Friday, July 09, 2010

How to treat older teens

Recently on one of my egroups a woman wrote in asking for advice on how to treat her 17 year old son. She was unsure how much to direct him about how he was eating, how much time he spent on the computer, his "standards" which she considered to be "lower" than hers, etc. This is part of what I wrote in response:

I have a son that is turning 18 next month. He is our oldest, so this is my first go-around with an older teen, however I can tell you that it is a fun time in our lives and we are doing great.
For us, we believe that we are raising these people to become adults. As they get older, an increasing amount of responsibility and personal choices need to become their job, until eventually they are taking full responsibility for their decisions and life choices which seems to me should be somewhere between 18-20 or so.

A wonderful resources that I highly recommend to all parents every chance I get is a DVD and book series called Parental Guidance Required. You can check it out and buy it here. This site also has $1 downloads of the MP3 sessions of this class. We did this study with some friends from church quite a few years ago. It is an excellent resource for talking about key elements of setting your relationship with you middle year children up for an ongoing good relationship as the children grow into older teens and young adults. It talks about the importance of "dialing in" and "dialing out" the right or wrong kind of people in your child's life, the importance of other trusted adults to be a part of your child's life who will be a friend to your child who will also continue to point them in the right direction, and the importance of the quality of your relationship with your child for the long haul when we have no more control but we can still have the ever-crucial opportunity to influence our child--which is something they will either willingly let us do or they won't. (it's not something you can require) Anyhow, wonderful information and encouragement for all parents. Please get it!

Certainly a child's maturity level, choices they have made, etc. should have a bearing on what parents choose to still try to work on with the child and what they back off about. I know that some parents seem to fear that if their child ever does anything that they do not want them to do (music choices, hair or clothing styles, etc.) that all is lost and the kid is ruined. For us, we believe that it is normal for each person to have to figure out for himself what they believe and how they will live. In our family, these are not deal breakers and I am not going to allow these things to damage my relationship with my child. I am passionate about my children and I will continue to be, regardless of the stages they go through. I always strive to try to be open, to listen, and to understand where my 17 year old son is coming from. We have had talks sometimes when he shares a music choice with me, and sometimes I have listened and said to him, "This sounds so negative to me. Tell me what you like about it. I don't understand." Since I am coming at this with real love and an open attitude where I really do want to hear what he has to say, and I'm not just trying to turn it into a chance to tell him to listen to something else, it is a fruitful conversation, and he is willing to let me have some influence on his thinking. Does this mean that he changes everything to what I think? Nope! And that's ok. He has to stand on his own and will continue to. I should not be micromanaging him and will not even try.

As far as things like junk food, you know, if you do not have these things in the house they will not get them from you, and then you save yourself the trouble of feeling that you have to police it. :) I have tried to set up our home over the years to be what I call an all-you-can- eat-buffet of good things both for food, as well as educationally, etc. What I mean by this is that basically there are no bad choices. Food-wise, there is no (or very little) junk food, but we have plenty of good fruits and veggies and whole grain breads, etc. to choose from. Now, my son does eat some junk when he's gone from the house, and that's his business. (esp. since he pays for it himself) Largely, over time, he has come to realize that he does not like to eat junk food and that he does not feel well after eating or drinking certain things, so now he chooses to eat pretty healthfully on his own and even influences his friends to eat healthier. This is exactly the thing I had hoped for--he has made his choice, seen the evidence in his own life--and does not need me to tell him what to eat when he's on his own. As far as things to do at our house, we have no TV but we have books, games, a pool, a very fun back yard with lots of things to do, Legos, computers with good filters set on them to make them safe to use, pets to play with, art and craft supplies, music, musical instruments, dress up stuff, etc. I guess the one "junk food" thing we have is a game system, which they are only allowed to use on Saturdays. (and most of the time they forget about it) So, even in their spare time my kids only have choices that are good ones. I don't have to spend my time fretting about what they are doing, so I set up the environment to be as good for them and easy for me as possible. That translates over to the teens as well.

I used to have a friend who complained about how her teens were spending all of their time "plugged in" to electronics and she did not know what to do about it. She was struggling to try to set up schedules and enforce them to try to make the kids do other things. Well, you know what? She and her husband had created an environment at their house where being plugged in was the only stuff for their teens to do. Although she had started out with no TV, lots of books and puzzles, etc. when he kids were little, by the time the kids were older they had one computer per person (or something very close to it), all the kids had cell phones with unlimited texting, they had satellite tv, they all had ipods that they used and further isolated them from the rest of the world, game systems with no limits, there was nothing to do in their yard, some of the kids had no interesting outside-of-the- home activities or friends, etc. Basically, they had created a situation where computer/music/tv/gaming was the only stuff to do at their house, and they were not willing to change any of that. So, you know, the kids are going to respond to the environment you create and nurture.

I do think that it is harder to pull back from stuff than to just set things up the way you want them from the get-go, but it is possible to make changes if you are strong and wise.

Getting back to some other thoughts I have about older teens: Respect is important. There are many ways to choose to live, many ways to apply Biblical concepts, and many things that are not issues that should be allowed to damage a relationship. Realizing that our children are growing up to be people who will (and should) make their own choices is worth your respect. I can tell you as a person with people in my life that do not respect other people's choices that are different from their own, it damages relationships when you do not have respect from others. And even if you don't say it, people can feel it. Fer shur. So, to me, starting at 14, 15, 16, 17 to back off of peripheral issues and respect that your child is learning to make choices is the right way to go. Save your panic button moments for stuff that really, really matters a lot. :) If you panic too often they just think you're getting crazy and you can lose your ability to influence.

In the end as our children become adults, aside from what they have accepted from what we have already taught them, influence is the only hope we have of being able to help our children. (aside from prayer, of course) They will either welcome our influence or resist it. I know which side I want to be on, so I use a fair amount of strategy into my parenting to try to position myself to where I want to be.

Obviously, this is all still a work in progress. I can tell you, though, that we have a very enjoyable relationship with our 17 year old, that our son is doing great at making decisions and learning from the choices he makes, he is very loving with us and the other children, and we continue to look forward to what is to come with him and our other kids. I believe very strongly that the investments we make in tying heartstrings and building trust and happy relationships with our kids from the time they are born has a great bearing on how things go later on in their lives.

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