The goal of parenting a teenager: to help the child mature into a responsible, happy, successful adult.
Even parents who consciously keep this goal in mind often have an awful time dealing with teen emotion, rebellion, risk-taking and substance abuse. Things can go south very quickly, with immediate and long-term consequences. The bridge of communication between parent and child can start to crumble, with parents at a loss as to what to do. The parental pain is so acute and enduring that dozens of books have been written to help.
But to my knowledge none of these books acknowledges the biggest mistake that parents make with teens.
In ancient, primitive times, adults in a community were keenly aware of when a child reached puberty. They were looking for it, waiting for it. It was of paramount importance to them. They considered it “coming of age,” a passage from childhood to adulthood. Tribes expected young people to endure a “rite of passage” to prove that they had the attributes needed by the adult community. Only then would they be accepted into the adult world. These tests weren’t academic. They were typically painful, dangerous and grueling, requiring the kind of courage, composure, endurance and resourcefulness adults felt were needed to carry out their responsibilities.
A key element: those who passed the test were no longer considered children. After proving themselves worthy, they were accepted into the adult community, and the passage from child to adult was celebrated.
Today we no longer make a big deal out of puberty or require young people to prove they’re ready to start the journey towards adulthood. Perhaps the closest approximation we have is when a high school graduate joins the service and survives boot camp. Or the bizarre college fraternity hazing rituals or gang initiations. Or the elaborate formal coming out balls for daughters of well-to-do families. Or bar mitzvahs. Or weddings.
These cultural practices are diminished remnants of the ancient “rite of passage.” Most of them do little to help a young person pass from childhood to adulthood. Or they take place several years after puberty, so young people continue to be thought of as children long after they could have put childish things behind them.
The consequence: most adults don’t even notice when a child reaches puberty. So there’s nothing in the culture to formally acknowledge that this life event signifies that a young person needs to join the adult community and begin taking on adult responsibilities. What happens instead is that a mother will take her daughter to the drug store, buy her sanitary products and tell her, “Goodness, you’re a big girl now.” With most boys…nothing.
So the years go by. A preteen turns 13 and maybe there’s a party. A kid reaches the age of 16, gets a driver’s license and is allowed to drive the family car. After the 18th birthday, the child is no longer legally a minor and can vote, though rarely is this status adequately explained to a child. At the age of 21, a person is legally allowed to purchase and consume alcohol. But all the while, there’s no overt acknowledgment that these young people aren’t kids anymore. Most parents still talk to their teens the same way they did when they were little kids. They don’t consider their teens to be novice adults, so there is no adult-adult level communication. A child can leave home, go to college or enter the service, and most parents will still be dealing with them on a parent-child level. Or worse, they don’t leave home and continue to act like adolescents.
I don’t say this to put shame or blame on parents. They swim in the sea of their culture, and the culture has lost this aspect of requiring young people to start acting like adults. And dealing with young people on an adult-adult level requires as shift from a parent-child approach to communication to an adult-adult approach; and I’ve never met a parent who had the right communication skills to do this. Their parents weren’t skilled communicators, so these skills weren’t taught at home. And they weren’t taught in schools. They weren’t taught anywhere. Today, many large organizations have recognized that these skill deficits weaken leadership, team effort and productivity, and they’ve invested in “people skills” training.
What are these skills? Well, there are dozens of people skills. But to keep it simple, I believe these five are crucial for a parent to establish an adult-adult relationship with a teen:
- Listen actively
- Encourage your child to think
- Help your child learn from experience
- Engage your child in dialogue
- Resolve conflicts together creatively
It’s important to start dealing with a child on an adult-adult level early, because it takes several years to grow into adulthood. Before puberty may be too soon. But with the physical changes that come with puberty, a child will be ready. A child will understand, welcome and benefit from being treated this way.
These five skills have the added benefit of stimulating the development of the child’s prefrontal cortex, which is in a sensitive period of basic development throughout adolescence.
What’s a parent to do? For one thing, these days I’m busy writing a book to address this need. Also, I’ve created an online coaching system called Strong for Parenting, which helps parents learn these and other adult-adult communication skills.
Meanwhile, parents everywhere are oblivious that anything monumental is happening when their child reaches puberty. Little in the relationship changes. They still communicate with the child the same way they did before puberty. The difference is that this approach no longer works.
Teenagers know they aren’t little kids anymore. They know they’re on a path to adulthood, and they hate it that their parents and most other adults still treat them like children. This makes them angry, emotional, and rebellious as they tune out and turn to experimenting with sex, drugs and other risk-taking behavior. None of this helps them mature into responsible, happy, successful adults. And the immediate and the long-term consequences pile up.