient with teens because our expectations change as they get older. That’s fair, but keep in mind they still need patience, and they’re still learning.
Give your teens “a person”
Through the teenage years, no matter how much you try, your teens might not always want to come to you. You’re still mom and dad at the end of the day. Designate one or two adults who you trust and make them the go-to person. This means if they don’t want to come to you or their dad about something, they could go to “their person.” This person will provide a loving space for them and also guide them in a safe direction. The only way this works is if you, the parent, stay out of it. You might feel tempted to interfere but don’t. Let that be a trusted space for your child, and know they’re in good hands.
Structure this space, so your teen knows that “their person” is there and ready for them whenever they need them. This way, they won’t feel uncomfortable reaching out to them in a moment of need.
Create safe spaces
Create the space for them to thrive. As parents of teens, my husband and I decided we wanted to create the space for them to grow and learn. This means we let them fail, and we’re there to help them recover. We don’t always provide a solution. Instead, we ask questions. We also set boundaries, give consequences, and make sure we follow through.
And what’s best is this: When they haven’t put their best foot forward, we have always been their first phone call, saying, “Hey, I need you. Can you come and get me?” That’s the win for us. They know we will always be there for them.
Do we always get it right? No. But we keep showing up and reminding ourselves that we, too, are growing and learning.
The teen years have so many beautiful moments that I cherish! Don’t let the fear of what could or might happen overshadow the good stuff. Because, like all phases in parenting, this too shall pass.