I often hear from parents upset because their teen or pre-teen has suddenly developed a whole new personality, complete with teen “attitude” and cynicism. The vast majority of the time, those changes are developmentally normal and temporary. If we just wait, our kids will eventually grow up and revert to their old selves. Or, as I often tell friends, the aliens will return their brains.
That wait can seem like forever, though, and sometimes the personalities are dangerous. Here are some techniques that I’ve learned over years of parenting teenagers that have helped reduce stress in our relationships.
• Teens Learn by Trial and Error
One thing we adults often forget is that teenagers figure out their personalities by trying out different ones until they find one that they like. Think of the personalities as costumes — teens try on personalities the way toddlers try on superhero costumes. (In fact, the Montessori method posits a lot of developmental similarities between teens and toddlers.) Most of the time, the external changes are temporary and we can wait them out.
Some changes, of course, have long-term consequences that the teen doesn’t see. It’s simply not safe for a child to go through a drug-dealer phase, for example. It’s our job as parents who can think long-term to intervene in those instances. But we can only affect particular choices; we can’t stop the trial and error process.
• Don’t Sweat Temporary Changes
Don’t worry about changes that are temporary. Every teen that I’ve ever parented, for example, has experimented with hairstyles. I’ve never worried about those decisions. Hair will grow back and everyone has an absolute right to decide what pictures people will laugh at 20 years from now. Clothes styles and piercings fall in the same category. Whatever they decide probably will be temporary, and even if it’s permanent, none of those decisions is unsafe.
Tattoos, on the other hand, are more permanent, and I never allowed them. That’s a decision they could make when they were adults. Tattoos are not unsafe, but they are a choice that a child might regret later. That decision needs to be one they can blame on their adult selves, not the teenager who was my responsibility.
Experiments that have long-term consequences fall into the “not temporary” category. Breaking the law, for example, carries consequences that teenagers simply cannot comprehend. They focus on their short-term goals and simply don’t have the brain capacity to understand long-term problems. Bad driving, sexual promiscuity, and substance abuse all fall into this category. In those cases, we have no choice but to intervene and get whatever professional help we can to help our kids change their choices.
Short of that line of safety, however, we should just let kids experiment. It’s how they learn. Even if their choices have negative consequences, it’s better for them to see those problems now (while we can help pick up the pieces) rather than later when they are on their own.
• Don’t Raise the Stakes
Another characteristic of teenagers is that they challenge authority. Sometimes, all it takes for them to decide on an identity is for us to say that we don’t like it. That opposition becomes its own reason for teenagers to follow a given path. The more we can tamp down our emotions and withhold judgment, the better chance we have of seeing our kids discard an identity that is counterproductive.
Of course, withholding judgment doesn’t mean that we have to keep quiet. We can learn supportive ways to help kids analyze their choices. Reinforcing that we care about them, and that they have the ability to make their own decisions, is a necessary foundation for any such conversation. Our kids need us to help them navigate these decisions. It’s our job to find a way to do that.
• Unconditional Love Means No Conditions
At the end of the day, our kids have to know that we love them no matter what decisions they make. Of course, unconditional love does not prevent us from disagreeing with their choices or pointing out the pitfalls ahead of them. In fact, love often requires us to have those difficult conversations. Healthy relationships require healthy boundaries. But our children need to know that, even when we cannot agree with or enable their decisions, we still love and care about them.
Teens and pre-teens will go through phases that look strange to us. We have to keep them safe, but short of that line, we need to give them room to find themselves. We have to find ways to listen to them, talk to them, warn them about their future, and above all love them unconditionally.
What ways have you found to navigate this search for identity? Email me and I’ll include your thoughts in a future blog post.