This important article recently appeared in U.S. News & World Report. It’s author, Dr. Nancy Buck, is a Choice Theory and peaceful parenting expert. I am glad she put the following ideas in writing, and that she gave The Better Plan permission to reprint it.
Are you the parent of a teen or soon-to-be teenager? If so, then you know you are in the middle of an exciting and challenging time. Most teens are ready, willing and convinced they’re able to handle more freedom with less parental involvement. In fact, this is part of normal development. Unfortunately, many parents do not feel the same way.
A parent’s job is to help children learn to manage freedom. As your child grows, his level of freedom increases, necessitating continual learning. Responsibly managing freedom doesn’t start when children become teenagers. When your child took his first step, he was already moving away from you and walking toward greater freedom. The same was true when your child started school and began participating in after-school and extracurricular activities. Now that your child has become a teen, there is more he wants to do on his own, with or without your permission or approval.
“A parent’s job is to help children learn to manage freedom.”
At the same time, unlike the baby steps of years past, your teenager is making major strides toward greater independence, and this can leave her exposed to dangers she didn’t face as a younger child.
Some parents manage their discomfort with risk by denying their children freedom. In an attempt to ease their worries, these parents oppress their children. These same parents are surprised when they discover their children have been going behind their back, lying and doings things they know their parents disapprove of. These adolescents aren’t trying to be disrespectful but rather are emerging adults acting on their greater need for freedom and power. These needs are stronger than their desire to please their parents.
The better alternative for parents is to teach teens how to meet their needs for greater independence safely, responsibly and respectfully. At the same time, parents need to learn to manage their own fears, rather than unnecessarily limiting what kids can do.
The best approach is to begin early, when your child is young. Slowly allow your child to become more independent while you teach him responsible behaviors to handle this new freedom. When parents do this for the first 12 years of their child’s life, the teenage years becomes less frightening and overwhelming for both parents and children.
However, if you aren’t sure how well you’ve done thus far, here is a process that will help you and your adolescent manage your child’s need for more freedom and your need to feel your child is safe. When your child makes a request for increased freedom and asks permission to do something he or she hasn’t done before, follow these steps:
1. Ask yourself, “Do I understand the request?” If your teen says she wants to go to a coed sleep-over party, do you really understand what that is? The first time I heard this from one of my sons I was quite convinced he was asking for permission to go to an orgy! I learned it was two consecutive parties in one night. Party one was coed. Party two, all the boys left and the girls had a sleep over. If you don’t understand exactly what your child is asking to do, find out. Even if you think you do understand, ask anyway to clarify any potential misunderstandings.
2. Consider whether your child can handle this responsibility. Does your teen have a plan for how she will manage when she discovers underage drinking at a party she’s attending? What will your child do if she is home alone with your permission and several friends want to come over uninvited? If your child is shopping at the mall with several friends, and one of them is accused of shoplifting, how will she handle it? Your job is to teach your child the responsible behaviors necessary so she has the opportunity to handle additional freedom.
3. Ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?” It’s reasonable to ask your child to help you overcome your fear. Remember how you helped your child overcome his fear of the monsters in his closet? Now you’re asking your child to help you overcome your fear of careless drinking and driving or other risky behaviors. Asking your child to pledge he won’t drink or ride with someone who has been drinking, for instance, is a reasonable reassurance to expect when granting him permission to go to a party.
“Now you’re asking your child to help you overcome your fear . . .”
Ultimately you may withhold your permission because of your own fear. Doing this 1 time out of 10 is understandable. Doing this 9 times out of 10 is oppression and probably will result in your child disobeying, sneaking out and realizing his freedom without your permission and support. If you say no and stop at this step, make a plan with your child for how long you will withhold permission for his requested expanded freedom. If what your child wants to do is illegal, like illicit drugs, you can explain that you will never give permission. The criteria is that the request is legal and can be handled responsibly by your child.
4. Give your child permission. Say yes. Now you know what your child is going to do. You know your child is able to handle herself and the situation. There is no reason not to give your child permission.
5. Make a plan for how you will work together if problems arise. Be sure to work with your child on the plan and include in it that you will be there when help is needed. You want your child to know that you are on her side, you will work together to find responsible solutions, and that punishment and blaming is not part of this growing process. Work together to create this tentative plan, understanding that the plan will be appropriately modified as needed.
6. Plan for how you will spend your time. Now that your child has newfound freedom, how will you handle yourself so that you aren’t overwhelmed by your fear and worry? Your goal is to stay engaged doing something you enjoy. Resist the urge to be constantly preoccupied with concern, and instead trust that while all problems can’t be anticipated, you’ve been preparing your teen to be more independent.
Nancy S. Buck, PhD, RN is a developmental psychologist, expert in children’s motivation and behavior and parenting coach. As the founder of Peaceful Parenting Inc., a blogger for Psychology Today and author of numerous books on parenting, including “How to Be a Great Parent,” Dr. Buck advises parents on effective practices to improve life for every member of the family. As an early childhood mental health specialist, she is devoted to helping families develop, improve and maintain optimal mental health and happiness.