7 not-so-simple rules for parenting teens

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Since our oldest son turned 20 last month, I’ve technically completed what’s often called the terrible teens for at least one of our three kids. For the record, it wasn’t terrible. But it was, shall we say, challenging. Enlightening. Humbling.

And as with all challenging experiences, I learned things. So, this column is for all my fellow parents of teens (and the alumni parents who’ve lived to tell the tale). Here are my seven not-so-simple rules for parenting teenagers:

Remember this phase of life isn’t as easy as it looks. If you judge it strictly by outward appearance, you’ll assume teenagers have it incredibly easy. They sleep late. Many of them have lightning-fast metabolisms that let them eat an insane number of calories in giant, cheese-covered burritos. And they have way too much time for video games, social media and ridiculous memes that make no sense.

But under all that outward “smooth” is a lava-filled pool of self-doubt, and the kid is doing everything possible not to let it bubble up to the surface and destroy the image he has crafted for the outside world. I remember how raw and intense my emotions could be at that stage of life. I remember how often I doubted myself and how hard I worked not to look like I was doubting myself. It was exhausting (hence the need to sleep until the crack of 1 p.m.).

When possible, use suggestions versus orders. Teenagers are like toddlers in one significant way. They don’t like being told what to do and will dig in and cling to their stubborn independence no matter what it costs them.

But unlike a 2-year-old, it’s nearly impossible to hoist a 16-year-old person over your shoulder and take him straight to his room until he’s more reasonable. So, talk to them in a way that comes across more like a suggestion versus an authoritarian demand. Something like, “You may want to wash your hair so the oil won’t cause one of those painful pimples on your forehead,” which sounds less bossy than “Wash your freaking hair and armpits so the smell doesn’t kill us all.” See the difference? It’s subtle, but it’s there.

Know when to play the “I gave birth to you” card. There will be times when the helpful suggestions mentioned above won’t penetrate the thicker skull of your average teen. Sometimes they’re too distracted by their own stuff to hear you. In those times, when they ask you maddening questions like “Why,” feel free to play the “Because I gave birth to you” card or the equally effective “Because I taught you to wipe your behind” card. It’s hard to argue with either one.

Be happy for them and not just “proud” of them. One thing I’ve tried to do with all our kids is to celebrate their successes with the phrase “I am so happy for you.” I want them to know that what they accomplish is for their own benefit and not something they do to earn a parent’s pride or approval. I want them to understand that their dad and I always love them and are proud of who they are as people, regardless of their latest test score.

Don’t take the bait. Developmentally speaking, teens are supposed to begin separating from their parents so they can eventually be on their own. Sometimes, they create that emotional distance by making us mad. Crazy mad. Exasperated. Annoyed beyond belief. They say or do things they know will push all the buttons. So, whenever humanly possible, don’t take the bait. Disengage from the argument they seem determined to have. Be an unflappable pool of calm wisdom instead of letting them lure you into their own raging river. (Then go scream in your closet and punch a pillow. It helps.)

Teach a teen to fish. Not just literal fishing. Teach them how to set up their own car insurance. Get their own bank account. File their own taxes. Not only does it help them learn how to navigate adult responsibilities, it also gives them the confidence that they can handle real life.

Let time do its work. There are times in the life of every parent when she or he says, “Dear God, where did I go wrong?” In those moments, remember that time is at work here. The rational part of the brain doesn’t finish growing until the age of 25. Buckle up and keep going. The road will smooth out any minute now.

Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. Her book is available on Amazon. 

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