Monday, December 25, 2006

5000 days of living with adolescence.

Left: XY & Right: XX

Rebellion or Independence
Parents often determine the path.

I remember when my son and daughter were around the age of 6 and 8. This was the age at which both kids were starting elementary school and getting a little more opinionated about what they wanted to wear and what they wanted to do with their spare time. They also were beginning to choose friends outside the circle that my wife and I had controlled up until then. There were days when parent versus child was heard and other times when compliance just happened. Regardless, I was aware that we were beginning a journey that every parent is called to maneuver through. It was time to begin the gradual process of teaching my children to be independent.

Today's posting is a result of a conversation I had awhile back with a very good friend of mine. It was during that conversation I was reminded of the struggle parents go through to find balance when faced with the question, "how do I decide when I should control my teenager versus when I offer freedom to my teenager?" For those of you who struggle with this question, I hope my story will give you some insight into your own journey as a parent.

"You'll never have a curfew as long as you do two things." Those were the words I spoke to my children when they were in middle school. You may think that's pretty radical but let me explain. You see I told my children they were both born with all the trust in the world and it would be up to them how much of it they were willing to lose. It's my opinion that most parents start in reverse by telling their children they don't trust them and thus they must earn it. That's a pretty self-defeating way to start your child through the maze of adolescence not to mention teaching them that trust is something you earn rather than just is. The truth is, until you make mistakes based on someone else's expectations, you are a trustworthy person. It's only after you fail to live up to some preconceived notion that you find yourself trying to "earn" back trust.

What did my children have to do to keep from losing their bank balance of trust? What were the two things my children had to do in order to maintain a life without a parent-imposed curfew? They simply had to always call me and give me the details to where they were and who they were with. Secondly, if I didn't approve, they came home without much of an argument. Notice I said "without much." I'm not a dictator so I wanted my kids to offer up some measure of arguing if they felt they had a legitimate reason to do so. Again, I'm trying to allow them to grow up and arguing is evidence that "reasoning" is kicking in.

From the time my children were in middle school up until this day, they have been excellent at maintaining the responsibility of the two rules. To keep the rule easy and without any excuses, they were both given cell phones in the 7th grade. Although Andy is a couple thousand miles away and this year will graduate college, he still thinks to alert us if he plans on spending a weekend away from the college campus or has agreed to another blind date. I just wish he'd stop dating these blind girls. It seems like such a waste of his time since he's such a good looking kid, like his dad.

So, this is just one of many things I did in preparing my kids for independence. The lesson was to teach them that life is always going to have someone who cares about where they are and secondly that even with freedom comes learning to answer to authority. I seldom told them to come home from something I didn't approve of because they seldom did anything I didn't like. I think they knew that regardless of where they were going, they were going to have to report in and then the question for them would be, "is this something I want to tell my parents?" Of course it helped that my children grew up with a great church youth group and most of their extra-curricular activities included healthy moral standards.

From early on I worked hard to ensure that my children had their four basic emotional needs met. It was around these principles that I made most of my decisions. I use these needs to explain a lot about how life works when I speak to audiences. To grow up balanced and emotionally healthy, my kids needed to...

A. Know and feel love.
B. Know and feel secure.
C. Know and feel power to control their destiny and to protect themselves.
D. Know and feel like they belong.

When you approach child rearing from the standpoint of those four needs, here's an example of what may happen. First, you'll think twice about going to divorce lawyers versus marriage counselors to solve marital problems. If I get a divorce my children will grow up with a certain degree of damage to their sense of security and their power to control their destiny. Two very important emotional issues. Children often feel responsible for their parent's divorce and feel powerless to rescue themselves. This creates many problems when it comes time for them to get married.

Also, if I tell my kids they're going to wear school clothes based on what I as a parent approve of versus what's culturally popular, (of course this is within reason) I am greatly hindering their sense of belonging and ability to feel loved and secure by classmates. I know - I know, you argue that you want your kids to be individuals and not feel forced to conform to everybody else. However, I submit to you the very fact that your choosing their clothes, jewelry, hair cuts, etc., is contradictory to your desire. They're no more an individual if you impose your tastes on them than if cultural norms do. I'm not saying kids should be allowed to created havoc or put 25 piercings on their face, unless of course it's to pierce their mouth shut.

For the sake of my children's self esteem I sacrificed buying my own groovy clothes for what I had to shell out for Andy's expensive tennis shoes. Why? Because tennis shoes made the man. It was well worth it. Many times we as parents don't stop to think like children to teens when we make some of the decisions we make for them. Although some of us want to fight social norms because of the damage they may have done to our childhood, we forget there can be more damage done if we don't at minimum compromise a little. We've forgotten what it was like to be swimming in a classroom of 40 kids and searching for that life raft that says, "I belong." It's no wonder so many children end up rebelling against us rather than seeing us as helpful during their search for their identity and independence.

In a nutshell, your children spend about 5000 days from the onslaught of adolescence to the day they reach adulthood which is considered to be in their early twenties. During that time period they have one continuous struggle. They will be testing boundaries, expanding their cognitive abilities for reason and practice what it feels like to make a right decision and what it takes to recover from a bad one. They'll also be learning what parenting looks like, what successful marriages look like, what role religion may have in their lives and so on. Without the ability to do this, they will not actually grow up. If parents are overly protective or control freaks, teens will turn the search for independence to one of survival and usually rebellion. They will simulate your wishes in your presence until the day comes when they leave home. Then, watch out. Rebellion amongst teenagers is nothing more than an effort to get away from the sense of powerlessness they feel when mom and dad relentlessly dictate their behavior.

A teenager that has a parent who makes all their decisions for them is an emotionally abused teenager. If your rules are over-reaching to include all clothes, jewelry, hair, shoes, or any number of what I consider to be petty issues, your kids will have no room for developing their identity and are actually being forced to become you. After all, if your teens can only wear what you approve of, you are essentially dressing yourself twice every day and part of developing independence is to distance ones self from their parents.

I remember the time my son wanted to pierce an ear. My first reaction was to fight it. I didn't want want his grandparents to have heart attacks or for my wife to have to compete for the jewelry allowance. However, in my heart I knew my son was a good kid and that having an earring wasn't going to change that. Just because my generation thought it to be a radical departure from the norm didn't mean his generation was inherently evil. Every generation of adolescents have found their unique identity through their hair, music, clothes and jewelry. Within six months the ear showed no sign of a search for identity other than it was still somewhat deaf to me telling him to take out the garbage.

Kids experiment with their identity until they feel their needs are being met. If sense of belonging required long hair for you, then you had long hair. Although physically your abuse may show no bruises, emotionally your teen will experience a sense of victimization if you are a dictator rather than counselor or guide as they search to find themselves. The number one common emotion that all victims have is a sense of powerlessness. If you insist your teenager remain powerless to learn, develop reasoning, make mistakes, and find their own identity, you my friend are abusing the normal process God created for learning to become independent. By the way mom and dad, you're not God, just in case some of you need to be reminded.

I realize many of us have grown up with the fear that our children will repeat the same mistakes we did or end up with the same pain or disappointments. Here's how you get past that. Forget it! Your kids are not you but if you continue to be their dictator, they're going to rebel and then guess what? Nine times out of ten, they'll become the very thing you were trying to avoid. If not during the teen years, they'll flip out after they leave home and are no longer under your victimization. That's the explanation for why many freshman go crazy pushing boundaries after they leave home for college. They've never had freedom and now that they're on their own, their underdeveloped reasoning skills don't filter out bad from good decisions, and they screw up. In many cases, it's not their fault. It's the fault of control freak parenting. My son has witnessed this time and again at the university he attends. All over the country, the freshman class is the thermometer for whether or not parents are doing their job in preparing kids for independence.

Another phase that repeated itself about every six months was the boundary pushing. I quickly came to expect it on a yearly basis. No matter what the age, from newborn to early adulthood, I've found my kids repeatedly push the next set of boundaries. As soon as we establish each new boundary, they're back to feeling secure, loved, and in power to control their destiny. Keep in mind, boundaries should change to allow growth. When the boundary went from choosing their clothes to choosing their friends, we worked together to figure out what was needed. Inch by inch, parents must remain diligently aware of each developmental stage of their child's life.

Parents that don't believe in discipline, consequences, or rules, are not meeting their child's need for security and knowing they are loved. If you're the hippie type, or free spirit that can't say no and lets your child do anything they want, you're teaching them that life has no rules, love has no rules, relationships have no rules, and so on. All of which is not true. Just ask a spouse who has been cheated on.

My approach to teaching my kids about rules was for me to start their life with my rules and then eventually to give them a tool for finding their own but with a proven principle. For me it came from my own Christian upbringing. I often would tell my kids that if they obey the first and greatest commandment found in Mathew 22:37, they'll always live by the right rules. It was the answer Jesus gave the Pharisees and Saducees when they tried to turn him into a dictator. Jesus knew the way to help these guys learn how to discern good laws and rules from bad ones was to teach a principle. If everything my children questioned concerning acceptable behavior was filtered through whether or not they could love God with all their heart, soul, and mind, then they'd always do the right thing.

In a nutshell, let go of your own childhood mistakes and stop thinking you're going to save your children from pain. A big part of learning independence is learning how to deal with pain and disappointment.

Helping your teens through adolescence is not about you looking good as a parent. It's about your child eventually looking good as an adult. For that to happen, you've got to hone up on your child psychology so you can recognize whether or not you're going to turn their normal search for independence into rebellion.

Today's advice from JL? (for what it's worth)

  • Parents are not friends to their children - they are counselors and guides. You can be their friend when they leave home.
  • Don't forget the best university for love and affection comes from watching mom and dad. You are their best instructors by your example. I rarely failed to say "I love you" and gave hugs to my kids and wife every day over the last 27 years. I still do it.
  • Children are not capable of making all of their own decisions without us teaching the skills to do so. Emphasis on teaching the skills rather than always making decisions for them.
  • Filter your child rearing decisions through the maze of their four basic emotional needs.
  • Don't act like you've never made a mistake. Tell them you're sorry after you've taken your turn at making a mistake. We all make them and kids should see what humility and resilience looks like.
  • From time to time, ask your teens how you're doing as a parent and if they've got suggestions that might help you. This will show them what a teachable spirit looks like and that will help them in the future.
  • Stop fighting in public with your spouse on issues you disagree on. It screws up your child's ability to learn what unity looks like and can make them feel insecure about whether or not mom and dad will be together tomorrow. Both parents need to be on the same page. Get your %$# together before you confront your adolescent about anything.
  • Concerning rules, make sure they are clearly spelled out beforehand. Nothing is more stupid than the parent who loses their temper and shouts, "you should have known better." should the parent.
  • Also along with rules comes a list of consequences. Don't have consequences all over the field. Be clear and make sure they're consistent. Consequences communicate security, love, belonging. If I didn't love you, want you to feel secure in this home, or want you to know you belong in this family, I wouldn't go to all the trouble to enforce consequences.
  • Spouses, never disagree with each other on issues of discipline or rules when your children are standing in front of you. Back each other up until you can get in private to argue whether or not something different should happen.
  • Include using principles to teach reasoning for rules instead of just writing down a bunch of rules. You need both, but have a balance.
  • Let kids make $5 mistakes with their spending money or they'll make $50,000 mistakes after they leave home. (right dad?)
  • Let children in on the family budget. It'll do two things. They'll learn to appreciate what it cost to survive and also it will hold you more accountable for your financial decisions and spending habits as a family.
  • Just for good measure - All moms should slap dad and tell him to get off his butt and take the kids to a park or attend their next sporting event. Afterwards he should treat the whole team to DQ. In other words, I've got a real problem with dad not helping raise kids or only showing up when discipline is due.
  • Buy books on the subject - developmental psychology of adolescence.
  • Network and learn from other parents that seem to be doing a good job.
  • Don't forget each of your children are unique in their personality. I didn't discipline both of my children the same. One was more compliant than the other. Yes, it was my daughter that had to be duct taped to her dad or she'd otherwise never give him a hug.
  • And last but not least, I don't have all day to make this list so I'm going to wait for questions or comments to stir up more if it is needed.