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Parenting Adolescents 101: Adolescents Thrive In Structure And Push Against It
Parenting adolescents can be confusing and hard to understand. It’s difficult to understand what they need and how to give it to them. After working with adolescents in therapy here in Utah for a few decades, let me share with you a few principles that might help.
Adolescents Need Structure
First, adolescents need structure in their life to simply feel safe and to actually be safe. Their brains are still developing and they haven’t quite mastered keeping themselves out of precarious situations. The experience and insight you have helps them. Even though they might push against your structure, they need it. For example, knowing that you expect them to abstain from drugs and alcohol gives them boundaries to follow. Without those boundaries, they might have a hard time deciding what’s important and ok in their life. Knowing that you have expectations of them sends the message that you love them and care for them.
However, just because they need structure doesn’t mean they will accept it. They push against it and need it at the same time.
Adolescents Push Against Structure
The idea that adolescents push against structure isn’t foreign to you. You have been watching your young, sweet children grow up into reactive and confused teenagers. It’s probably been hard to figure out how to understand what they need as you try to keep them safe and healthy. What seems logical to you might not make sense to them. So conflict arises.
Adolescents are going through a difficult developmental phase in their life. This phase involves, (1) becoming their own person and (2) learning how to remain a part of a group. Figuring out how to navigate this with your child is crucial to connecting to them and keeping them safe. Your role is to figure out how to parent them differently as they grow older (Related Article: How To Create A Stronger Family). What worked before might not work now. Let’s talk about what they are going through.
Young people want to be their own individual. They want to choose and act for themselves. The answer, “Because I told you so”, doesn’t work anymore (did it even work before, though?). They want to know why and then to decide on their own. Sometimes, however, they end up choosing the opposite of what you want because they think that is how they act as an individual. Even if the opposite of what you want isn’t what they want, they think it’s still a good choice. Right? As long as it isn’t what you want, then it’s ok with them.
The difficulty with becoming their own individual is that they sometimes don’t remain part of different groups they are in. They might think that being a part of a group is mutually exclusive from being their own person and choosing for themselves. For example, they might think that doing something with the family this weekend isn’t cool anymore. They don’t understand that the fact is that they can still be ‘cool’ and hang out with the family.
What Do I Do?
First, know that your child needs structure and that they will simultaneously push against it. Just because they push against it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. Backing off because you want your child to like you can actually hurt them. Simply trying to be your child’s friend isn’t going to help either. They need someone to be there for them who can be firm and consistent. Even though they might not thank you, they will feel safe.
Second, communicate with your partner about your expectations of your child. Work to be on the same page so that the structure you create will be consistent.
Third, approach your child as a 15 year old instead of a 5 year old. When they have a problem, for example, you can validate and empower them rather than just tell them how to fix it. This helps them develop their own ability to find solutions (Related Article: Validate and Empower Your Adolescent Child).
Fourth, apply structure with assertiveness and compassion. Having structure doesn’t mean that you are angry or aggressive. Rather, it can be done with love and firmness.