Years ago, when my children were young and I was frustrated with them at a park, an older mother of teens said to me dismissively: “Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems.”
I have a request: don’t be that parent!
First, it doesn’t help the parent of young children. Second, each family is unique and may or may not experience more problems during the teen years, or “teenhood.” Third, such statements contribute to the unfair mythology about teenagers that Kenneth Ginsburg outlines in his new book, Congrats —You’re Having a Teen! Strengthen Your Family and Raise a Good Person.
Ginsburg laments that so many books about how to raise a good teen are pitched as “survival guides.” This combination of dour books and “uninvited ‘wisdom’ offered from bystanders” means “far too many parents approach these years with dread,” he writes. In turn, “too many adolescents learn their stage of life is worthy of an eye roll and, worse yet, that they are disappointing their parents just by growing — a process they couldn’t stop if they wanted to.”
While Ginsburg acknowledges that parenting a teen can be challenging, he provides three ways for parents to approach their children’s teenhood with a healthier mindset:
1. Teenhood: Simply another stage of development
In many ways, teenhood is like toddlerhood. It’s a natural phase of child development in which the words “no” and “why?” return. But while toddlers test our patience, we tend to understand their antics as part of their development. So why don’t we apply the same understanding to our teens?
As Ginsburg explains, “It is an active decision — and one that preserves our relationships — to choose to place certain challenging aspects of our parent-teen relationships in the context of development.” For example, moodiness is part of a teen’s development of empathy and sensitivity. Challenging authority is “a critical step in their control over choices.” Their occasional rejection of their parents is also part of their growing independence and, as much as possible, should not be taken personally.
2. Parent teens with a long view
Parents should remember their children will be adults for far longer than they are teens. Ginsburg states: “When you are caught in the moments of parenting, it is easy to forget that you will eventually have an adult-adult relationship with your child for longer than you have an adult-child relationship with your teen.” So you want to focus more on values and personal qualities than on individual performances and grades.
He recommends parenting for the type of “35-year-old” you envision your child to become or for the “second job” your young adult might apply for in the future. As he explains, “once you realize you’re raising your teen to have the skill sets needed to land that second job, you’ll let out a deep breath of relief and begin parenting about the things you care about: social and collaborative skills. Love of learning. Curiosity.”
3. Express unconditional love for your teen
Even though teens can behave in ways that make parents wince, it’s important for parents to believe in their children’s “best selves.” Ginsburg explains that “when young people become more adult-sized, we stop appreciating the miracles of development or mistakenly believe teens need our feedback less.” But he recommends parents “continue to see their strengths” and notice acts of kindness and idealism.
One way for teens to nurture their “best selves” is through volunteering opportunities. Ginsburg notes that “adolescents who learn that they can make a difference in others’ lives or in the well-being of their communities gain a motivating sense of purpose. They receive reinforcing thank-yous instead of the low expectations too many teens endure. As they experience how good it feels to give, they’ll have less shame when they need to receive, because they’ll have learned that the giver does so not out of pity but out of purpose.”
Late in his book, Ginsburg highlights the two-way nature of teen development. As parents nurture their teens’ growth, the parents continue to grow as well, which can be deeply satisfying for everyone involved. He notes: “Teens want to know they are adding to your life. If you focus only on grades and good behaviors, then many teens apply too much pressure on themselves to fit into a mold of your making. When, on the other hand, you genuinely cherish watching them develop their interests and hone their values, they’ll know they please you by being their best selves. When you appreciate their sense of wonder and the rapid pace at which they are learning, you can allow them to be your teacher. They will relish knowing they are contributing to your growth.”
In other words, “big kids, big development” for the whole family.