I recently spoke with Dr. Sara Villanueva, a psychologist and mother of four, about her new book, Angst of Adolescence: How to Parent Your Teen and Live to Laugh About It.
Some parents of teens make the mistake of micromanaging their teenagers’ behavior, school, activities, etc., much like they did when the kids were younger. How can parents transition into a more mentor role with their teenagers?
Sara: Just because our children get older and move on with their lives, we do not stop being their parents. Our thoughts and emotions certainly will never shift to the point of not caring what our kids do or how they are—the key is in how we manage our thoughts and feelings. If we, as parents, allowed ourselves to focus too much on the worries and what ifs, we would be buried by them, and what good would that do for anyone? So what can we do to ease the worry? Constantly check up on our grown kids by stalking them via social networking sites, phone, and text? Employ someone to “keep an eye on them” for us? This is probably not the best approach.
Despite our nearly overwhelming urge to take action and do whatever it takes to ensure our grown child’s well-being and success, it is likely not in our (or our child’s) best interest to become what some social scientists refer to as “helicopter parents.” This term refers to parents who go to unreasonable lengths to help or protect their children. Typically witnessed in either academic or professional settings, helicopter parents of grown children do things like call a child’s professor to ask for extensions on homework deadlines (yes, I have received these types of phone calls from parents myself), write papers or do other assignments for their child, or call their child’s boss to ask that he get a raise. Sound extreme? That’s because, to most people, it is.
Rather than doing for our children the things that they themselves should be responsible for, a better strategy is to give them the tools (i.e., instruction, tutoring, support, appropriate expectation, etc.) to accomplish these goals for themselves, and learn to let go. I know it’s scary . . . believe me, I know.
But if we were to do everything for them, how or when will they learn to stand on their own two feet? How will they learn about responsibility, time management, organization, scheduling, and success and failure? They are our “grown” children, after all, and much like when they were little, they will learn that after they fall and scrape their knees, they have to get right back up and keep going. Contrary to what we may think, when we protect them from natural consequences (i.e., getting an F on a paper because they didn’t complete the work or getting fired from a job because they were consistently late), we are, simply put, doing our children a disservice and hindering their ability to become responsible, successful adults.
What we can do to help ease our concerns and support our developing children is communicate. Communicating with your child, as often as is comfortable for you both, via phone calls, text, or whatever means works most efficiently for you and your family, allows you to check in on how he is doing (or simply to hear his voice) and sends the message that you are still here to support him in a new, more mentor-like role. You can ask him/her how things are going in school, relationships, life—but be prepared to listen, and if at some point you must give advice (we all do!) then also be prepared for him/her to either take it, or not. Part of our teen’s job is to become his/her own person, make his/her own decisions, and as part of that whole process, perhaps there will be ups, downs, and scrapes, but by knowing that you are there (emotionally if not physically) they will have the confidence to get back up and try again.
As a mother of four children 13 and under, I often hear “Wait until they’re teenagers” in a tone that implies those years will be fraught with disaster. How should parents view the teen years?
Sara: Let me begin by saying that they don’t call adolescence the period of “storm and stress” for nothing. Because teens go through a series of transitions that spur all sorts of physical, cognitive, and social/behavioral changes, this transitional period can present challenges for both teens and parents. As parents begin to notice the significant changes that come with adolescence (physical changes brought about by puberty, the constant angst and moodiness, and, of course, the classic eye-rolling followed by the I-know-it-all attitude), they wonder just what happened to their happy, sweet, and affectionate young boy or girl. Parents often sit by amazed—and often lost and unprepared—as they witness their child morph and mutate into a full-blown pubescent display of emotions. Thus, the messages they give to unknowing parents of small children.
That being said, the message that I try to get across to parents in my book is that although the adolescent period can be somewhat difficult and maybe even cause some parents to want to pull their hair out, perhaps we should accept, and even embrace our teen’s behaviors as simply part of the developmental process. Remembering, for example, that my teenage daughter’s incessant bickering and questioning of authority is simply part of the cognitive development that all teens go through, and it is her job, right now, to bicker and question. (If this is her job, boy…she’s good at it!) This positive spin or outlook that I challenge parents to take is not easy, but definitely doable and worth it. In my book, I assert that despite the trials involved in parenting teens, we should take time to focus on the positives through the tough adolescent years so that we emerge on the other side with friendship and a deeper bond. In my book, I share both research-based and first-hand advice on how to navigate the teen years and in the end, we can all live to laugh about it!