Parenting Teenagers: ‘Navigating the Teenage Storm’

ParentingTeenagersBeing a parent is a bit like being the captain on a long boat or plane journey with your children. You start the journey with destination in mind and a navigation plan, but throughout the journey you can get thrown off course by different challenges and problems much in the same way as a plane is put off course by the weather or other air traffic. Being off course as a family is in fact quite normal.

As Stephen Covey says, ‘Good families – even great families – are off track 90 percent of the time!’ What matters most, is that you keep returning to your original course, you keep the destination in mind. You don’t let events throw you off course permanently and you keep in mind the final destination. Some of the challenges that throw families off course are stressful outside events such as illness or family breakdown and some are the natural childhood stages such as the toddler years or starting school.

For many people, adolescence and the teenage years represent a particularly ‘stormy period’ in the family journey and becoming a parent of a teenager brings many challenges. The happy go-lucky child who went along with a lot of what you said, can suddenly become this argumentative and resentful teenager who challenges everything. Or the child who used to enjoy your company can become secretive and suspicious and even appear to lock you out of their lives.

In addition, as a parent you can be full of fears for your teenager, whether this is for their safety when out, or how they will deal with the pressures of drugs and alcohol. As you enter the teenage years, often the ‘map’ you had as to how to parent your children no longer seems to apply  and you have to learn to chart a new course through the teenage storm.

It is important to remember that the transition from child to adult is difficult for teenagers also. So many changes occur in these short years that it is not surprising that they feel at times confused, frightened and lacking in confidence.

Physically, their bodies grow and change in ways that might make them feel awkward and self-conscious.

Emotionally, they can be subject to great mood swings as they discover the range of human emotions, from intense feelings of love and infatuation to anger and hatred.

Intellectually, teenagers become more sophisticated, being able to analyse things and to develop their own opinions and views. They can begin to see the inadequacies in the parental world (and often are very eloquent in pointing this out!) and wonder about their role and meaning in life.

Parenting as a long plane journey is also a good metaphor for the long-term aim of parenting teenagers. When a child is born the parent is in the pilot’s seat and is very much in charge of the controls. Parents make all the decisions about young children’s lives, about what they wear, where they go, who they see etc. As a child gets older, a good parent allows the child into the cockpit and begins to teach him how to operate the controls.

As a parent of a teenager your role is really one of ‘co-pilot’. Your aim is to slowly teach your children all they need to become confident adults and to be able to responsibly fly their own plane! A good ‘co-pilot’ is supportively there for his children letting them learn from mistakes and achievements, and handing over one by one the responsibilities of being an independent adult.

Being a good pilot is far from easy. Many parents fear letting go and battle with their children to take back the controls.  Other parents are critical and undermining of their children’s ability to fly and they never them release to fly in the first place. And other parents do not give children any lessons at all, letting them learn the skills of flying from other people, such as their peer group or from the television.

Good parents, however, realises that the aim of the journey is not for the parent to remain in the cockpit, but to teach their children how to fly their own planes. They realise that it is far better for children to learn the vital task of being an adult, with their parents acting as good co-pilots –  who are present, involved and supportive of them.

Perhaps the best way to approach the teenage years is to see them not just as a time of challenge but also as a time of  great opportunity. Teenage rebellion is not a personal attack on your authority but an important stage for children to go through as they forge their separate identity.

Every conflict is an opportunity for deeper understanding, for richer family relationships and closer involvement with each other. The teenage years afford you a chance to get to know your children in a different light – as young adults rather than children and to develop and a new more equal relationship with each other.

In addition, by staying involved in your teenagers lives you can share in their achievements and discoveries as they mature and grow up. You can appreciate and enjoy their excitement as they face a world full of opportunity and you can have the pleasure of being one of their closest supports as they take on the world.

By staying involved and being firm when needed, you can chart a course through the difficult times so that you can be there as your teenagers grow into young adults of whom you can be proud.

Prof. John Sharry, Irish Times, September 2009. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday. Read PART TWO of this series.
John will be giving half-day ‘Positive Parenting’ weekend courses for parents in Dublin (November 2019) and Cork (January 2020). Information and bookings available here.