Raising Teens and the Myth of Control
I assume if you are taking the time to read an article on parenting that you read a book or two (or twenty) on pregnancy and babies when you, or your partner, were pregnant and caring for a newborn. Pouring over the baby-bearing bible, What to Expect when you’re Expecting gave us the glorious false hope that by getting enough leafy greens and folic acid, gagging down those pre-natal monstrosities, and exercising just enough (but not too much) we were destined to give birth to a healthy specimen that would master childhood straight through from APGAR to ACT.
There are many instances along the way that hint at how little control we actually have. Mine came 26 weeks into my first pregnancy when, after analyzing every morsel that went into my mouth for nutritional value (What to Eat when you’re Expecting only added to my vigilance), and following the ideal perfect pregnant woman routines prescribed by the 25 or so books I read (many of which contradicted one another with messages of relaxation or hyper-vigilance) I delivered my meant-to-be perfect twins after three days of pre-term labor. My Maggie died the next day, and although her brother grew up to be healthy, hilarious, and pretty fabulous, shortly after birth he was intubated, incubated, blindfolded, and weighed in at 1 pound, 6 ounces.
Now, determined to get this whole premature infant thing done right, I spent my days (three straight months actually) sitting next to the incubator, rubbing his back with my finger, pumping breast milk, and creating the ideal environment to ensure he would be stimulated, but not over-stimulated, knew he was loved (photos decorated his private Plexiglas chamber), and aggressively advocated on his tiny behalf with doctors, nurses, and insurance companies. Even after the unexpected tragedy of losing Maggie, I remained the over-zealous and naïve new mom in her twenties, believing that my actions, my intentionality, my super-duper mom-ness would result in children who would eat, sleep, and behave the way I wanted them to (perfectly).
I am confident that even if you had easy pregnancies followed by easy babies, you can relate to the “myth of control” theme in my story. It takes raising toddlers from teenagers for most of us to truly understand how little control we actually have. No, it turns out you can’t actually “make them.” Yes, overly permissive or overly authoritarian parenting (abusive or truly neglectful parenting is in a separate category) has some negative impact, but great parents have challenging children, and not-so-great parents have phenomenal children. Truthfully, we have limited control of their personality, their skill set, and their disposition. In fact, as they reach adolescence, we will probably find that even though most teenagers are not out-of-control, they certainly aren’t in our control.
Bad news first. Accept the fact that you have indeed lost control of your teenager if what you envision is being able to ensure they will do and think what you want them to do and think simply by twisting, squeezing, and constant supervision (you can try those tactics, many of us do, but they are not sustainable and do not contribute to the well-being of you or your teenager). Now, for the good news. You actually have a great deal of control; it’s just that it is over yourself, your reactions, your boundaries, your decisions, and your choices. With this in mind, here are a few ways you can have positive impact on your teenager while letting go of mythical and Sisyphean control:
1. Teenagers often complain that they feel judged by their parents. To avoid this, try letting go of the scripts and expectations that you created in your fantasy days of early parenting. Although your opinions are important, chances are your teenager has heard them many times. Focus on their opinions, and allow them to be very different from your own. It is their journey to adulthood, not yours, and it may turn out to be entirely different than you anticipated. What you want for them, and what they want for themselves may not align, but step back and give them room to be their own person separate from you and your hopes, dreams, and wishes. You may find that if you are no longer acting as a foil to their desires and goals, that they end up being similar.
2. So often, in our effort to regain come kind of false sense of control and power, we respond to our teenagers in ways that actually make things worse. For example, nagging, lecturing, even too much advising, can result in a mute adolescent, who may even take a polarized approach to what you are saying, if only to create a wall of some sort between you and them. Parents are heard more the less they say. Instead of seeking out the right combination of words to use with your teenager to finally convince them to do exactly what is best for them, focus on learning to hold your tongue, and resist supplying the answers, ideas, solutions, and opinions that bubble up out of adult experience.
3. Work daily to not escalate difficult interactions with your teen. This takes practice, commitment, and internal regulation, but it is worth it. Not only are you modeling perspective and self-control, but you will also begin to eliminate the negative energy that occurs when the issue is no longer the issue because it has been buried under a series of hurled hurts said hyperbole.
4. Do not focus all, or even almost all, of your emotional energy on your teenager. It is exhausting for both of you. They don’t want or need your hyper-focus; it is unproductive, and it robs you of an opportunity to have a full life. Furthermore, it stunts their ability to solve problems, figure things out, and they may end up feeling smothered and resentful…or even worse, unable to deal with life’s challenges on their own. Find hobbies, work, causes, interests, friends, and get as much joy and satisfaction out of your own life as possible. This is far more inspiring to your teenager than your opinion, thoughts, worries, and feelings about them.
It can be difficult to accept just how powerless we are over much of what we would like to control. That said, it can also be freeing because trying to control other people, including our teenagers and young adults, requires quite a bit of brain space and emotional energy. Because it feels so antithetical to what we often think parenting is about, it may take a daily decision to allow your teenager more room. In fact, expect to relapse (perhaps frequently) into nagging, haranguing, and problem solving, but I can assure you it doesn’t feel good and rarely works. Be patient with yourself as you recalibrate. Most importantly, keep the focus on your own growth so your teenager can take full responsibility for theirs.
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