When I decided to hitchhike one day during my high school years, my grandfather was already waiting on the porch when I got home. Radiating disapproval and disappointment, he merely said, “Heard you were needing a ride.” My ‘driver’ had called him as soon as he had let me off. As a girl, I was humiliated and angry (and no, I didn’t try that stunt again). But as a mother of three teens, I have come to appreciate the extra safety that comes from being in a community where people watch out for each other’s kids. As a daring teen, I was lucky to be picked up by a family friend. Although I didn’t understand it at the time, I was also lucky to have adults around me who cared.
The story comes back to me these days as I work to keep my own teenagers safe. Thirty-plus years after my own experiment with ‘living dangerously,’ my community is much bigger and much more anonymous. Although I know literally hundreds of people in my town, it’s also true that I don’t know thousands more. My friends and I certainly do watch out for each other’s kids, but our kids don’t always hang out within our social circle. They explore. They meet new kids. They experiment with new behaviours. Needless to say, this is fine if the kids they look up to are on the honour roll and playing basketball. It’s not at all fine if admission to the group means taking drugs, shoplifting, or violating family rules.
Can parents continue to guide and influence their children through the teen years? Of course. But it takes attention and effort. Parenting well in today’s social climate requires even more patience, vigilance and involvement than when your children were toddlers. Little kids generally have little challenges and problems in a fairly little world defined by you as parent. Big kids have what are sometimes monumental challenges and problems in a very large and exceedingly complex universe.
Parenting teens well requires that we understand that our job is not about controlling them. It’s about providing them with ‘training wheels’ for life – guidelines that give them protection and experience so that they can develop self-control.
Tips for Parenting Teens in Today’s World
• Get to know the parents of your children’s friends.
This is absolutely the most important thing you can do if you want to have access to your children’s world. When your teen begins to ‘hang’ with a new kid, get the phone number, call the parents and introduce yourself. Make a point of giving the child a ride home so you can walk up to the door and shake the parent’s hand. As soon as the kids start making plans to get together, touch base with the other parent to exchange information about rules regarding curfew, acceptable activities and supervision. Responses will range from relief that you are as concerned as they are to resentment that you expect parental support and involvement. Parents who are like-minded are going to become part of the support system that keeps your children safe. Parents who either don’t care where their kids are or who think it’s absolutely fine for them to be unsupervised and doing drugs aren’t going to respond well to being asked to be responsible. You may be dismayed but at least you will know where you stand.
• Communicate regularly with those parents.
When teens make plans that involve staying at another teen’s house or getting rides to events with other parents, make sure that you have a parent-to-parent communication at some point in the planning process. Make sure that it is really okay with the other parent that your child is sleeping over. They may not even know of the plan! Conversely, make sure that the other parent knows if you are driving their children or dropping them at an event. Again, check for agreement about the level of supervision.
• Establish the ‘Three W’ rule.
Teens need to tell you where they are going, who they will be with and when they will be back. This is not an invasion of privacy; it’s common courtesy. Adult roommates generally do the same for each other. You don’t need minute details just the broad strokes of what is being planned for the evening. If something comes up, your child can be located. People engaged in ‘legitimate’ activities don’t need to hide their whereabouts.
• Respect privacy, but refuse to accept secretive behaviour.
It’s important to your teen’s developing sense of independence to have some privacy, but he or she must learn the difference between privacy and secrecy. Your kids do have a right to talk with friends privately, to keep a diary and to have uninterrupted time alone. But if your teen starts being evasive, get busy. Calmly, firmly, steadily insist that you have a right to know who their friends are and what they are doing together. Talk to teachers about who your kid’s friends are as well and start to build alliances with their parents.
• Talk regularly with your kids about their choice of friends.
Kids often don’t realize that they’ve fallen in with bad company. They like to think that they see something positive in a kid that everyone knows is bad news. They may be drawn to the exotic, the different, the risky. They are teens, after all! And part of the job of adolescence is learning how to judge character. Keep lines of communication with your child open so that you can talk about their relationships.
• Support your child’s positive involvement in a sport, art or activity.
Generally, kids who come through the teen years unscathed are those who have a passion about something and who develop a friendship circle around it. This could be the football team, the dance studio, the skateboarding club or a martial art dojo. It really doesn’t matter what it is, but what does matter is that you get involved. Provide rides. Watch practices, games and performances. It doesn’t need to take a lot of time or a lot of money to let your teen and his or her friends know that you care. Bring the whole team popsicles on a hot day or hot chocolate on a cold one. Let your child and his or her group know that you are willing to put your time, money and energy into supporting healthy activity.
• Help your child get a job.
If your child spends too much time at loose ends and doesn’t have a sport or an activity, at least get him or her working. A job teaches life skills, eats up idle time and helps kids feel good about themselves.
• Act swiftly and certainly when something unacceptable happens.
Your son isn’t where he said he would be? Go find him. Your daughter’s friend invited a boy into the house when she thought you had gone to sleep? Get dressed and take everybody home. Your kid comes home drunk? Put him or her to bed for the rest of the night, but deal with it first thing in the morning. Be consistently clear, kind and definite in response to unacceptable behaviour and kids will see that you really won’t tolerate it.
• Model adult behaviour when you are in conflict with your teen.
Whatever you do, don’t yell, threaten, preach or ‘lose it’ if you don’t like a behaviour, a friendship or how your child interacts with you. You will render yourself totally ineffective with your teen. Your child will take you far more seriously if you insist that the two of you focus on managing the problem instead of yelling at each other.
Remember that your influence depends on your relationship with your child, not your power. You can’t make your child do anything at this stage in life. It won’t help to make threats, to lose your temper, or to try to ‘ground’ or punish a teen. In fact, these tactics tend to spur kids on to greater rebellion as they try to assert their independence.
My grandfather was a proper New Englander: quiet, somewhat stern and unfailingly kind. I knew that he loved me. Even more important I knew he trusted me to do the right thing.
The reason I didn’t hitchhike again during my teen years was not because I was caught or because I was punished (I wasn’t). I didn’t push my rebellion further because I wanted the respect of my grandfather much more than I needed to demonstrate that I could do what I pleased.
Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central’s Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart. Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.