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  • Mary Katherine L

The Top Two Things I Tell Parents of Teens - Part 1

In this two-part series I will share the two things I most often talk about with parents of teenagers.

Your teenager is progressing through the stages of development.

When a baby you're caring for is putting anything and everything into their mouth, you may be amused if the action is cute and silly, frustrated if your attention needs to be elsewhere, or fearful if there's a potential for a choking hazard. Regardless of your emotional reaction, you know that the baby is doing this because of their developmental needs to explore the world, develop their motor skills, and soothe their hurting gums.

When a teenager challenges your knowledge, or they no longer want to participate in family activities, or they're experimenting with their appearance, it can be difficult to remember that they're also doing this because of their developmental needs.

MIT's Raising Teens Project identified Ten Tasks of Adolescent Development that teens need to accomplish in order to successfully transition into adulthood:

  1. Adjust to sexually maturing bodies and feelings

  2. Develop and apply abstract thinking skills

  3. Develop and apply new perspective on human relationships

  4. Develop and apply new coping skills in areas such as decision making, problem solving, and conflict resolution

  5. Identify meaningful moral standards, values, and belief systems

  6. Understand and express more complex emotional experiences

  7. Form friendships that are mutually close and supportive

  8. Establish key aspects of identity

  9. Meet the demands of increasingly mature roles and responsibilities

  10. Renegotiate relationships with adults in parenting roles

When you identify one of your teen's behaviors as an effort to make progress toward achieving one of these developmental tasks, you don't have to just step back and be indiscriminately permissive. Here are some tips for how you can support their development:

  • Consider whether their behavior is a real safety or well-being concern or whether their behavior simply makes you uncomfortable. If the behavior is a real safety or well-being concern, you should absolutely intervene. If the behavior simply makes you uncomfortable, it's important that you tolerate that discomfort so that you can more fully investigate the behavior and promote their development.

  • Consider whether their behavior, decisions, and opinions are morally wrong or simply aligned with values that are different than yours. By differentiating between what is wrong and what is preferred, you are honoring your teenager's emerging individuality and identity, and you are giving them the opportunity to advance forward in the developmental task of identifying meaningful moral standards, values, and belief systems.

  • Prioritize guidance, not commands. Especially if no safety or well-being concern is present, leave the final decision up to them and focus on offering questions and suggestions that will bolster your teenager's burgeoning decision making, problem solving, and conflict resolution skills.

  • Remember that your teen will be frustrated with the ways they have not yet achieved all of their tasks and are not yet fully capable of even doing so. Remain empathetic to their shortcomings instead of punishing them.

Here's an example:

My teenager has decided to spend their savings on the latest iPhone rather than a ticket for the concert that all of their friends are going to.

  • Does this decision present a safety or well-being concern?

    • No, but it does make me uncomfortable because I know that when the time for the concert comes, they will be complaining that they don't have a ticket.

  • Is this decision morally wrong?

    • No, but I value spending my money on experiences rather than physical items.

  • How can I prioritize guidance?

    • I can have a conversation with my teenager about how they made this decision and how they may feel about the decision later.

  • How will I empathize instead of punish them?

    • When the time for the concert comes and my teenager is complaining they don't have a ticket, I can say "I know it's hard to miss out" instead of "I knew you were going to do this." And, maybe I do let them experience this natural consequence, or maybe I offer to lend them money for the concert ticket with a clear agreement for how the money will be repaid to me.

Look out for Part 2 next week!


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