A few weeks ago, I called my son Jack for advice.
I’d been invited to California to speak to parents of teenagers, and I was just starting to think about what I could say that might actually be of practical use, especially to parents whose kids are giving them cause to worry. It occurred to me that the best person to consult was my own son, whose challenging adolescence is still fresh and raw in my memory. (I imagine it’s pretty vivid in his memory as well.)
At twenty-four, Jack is sober, self-sufficient, and making a difference in the world. Working full-time as a mentor in a residential treatment center for troubled teenaged girls, he’s been able to transform his own youthful experiences with addiction and recovery into a gift to others who are struggling. Had he not walked this walk himself, he couldn’t extend his hand so whole-heartedly to the young people in his care now. He’s received extensive training on the job, first during a year-long stint as wilderness-therapy counselor and, for the last seven months, as a team member at this therapeutic facility in North Carolina.
But I think he’d agree that his effectiveness at work is as much a product of his own first-hand knowledge as it is a result of his training. In fact, it’s both, in combination with his innate curiosity, his sense of humor, his gift for listening deeply, and his calm demeanor, even when things get tense and crazy. Jack isn’t attached to being right and he doesn’t get flustered, the way we parents so often do. Yet when he speaks of the young women with whom he works, I hear the pride in his voice, especially as he describes moments of growth and change and healing. I couldn’t be prouder of him.
And as it turned out, Jack really was the perfect person for me to call. “I figured you might have some thoughts about how parents can stay connected to their teenagers,” I said. “I do,” he replied. “Every single girl I work with has some kind of conflict with her parents. I think about these kinds of things all the time.”
So I grabbed a pen and a pad of paper. And for the next hour and a half, I scribbled pages of notes. Over the next few days, I sorted through everything he’d said and shaped the hasty notes into complete sentences, combining his words with some of my own. Then I typed it all up under a few simple headings and sent the results to Jack to approve. He wrote back, “Wow, just read over your summary. You put it very eloquently.”
That long, remarkably forthright conversation with my son is one I’ll always remember. I treasured every minute of it and was fascinated by his perspective and insight – both into his own adolescent self and into the dilemmas most of us parents confront. I’m glad he feels I’ve captured the gist of what he said. And I actually learned some things I can still put to good use, even as the mother of two young men who are grown up now and living their own adult lives elsewhere.
If you still have children at home, then perhaps these suggestions from a young man who was himself a struggling kid not all that long ago will help you, too. And so, I share them here, parenting advice from a son who survived his teens despite hitting some hard bumps along the way, along with a few additional thoughts from a mom who spent plenty of sleepless nights staring at the ceiling worrying about what the next day might bring.
I asked Jack, before we hung up, if there was anything I could have done that would have made things better for him, or might have helped us avoid all the trouble we endured through those years. “No,” he said, after thinking it over for a while. “I really think I just had to live through it.” We talked a bit about forgiveness, too, and decided we were on the same page about that: there isn’t really anything to forgive on either side. Each of us did the best we could at the time, working with what we knew, and with what we had, and with who we were. In the end, things worked out.
And perhaps the great irony is that we are both, at this vantage point, grateful for experiences we would have given just about anything to avoid. Neither of us would trade the hard-won gifts of those struggles for some easier, less circuitous path. As Andrew Solomon so wisely points out in his masterful work Far from the Tree, “Life is enriched by difficulty; love is made more acute when it requires exertion.” That said, I wish I’d known then what I know now. So, in that spirit, I offer my son Jack’s thoughts about how parents might live in closer harmony with the complex, evolving, vulnerable adolescents who share their lives. (For ease of writing and reading, I alternate gender pronoun use. My own additions are in italics. )
Every kid is different. Your child is not a younger version of you. He’s not even a variation on a family theme. He is a unique combination of nature and nurture. He is one part happenstance and one part destiny. He’s the astonishing result of one egg and one sperm conjoining at a fortuitous, random moment and forming new life – ie, a combination of genes never seen before and never again to be repeated.
Giving birth doesn’t constitute ownership. It means this unique individual has been entrusted to your care – for a while. Of course as a parent you’ll have more influence on your child than anyone else in his life. And yet, your task is not to shape him, but rather to allow your child to reveal himself to you.
So, pay attention, and start trying to figure out who he might be and what he needs in order to grow and thrive. Approach this challenge with wonder and curiosity. Talk less and listen more. Keep an open mind and an open heart. Recognize the complexity of your child’s nature, the depth of his soul, the mystery of his being here, now, in this home and with this particular family. And put your faith in the messy, miraculous, utterly unpredictable process of growing, unfolding, and becoming.
Ask, don’t tell.
Allow your child to find out the truth of herself for herself. The minute you tell your child what you assume to be true of her, or who you expect her to become, or what you believe she is or is not capable of doing, you deprive her of some of her own necessary, soul-searching exploration. The way you talk to your child becomes her inner voice for life, so choose your words with care.
When you assign her a label – sensitive, wild, artistic, procrastinator, insomniac, over-achiever, under-achiever, athlete, writer, loud-mouth, troublemaker, liar, truth-teller, introvert, extrovert, whatever – you are also assigning her the one-dimensional role she will forever be expected to play upon your family’s stage. This is the same role she will then carry with her into the wider world. Over the years, she will spend lots of unnecessary energy either rejecting that role or trying to live up to it. She’ll fight against it or strive to internalize it. Neither is desirable. A role doesn’t inspire your child’s healthy growth; it just diminishes her real identity.
Give her a name at birth. And then, resist every other impulse to call her anything. Every time you do, you are narrowing, rather than expanding her potential to surprise herself – and you. Instead, ask her what makes her heart soar. Ask her what scares her and what she values above all else. Ask her when she feels safe and what challenges her and who she loves and why. Let her be figure out who she is — in her own time and in her own way. Celebrate these discoveries along with her. Do what you can to keep her safe, and then abide quietly through the hard times, each of which has a lesson to offer. Honor your child’s unique, unpredictable, inevitably painful journey into selfhood.
As Joseph Campell says, “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” Give your child the gift of that privilege.
Seek connection rather than control.
It’s naïve to expect that you can raise your children without having them push you away at some point. Some push much harder than others. How you respond to your child’s pushes – and they may be hurtful, and violent, and shocking — will have a huge impact on the choices he makes down the road, and on what kind of future relationship the two of you have with each other.
Respect your teenager’s need for independence. He is engaged in the hard, necessary, uncomfortable work of developing an independent belief system — his own unique way of viewing the world and learning how to live in it, apart from you.
So, step back gracefully, but don’t step out. In the long run, your relationship will be stronger if you can shift the emphasis from trying to control his behavior to carving out opportunities for deeper connection and understanding. Try relating less to the surface of your child (the hairstyle, the clothes, the make-up, the piercing, the tattoo), and delve down a layer, to a place of real connection. Be his sounding board, not his instructor or his judge. Ask questions, rather than providing answers. Give up your vision of the way things are “supposed” to turn out, and have compassion for his struggle with the way things are: not perfect and not easy and not the way either of you imagined they would be.
Practice benign neglect. Take nothing he says or does personally; it’s not about you. Resist the urge to over-schedule, to over-manage, to over-see. Hold on to your own values, but let go of control. Instead of rules, work together to create agreements. Give him space to experiment, to flounder, to fail, to make mistakes and endure the real-life consequences. Within that space, cultivate trust, faith, and respect for each other. Within that space, lead by example rather than by delivering yet another lecture. Within that space be fully present. Within that space, stay awake, engaged, and quietly attentive. Your child’s job is to push back, and he will find a way to do it. Your job is to love him unconditionally, even while keeping clear boundaries about what’s acceptable and what is not.
Work on yourself, not on your child.
Let go of the ways you thought life and parenthood would unfold. Let go of your plans and dreams and expectations for your child. Let it all go. Save your strength for learning to swim with the tide. The choice to fight what is will result only in more struggle and distance. You can’t change your child. (Or anyone else, for that matter.)
But you can change yourself. You can change the way you respond to conflict and rejection and disappointment. You can practice mindfulness and steadiness and patience. You can learn the art of detaching with love. You can keep a sense of humor, and use it with kindness, to ease your way through a tough patch. You can take yourself a bit less seriously, and your child’s need for space more seriously. You can figure out how to meet your own needs for approval and fulfillment. Commit to a spiritual practice, to a physical practice, to a gratitude practice. Feed your soul, take care of your body, and reclaim your own purpose and passions. Model self-care and self-possession, rather than over-protectiveness, over-involvement, and fear.
Imperfect doesn’t mean unlovable – you know that, but your teenager isn’t so sure. Admit your own imperfections, and love yourself. Your child will notice and learn from your example.
Give your child the gift of failure.
It’s not your task to prepare the world for your child, but rather to help your child grow up to be ready to meet the world. Every time you swoop in to rescue your child, you ease the pain of the moment, but you also deprive her of an opportunity to grow. Heartache is part of growing up. Allow your child to feel the pain life inflicts on her, and to learn from it.
Resist the impulse to smooth the way and solve the problems. Your child needs to experience the trials and tribulations of being human. Every bump in the road is preparation for the much bigger challenges that await. And every time you affirm her resilience and competence by allowing her to stumble, fall, get up, and carry on, you are supporting her growth into an independent, self-confident adult.
Your teenager’s brain isn’t fully wired for adulthood, so she still needs help balancing her ideas and impulses with a rational understanding of cause and effect. Which means you need to find a balance between over-managing her life and allowing her too much freedom too soon.
Your great challenge is to keep providing boundaries and structure that will keep her safe until she’s matured enough to take full control, while still giving her room to experiment and learn her own hard lessons. Her great challenge is to survive, to learn resilience, to learn to trust herself and to love herself — flaws and imperfections and mistakes and all.
At every age and every stage, you are asked to let go a little more. You have to learn that love is always a good choice, but that love doesn’t guarantee your child a safe passage through life. The truth is, you can’t protect your children from accidents of fate or from hurt or from their own private demons. Somehow you must let them go anyway. You must let them go even as you realize that they may come to harm. Even as you know you can’t control their choices or their destinies. Sometimes you must let go even if it means becoming a witness and a bystander to a course that’s self-destructive.
(And here I would add my own mothering question, and an attempt at an answer: What will keep us going through those dark times? Our faith in the rightness of things as they are. Our capacity for unconditional love and forgiveness. Our ability to sustain our belief in our child’s best self. Our knowledge that the only life any of us can save is our own. And the belief that, when the time comes, our young adult child will stand strong and choose a life of meaning and purpose. And that every painful step along the way has been valuable preparation for the step that follows.)
Value effort over achievement. Value process rather than results.
Grades are stressful. The pressure to excel is stressful. The expectation to be special, to win, to stand out, to be the best, is stressful. And these stresses are felt more intensely and more internally by some kids than by others. Not every child’s worth is going to be accurately measured by academic success or athletic prowess or by some obvious talent. So parents have to work with each one of their children to help them develop meaningful definitions of success that fit their temperaments, their passions, their gifts and their challenges. How do you love your child just as he is and, at the same time, help him to become his best self?
You can start by valuing the process of learning rather than the visual evidence of achievement. Your child learns about himself by facing challenges and taking risks, not simply by getting A’s on report cards or by hitting home runs or getting the lead in the school play. Yet, parents put so much emphasis on the A, or the SAT score, or the college admission that they lose sight (and therefore teach their kids to lose sight) of the joy and value of the process itself, whether it’s reading a thousand-page novel or solving a math problem or playing a musical instrument or being a kind friend.
Pay close attention to what you praise. Don’t heap praise on the grade, or the score, or the artistic merit of the painting or the victory on the field. Instead, take time to recognize and honor the hours your child spent immersed in the pages of the book or drawing the tree outside the window, the effort expended working through the problem, the flow of getting lost in a piece of music and the focus required to get it right. Applaud the risk taken, the commitment made, the effort put in, rather than the outcome. Acknowledge the thoughtfulness extended to a friend or classmate. Celebrate the invisible and the intangible.
This takes practice! It means asking yourself moment to moment, What really matters here? The shiny, impressive result that the world can see? Or the quiet, private, unseen effort that went into the work itself? Validate that. Your child may not know how to thank you, but he will be grateful to you for really seeing him as a whole person, rather than as a collection of achievements or failures.
Take the long view. Look for progress, not perfection.
Some kids seem born with a clear sense of their own calling. Some find their paths only by stumbling down some very dark alleys.
Some arrive on the planet with a well-defined sense of responsibility, time management, and organization, while others can’t seem to make their beds, get an assignment done on time, or answer a text.
Some teenagers express their affection easily and will eagerly seek your companionship and approval. And others pull violently away, defy everything you stand for, act as if they don’t care what you think, and insist on defining themselves mainly by being in direct opposition to you.
And although you can say which kid is easier to live with, you can’t say which is better. It’s not even your place to judge. Every kid will wrestle with his or her own unique challenges. They are all finding their way. And you don’t have much to do with it. You can’t force a passion or a path. You can’t choose what your child will love or despise or choose to master. You don’t get to assign to your child the journey you never got to take for yourself, nor can you protect her from repeating the very same mistakes that tripped you up. All you can do is offer them different kinds of experiences, embody the values you believe in, let go of what you can’t control, and love them no matter what.
(And here I can admit: The biggest lesson for me? That I have had a very limited influence on the choices my two very different sons have made, what’s happened to them as a result, and who they’re turning out to be. So I would add that being an involved parent doesn’t mean that you run your child’s life, it means that you support and encourage their efforts to figure things out for themselves, every step of the way.
What I’ve learned over the years is to step back and see the big picture. I look for what IS working, and I give thanks for that. I choose my battles. I don’t sweat the small stuff. I remember where each of them came from, the unique challenges each of them arrived with at birth, how hard they’ve each worked to grow up, and how many obstacles they’ve each surmounted along the way. And even now, I marvel at who they are still becoming.)
Offer the gift of your attention.
Energy flows where attention goes. So, ask yourself, “Where is my attention right now?” One of the greatest gifts you can offer your child is your own willing, undivided attention – even for a few minutes a day. We are a nation of distracted, multi-tasking “do’ers” and driven, insatiable consumers – of social media, of stimulation, and of stuff. We are also addicted to our phones.
But we are losing the art of connecting face to face, heart to heart, in the here and now. Your teenager will be gone before you know it. There is no do-over. Hanging out may feel like a waste of time to you, but deep down your child will appreciate any time you spend that doesn’t come with an emotional agenda attached. It doesn’t mean you should sit and stare at each other; find something to do that allows you to connect and be at ease in each other’s company. Walk the dog or take a drive. Go out to breakfast, chop vegetables and make a meal together, fold the laundry, or eat a bowl of cereal together before bed. Do whatever it takes to carve out a little space of time to just be. Don’t make a big deal out of it; in fact, the opposite. Keep it small and loose and casual. Talk about a tv show you watched, tell him about a problem you’re having at work, ask him what songs he’s listening to these days, what he’s looking forward to, and what he’s feeling stressed about. Let him know you value his presence in your life by being present in his.
Sit with discomfort.
The only thing we know for sure is that life will go on challenging us in one way or another. We won’t always get what we want. We will face good days and bad days, comfortable feelings and painful feelings. We will experience stress and grief and disappointment and fear. But we don’t have to numb any of these feelings or run from them. We can simply feel them. And this is a huge lesson for your teenager: namely, that he can survive his feelings, too. Your child, at the mercy of adolescent hormones and emotional storms, will have the temptation to run, to distract, to numb, to tune out. He may turn to drugs, alcohol, food, pornography, or video games as a means of escape.
But every time you can stay with your own difficult feelings, or quietly abide with your child during his hardest moments, you help him learn that he can experience the entire range of human emotion — pain, desire, grief, sadness, anger, jealousy, cravings, frustration—and survive every bit of it.
Only by feeling the full brunt of his feelings and living through them will your child discover that he can weather these emotions after all. He won’t die. He’s not hopeless or unworthy or a loser. And the world won’t come to an end just because he didn’t get what he wanted. Or just because he’s been knocked down or rejected or hurt. As we learn to stay with what is, as we learn to feel our feelings and to move through them, we learn to trust that we can survive what each day brings.
Tell the truth.
Your child can see right through you. So you might as well come down on the side of honesty, even if it’s painful and even if you feel exposed. Be honest about your fears, about your feelings, about your hopes, and about your disappointments. Take off your mask, lay down your shield, and be vulnerable. Share your hurts as well as your joys. Admit it when things are hard. The conversations that make a difference in your child’s life are the ones that are real. Scare tactics don’t work, but honesty does. It helps when you’re willing to acknowledge when things are confusing. And you might as well admit right now that there aren’t always easy black-and-white answers. Be willing to muddle around in the gray area. Invite your child to think with you, rather than trying to think for him.
Never be too afraid or too ashamed to ask for help. It really does take a village to raise a child. As Jack acknowledged during our conversation: “When I was trying to hide my pot use, I really didn’t want to listen to what you had to say to me, but I might have listened to someone else.”
If your words are falling on deaf ears, if the door is shut and communication is at an impasse, then find someone else who can have the hard conversations – someone who’s not attached to any outcome, who doesn’t have any emotional baggage, who will command your child’s trust and respect.
Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your relationship with your teen is to admit that what you’re doing is not working. So swallow your pride and hand some of the care and responsibility for his well-being over to someone who doesn’t have so much at stake. Also, bear in mind that you have no idea who the angel in disguise might be: another parent, a teacher or coach, a therapist, a cop, an ex-con, a former drug addict, a girlfriend or boyfriend who draws a line in the sand, God in the guise of a smashed guard rail on a stormy night, or even a stranger on an airplane. But remember what the Buddhists believe: when the student is ready, the teacher appears. As Jack also said,
No kid ever changed his self-destructive behavior because his parent asked him to, or stopped using drugs because his mom told him they were dangerous. But hearing someone else’s story, or hearing the truth from someone I had respect for, might have made a difference.”
These last two tips are from me, lessons I learned slowly and over time and still practice today.
Choose love over fear.
In every challenging, confusing moment, we have a choice. We can react in fear. Or we can put our faith in love. Usually this means coming to a stop and considering all of the alternatives. Fear will darken and narrow your path. Love will broaden and enlighten it. Fear = grasping. Love = Non-attachment to outcomes. Fear = I need this to be different, I need it to be my way. Love = This is what is. Fear = my child is being a problem. Love = my child is having a problem.
Suddenly, when you choose love, your whole perspective changes. You go from, “How can I change or fix my child?” To, “How can I support my child in this moment?”
So the next time you’re at a loss, ask yourself, Which is the fear-response in this moment? What would a choice made from love look like instead? Sometimes love means saying, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” Sometimes it means saying, “I trust you to figure this out.” Sometimes it means admitting, “I really don’t know how to handle this. I’m struggling. I’m doing my best.” Sometimes it means walking away, and leaving your child to sort things out for herself.
Your children will be faced with many obstacles in life, some big and others small. It’s up to you to model a healthy method for how to approach them. You can start with this question, “Will I choose to respond from a place of fear or from a place of love?”
There are no charmed lives. But there are charmed moments, even in the midst of the most difficult days. Don’t let them slip by unnoticed. If you can’t resolve the chaos, find beauty and happiness amid the mess. Celebrate the simple pleasures and the modest delights of ordinary life. Uphold the small, silly and sweet traditions and the dumb jokes and the old sayings and routines that make your family your family. Do good deeds. Laugh whenever you can. Diffuse tension with humor, hurt feelings with hugs, anger with forgiveness. Reweave connections with kindness. This is what you are really here to do, for your own sake and for your children: Love them for who they are, as they are, in this moment and for just as long as you can.
* In her own words, Katrina Kenison is a wife, a mother, a homemaker, a slow writer and a life-long reader, a list maker, a recovering perfectionist, an inveterate seeker. Her self-titled blog celebrates the gift of each ordinary day.