Parenting teens…What is the secret ingredient?

In my counselling practice I get many parents really challenged with raising their teenage children.  I also spend a lot of my time counselling with these children who are struggling with anxieties and sometimes choosing inappropriate ways to deal with the challenges of life.  There is one thing in my counselling that I have come to see as a secret ingredient.  The work of Robert Kegan has been very instrumental in my understanding and practice.  His book “In Over our Heads” is a little “heavy” but well worth the time.

Who understands teenagers?   One minute they are pleasant and compliant and the next reeling out of control, making outlandish decisions, and blaming the world.  The place teens hold between childhood and adulthood is not only confusing for them, but confusing for parents as well.  The demands our disordered society places on teens and their mental capacity to meet those demands is shaky.
What do we as a culture really want from our teens anyway?
  • The ability to put others needs before our own
  • To behave in certain ways, and to want to behave in those ways
  • To get along with others
  • To be responsible for actions
  • To be a good citizen
  • To have common sense
  • To share certain beliefs and values
These are all admirable, but I suggest that this is where teens get “stuck.”  Developmentally teens are moving from one level of consciousness, self grounded, to a completely new level of conscious development self reflected.   Self grounded consciousness is a way of looking at the world through the eyes of “me.”  When we are self reflected we can stand outside of ourselves and see our “selves”…a little bit like being able to look in the mirror and notice our own thoughts, feelings, reactions and behaviours and have a conversation with ourselves.  When functioning from the eyes of “me” teens are having a hard time holding their own point of view and simultaneously understanding another point of view (parents).  They look through the mirror, but are being challenged to look into the mirror and see their own reflection.  They struggle to understand how things outside themselves influence their behaviours (my friends expectations influence my choices).  In other words, your teen is only just beginning to learn to “exist” outside himself and reflect on how or why he does what he does.
When we look at the cultural demands of our teens all of them require the transition to a self reflected level of consciousness.  Yikes!  But most teens have not made this transition of consciousness yet!!  In fact, most of us do not become self reflected until our mid-twenties.  So here is the dilemma.  In this we are challenged as parents to walk with our teens through this disordered world while they are transitioning to a self reflected level of development.

So what do teens need in order to make this transition? 

According the Dr. Robert Keegan in his book “In Over Our Heads,” teens need an environment which includes two things: support and challenge.  With too much challenge and not enough support teens implode with anxiety or act out with riotous behaviours.  With too much support and not enough challenge, teens become passive and unmotivated.  Our culture generally provides our children enough challenge.  However, we may not be offering the right level of support.  In the past, support was provided by the church and extended family.  Values, ideals, norms were clearly defined, as were expectations.  In our modern world, these kinds of norms of behavior and interaction are wide open.  Teens are caught between parents, media and peers.  It seems like there are no touchstones, no boundaries, no foundations.  Many teens have no sense of feeling grounded or sustained.  According to Kegan, children and teens need to know there is someone in charge who is going to provide this support.   The “in charge” part does not mean telling them what to do, being strict, or authoritarian, on the contrary, it really means carrying certain burdens and not loading the teen with cares and stress he cannot carry.  For example, not allowing children to accept worries over the family finances, become a mini parent to siblings or the family, hold a place between dissenting parents, become a pawn between parents or ask them make decisions they are not equipped to make. In addition, protecting them from the “adultization” of our society which includes exposure to the adult world at a young age (think about appropriate movies and tv, images in media, sex and violence in music).

How do we do this?  This task is too enormous! 

Actually, the task has lot more to do with parents and less to do with kids.  As parents take care of their own level of consciousness, parent from a place of relationship (last month’s article Why Consequences Don’t Work) they can begin to fully parent this challenging creature called the teen.  Sometimes in order to grow up your children you need to begin by growing up your “self.”  Your own level of emotional health, understanding of your own feelings and thoughts, will have a profound impact on your child’s level of “groundedness.”  In other words, the way you interact with the world, the way you deal with problems and stresses, the way you make sense of life, the way you have relationships, will profoundly impact your child’s ability to cope.  Secret Ingredient: by taking care of your own growth you are taking care of your child’s growth!!
Yes, this is daunting.  Yes, there are no simple answers to living in this world, but one of them is to take care of your own growth in order to be able to provide support to your teen.  As your teen senses you are in charge of your own self and confident in your own being it provides the grounding of support your teen needs to function in this world.  In a sense, it is being aware of your own level of consciousness which will act as a touchstone for your child’s developmental growth.
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