A month of tips on raising resilient, responsible teens
Part one of eight.
Excerpted from the new book Letting Go with Love and Confidence.
During infancy and early childhood, there are a lot of "What" questions that you can look up in a child care book. What are those red spots? What should I do for a fever? What about teething and toilet training?
But as adolescence approaches, parents grapple with different sorts of questions—questions that revolve around "When" and "How."
When is my daughter ready to walk to school by herself?
When is she mature enough to go to the mall with friends?
When is my son ready for a cell phone?
When and how do I talk to him about sex?
Unlike "what to do for a rash or fever," the answers to "When" and "How" aren't easily reduced to alphabetized entries in a reference book. Dealing with the Whens and Hows can be confusing and even frightening for parents because we instinctively want to protect our children from anything that could hurt them or make them sad.
From the time of birth, parents are repeatedly urged to draw their children close. But the Whens and Hows are aimed at a different parenting goal: learning to let go.
The words in our book title, "Letting Go," imply that you're giving up something valuable, but you are giving a lifelong gift when you allow your adolescent to learn to thrive on his own. The start of a new school year is a good time to think about your child's need for growing responsibility and independence and how you are responding to it.
It might be easier if confronting the Whens and Hows was as simple as checking your datebook. But the answer to When? isn't about marking a certain age — it's about recognizing when there are enough pieces in place so the chances for a positive outcome are enhanced.
It's everyday issues, even seemingly mundane ones, that trigger most parent-child struggles. Your child thinks she should be allowed a new privilege just because she's a certain age or because her friends are doing it. If you focus on preparing your adolescent for scenarios sure to arise, you will turn potential sources of conflict and rebellion into opportunities for your child to master new skills and demonstrate responsibility.
A request by your 14-year-old to spend the afternoon at the mall won't have to hinge on answering on the spot "Is she old enough?" if you've taught her, in part through your example, about spending wisely and treating clerks with respect. The day your teen begins to drive won't be quite so nerve-racking if you've made a habit of modeling safe driving behavior and made it clear that you will monitor your teen's progress even after he gets his license.
Certain subjects cause parents great discomfort not only because the topics are tough to talk about with kids, but because the stakes in getting the conversation right seem so high. How in the world do you talk about success or peer pressure?
In today's sound-bite world, we're conditioned to think that everything requires a quick, clever response. But you need to think of the Hows as ongoing conversations with your child.
Sex is a perfect example. You won't have to fret over How to deliver The Big Sex Talk if you begin years before to talk in developmentally appropriate language about sexuality— meaning love, respect, and relationships. By setting the stage over time for issues that matter, you're more apt to have effective communication throughout the many permutations of letting go that lie ahead.
Don't forget about you
Acknowledging that your child is "ready" is part of successfully letting go. So, too, is understanding your own feelings so that they don't end up interfering in the work you have to do to launch your child.
Letting go is hard stuff for parents because there's a deep emotional issue at play. Helping our children move toward a self-sufficient adulthood is every parent's goal, but in accomplishing it we are planning ourselves out of a job that gives us tremendous joy.
As you start down the road of letting go, take stock of yourself. Are you ready to loosen the reins? Are you ready to set a precedent or tackle a sensitive topic? Are you ready to accept that Letting Go is an act of love?
If you get stuck on the idea that your life is going to be empty without your child, it will get in the way of making decisions that allow your teen to become a well-adjusted adult. On the other hand, if you overreact to the signals your teen sends about being "ready" (perhaps he caustically reminds you that "I'm so outta here"), you might unwisely abandon your vital monitoring role.
In truth, many of the Whens and Hows are bound to put teens in some degree of conflict with parents. The essential question that must be answered by every adolescent is "Who am I?" Part of the answer has to be, "I am not my parents," which is why adolescents rebel to test their own limits and pretend they aren't listening to you, even when they are.
You can't prevent the emotional jolts that are a normal part of an adolescent's breaking away, but by preparing both your child and yourself for all that's involved in moving toward independence, letting go won't seem so formidable or so final.
Discussion Points: In what ways has your child's need for growing independence challenged you? How do you promote responsibility and self sufficiency in your child?
—Excerpted with permission from Letting Go with Love and Confidence: Raising Responsible, Resilient, Self-Sufficient Teens in the 21st Century (Avery, 2011).
Over the next month, NewsWorks will present a series of eight excerpts from the new book, Letting Go with Love and Confidence. Here is a schedule for the rest of the series.
When is my child ready:
- To get a cell phone? Monday, Sept. 12
- Go to sleepovers? Thursday, Sept. 15
- Manage money? Monday, Sept. 19
- Go to the mall? Thursday, Sept. 22
- Stay out late or stretch a curfew? Monday, Sept. 26
How do I talk about:
- Success? Thursday, Sept. 29
- Sex? Monday, Oct. 3
During the month, the authors will also conduct several Web chats on NewsWorks.org. Check back for more information on dates and times.
Kenneth Ginsburg, M.D., M.S.Ed., is a pediatrician and researcher specializing in adolescent medicine at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Regularly voted a "Top Doc" by Philadelphia magazine, he also serves homeless and marginalized youth as the Director of Health Services at Covenant House Pennsylvania. He talks around the country on the importance of cultivating resilience in children so that they can thrive in a complex world. He is an advisor to the U.S. military, providing strategies to help families cope with a loved one's deployment. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two teenage daughters.
Susan FitzGerald is an award-winning journalist with a specialty in children's health issues. A former staff writer and editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer, she now works as an independent writer and editor and teaches health writing in the graduate Writing Studies Program at St. Joseph's University. She and her husband have three sons.