by Dr. Gregory L. Jantz, Ph.D.
Whatever happened to that sweet, cuddly child who used to wrap her arms around you and squeeze as tight as she could? Whatever happened to that happy, enthusiastic kid who couldn’t wait to show you every piece of wonder he found? They used to like you. They used to talk to you. When they yelled at you it was because they were excited, not furious. You used to be the source of all that was good. Now, life’s lousy and you’re directly responsible. Stuffing them into a closet for two or three or more years just isn’t a viable option, no matter how longingly you might daydream about the possibility. No, the reality is, you’ve agreed to parent this child and you’re stuck with his or her adolescence. Now is not the time to panic or punt; now is the time to pray, to roll up your sleeves and dive in to parenting with renewed purpose. That moody, illogical, and, yes, irritating adolescent needs you more than ever.
In some ways, the job of parenting an adolescent could be subtitled: Mission Impossible. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to watch, evaluate and monitor a subject who is bound and determined for you to know as little about him or her as possible. It is imperative for this mission that you keep your cool, your “buttons” firmly locked down, all while your teen is finding new and creative ways to punch each and every one of those buttons, including buttons you didn’t even know you had.
It may seem that the mission today is even more impossible with things like texting and sexting and Facebook friends. On top of that, there are still the age-old issues of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll that haven’t gone away. It could seem that your parental load just got a whole lot heavier in this technological age. When your teen instantly connects with all this cyber stuff and you’re lodged in dial-up on all things digital, that’s just one more entry in the “unfair” column.
The deck can seem stacked for today’s parents of adolescents but there are a few things happening to help shift the balance back in your direction. One of them is the depth of information available about how the adolescent brain works, including how it works the same and differently for boys and girls. Science, it seems, is coming back around to a time-honored Biblical perspective that, yes, Virginia, boys and girls are different. Understanding why your teenage girl or boy is acting that way may not make the behavior evaporate but it will allow you to take it less personal. When you can take it less personal, you’re more apt to respond in an intentional, God-directed way, instead of plunging headlong into a mosh-pit of escalated emotions. A screaming contest with your teen doesn’t actually produce any winners.
As the parent of an adolescent, you need to keep your wits about you. That not-quite-child-almost-adult is needier than ever. You are still his or her role model. Back then, it was important to model things like how to tie two shoelaces together or how to navigate a street safely. Now, you model how to tie two complex thoughts together or how to navigate a difficult decision safely. His or her outsides may be way more adult than you’d like but the executive functioning areas of that teen’s brain are still in the larval stage. They simply need more time with you, really with you, interacting with you, arguing with you, being with you, to develop.
Leaving teens to their own devices, to their own strategies and tactics, unsupported, can be a recipe for disaster. It can feel like adolescence lasts forever but the truth is it’s only a few short years. During those few short years, decisions and actions and attitudes can produce long-term challenges and difficulties for your teen and, by extension, for you and your family. Depression, anxiety, substance abuse, promiscuity and eating disorders are just some of the more entrenched conditions that can have a nucleus in adolescence. The opposite, thank God, is also true; adolescence can be the anchor point for the discovery of life-long purpose and passion. It’s a chancy time already so your teen’s adolescence is not a time for sitting on the parental sidelines.
Yes, adolescence is an adventure, except this adventure is not like a Disney Jungle Cruise. The dangers that exist for you and your teen on this journey are real, possibly damaging and potentially devastating. This isn’t a mission you can accept on your own. The only way to travel successfully to the other side of adolescence — to the Promised Land of Happily-Ever-After Adulthood — is to give up your own control and allow God to guide you. He’s not new to this adolescent-business. He’s done it a time or two, including with you back in the day.
Adolescence is a time for heads-up parenting. Heads-up parenting means being alert to the vital and necessary role you still play in your teenager’s maturation. Heads-up parenting means being focused on the path before you, watching for road-blocks and dead-ends on the journey. Heads-up parenting means acknowledging the most effective guidance comes from above, from a loving heavenly Father. You have been given an amazing gift — your teenager. You’re almost done but not quite yet. The adventure continues so take hold of your mission with hope, optimism and joy.