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Boundaries with TeensWhen To Say Yes, How To Say No
By John Townsend
ZondervanCopyright © 2006 John Townsend
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRevisit Your Own Adolescence
One night when I was seventeen, I ran my parents' Ford Fairlane station wagon as fast as it would go. It gave out on me after about two miles. It just stopped, and that was it. The engine had to be rebuilt. What was I thinking? It was a station wagon! I had to call my dad at 1:00 a.m. so he could take me home. We had the car towed the next day.
While the Fairlane tragedy isn't a good memory, I benefited from that experience. When one of my sons told me that he had lost a watch I had given him, I remembered how crummy I had felt when I had to call my own father and tell him what had happened to the Fairlane. That memory helped me understand how bad my son was feeling about losing his watch, so I just told him, "Oh, well, we'll get another and try again."
If you have a pulse, you have similar stories from your adolescence. Teens do things that are irresponsible. That is the nature of adolescence. For some of us, the teen years had some minor blips, and for others of us, they were miserable.
For the sake of your teen, remember your own adolescence. The more you can recollect how you felt and what you did then, the better a parent you will be.
Your Teen Needs You to Have a Past
Why should you unearth those days? What benefit will it bring to your adolescent? Significant ones, as we will see. Remembering can help you show your teen:
Empathy and identification. It is easy to forget how difficult the teen years can be, and parents sometimes judge teens too harshly for behaving like a teenager.
But your teen needs a parent who will connect with him and show him empathy, who can identify with what he is going through and who understands the struggle of adolescence. He needs to know that he is not alone in the fight.
Think about how much you need someone to hear you and be there for you in your everyday struggles as an adult. What if every time you screwed up, all you heard was, "What in the world are you doing? Are you trying to ruin your life?" Wouldn't it be easy to feel disheartened and give up? Your teen, whose brain is less developed than yours, is even less resilient in the face of criticism. Your support can soften the blows that will inevitably come your teen's way.
This doesn't mean that you should tell your teen lots of stories about your own adolescence. Parents often do that, thinking it's helping, when it really ends up being more for the parent than for the teen. Instead, remember those days, give them a few stories now and then, but keep most of your memories to yourself and allow them to help you identify with your teen. I have had so many teens tell me how disconnected they feel when dad tells them all the stories of his adolescence. It's much better for you to enter their world.
Nor does identifying with your teen mean you will approve of all his choices; rather, you are able to put yourself in your teen's place-even when he is being rude, self-centered, and unreasonable. When you see a little part of yourself in your adolescent, you can give him the connection he needs to mature.
Insight and wisdom. Because you have survived your own adolescence, you have access to what helped you during those turbulent years, and why. When you remember what made a difference in your life, those memories can give you insight and wisdom so that you, in turn, can provide what your teen needs.
So ask yourself these three questions:
1. Who stuck with me without giving up on me?
2. What truths helped me make sense of the world?
3. What did I learn from the consequences of my actions?
My Boy Scout troop leader, A. J. "DK" DeKeyser, spent time with me during countless meetings and trips. He encouraged me to stay in Boy Scouts when I was ready to bail. And he didn't tell my parents every bad thing I did; instead, he handled each one himself. DK is one of those people whose wisdom helped me learn persistence, and my memories of him have reminded me of the kind of parent I want to be.
Hope. All parents wonder if their teen will ever change, become responsible, or care about his or her life. Parents don't know their children's future. Yet, because you can remember your own adolescence, you now can understand your own life and decisions. You know that you went through tough times and made many bad decisions, but that you gradually became more connected, self-controlled, focused, and responsible. Your own years should offer you hope for your teen; you can convey that hope even when your teen is floundering.
My mother raised four kids. After I had grown up, I asked her how she made it. She told me that when she was overwhelmed with us, she would go to her own mom, who had raised six kids. Her mom would always tell her the same thing: "It's just a stage; they'll grow out of it." This helped my mom put up with us and help us get to the next stage, whatever it was.
Try to Remember ...
Even though it's not uncommon for parents to talk about how much more challenging the world is today for teens, research statistics say otherwise. For example, between 1978 and 2002, the average age for drinking alcohol for the first time went from 16.3 years to 16.2. The age for smoking the first cigarette went up from 15.2 years of age to 16.1, and the age for smoking marijuana for the first time went from 18.4 years of age to 17.2. In 1991, 54 percent of students had had sexual intercourse. In 2003, the percentage was 46 percent.
Today's parents can rest assured that many of the challenges they faced in adolescence are similar to the challenges their teens face. So, reflect back on how, as a teen, you may have struggled in the following areas, and allow those experiences to help you offer your teen compassion and help.
Conflict with and distance from your parents. Most likely, you went through a rough patch in which you thought your parents were controlling and didn't understand you. You may have been overtly defiant and had long and loud arguments with them. Or perhaps you were sneaky and did what you wanted behind their backs. Then again, you may have never disagreed with your parents and weren't able to individuate from them. If so, you likely entered into adolescence later in life, when you had already left home.
No matter when you experienced this conflict with your parents, you probably didn't enjoy the fighting or the duplicity with them. Parents are the center of a child's life, so it's always difficult for children to disconnect from them. So when you look at your teen's surly, angry face, understand that she does not enjoy the alienation any more than you do.
Relational problems. Who were your friends? Were you into sports, studies, art, music, church, or some combination of them? Remember how central your friendships were to you. They were the only world that mattered to you.
That sort of prominence probably had its downside too: cliques, arguments, broken romances, and fights. Think of how vigilant you had to be, sometimes to the point of being more concerned with who liked you than with who you liked. Think of how devastating it was when someone you trusted turned against you, and you had no way to deal with it. That is how your teen feels.
Emotional and behavioral issues. Did you ever feel depressed and very down? Lost and confused? Did you ever get high or drunk? Go further than you wanted to sexually? Experience angry outbursts that you couldn't control?
Sometimes when we think about the good old days of our teens, we whitewash the angst, negative feelings, and out-of-control behaviors that we struggled with. It's scary to do and feel things you can't manage.
Candace told me that as a teen she felt tremendous pressure to keep everyone cheered up and was unable to experience or talk about negative emotions. As a result of this, she developed a habit of sticking pins into her fingers until she bled, and says that at some level this calmed her down. No one ever found out about what she was doing. Years later she realized that sticking herself with pins was a way for her to feel on the outside the pain she couldn't experience on the inside. (Teens who cut themselves do so for similar reasons.)
When her daughter becomes angry with her, Candace uses this memory. While she always requires respect, she also feels compassion for her daughter's frustration, and she thinks, At least she can talk to me about what she is feeling. Candace is using her painful memories for good parenting.
Some Tips for How to Recall
If you find it hard to remember your teen years, here are some guidelines to help you recall them, in the service of developing more compassion for your teen.
Journaling. Use the exercise of writing to bring back your teen years. Start as far back in those days as you can remember. Often the act of journaling what you know will bring forth what you have forgotten.
Talking. Conversations with friends about your past will often shake loose memories. Though it's helpful, having friends from those days is not necessary. It is more important to be with someone safe, accepting, and interested in you, so that what is inside you can be revealed.
Observing the past's effect on who you have become. Our past experiences make a significant difference in the adults we are now. Look at your strengths and weaknesses, and see how they are rooted in your teen experiences. When I was in high school, I was way too active in sports and committees. I was tired a lot because I didn't get enough sleep, and my parents told me that they thought I was getting mononucleosis. Actually, it just turned out to be fatigue. But I can still see my tendency to be too active, and I see it in my kids too.
Grieving and letting go. Most of us had a lot of fun in our teen years, as well as a lot of loss, failure, and sadness. Entering the grief process can help us learn from what happened, move on, and help our teens. You may need to get in touch with some hurts you experienced, mistakes you made, or losses you experienced. If you haven't been able to deal with these, it will hamper your ability to empathize with your teen. We can't empathize as well if our own pains haven't been resolved. But to the extent that you have let go of past pain, you are that much more able to feel deep compassion for your teen's struggle.
Give Grace, Love, and Understanding
The next time your kid is defiant or moody, try to see your teenage self in your teen's eyes. Hold the line, tell the truth, set the limits. But give your kid grace, understanding, and love, for these years aren't easy ones. Teens need parents who "get it," who haven't forgotten their own past but instead have grown from it.
GET TO KNOW YOUR TEEN
As you revisit your teen years, think about your relationship with your parents. Did you feel they wanted to understand and connect with you? If so, you know what a positive impact this can have on a kid. It not only helped you like yourself, it likely made it easier to accept their boundaries and corrections.
But if not, how did it make you feel? What difference might it have made in your life if your parents had expressed interest in understanding and connecting with you? You have the power to make that kind of difference in your teen's life, simply by getting to know him and his world. Here are some ways to do just that.
Aim to know who your teen is rather than to change your teen. Your teen needs to know that you want a relationship because you want a relationship. This must be primary. If your teen thinks you want to talk to him so that you can change and fix him, you are lost, and you will get either resistance or pretense. So second-guess and check your motives at all times. Your teen will be checking your motives as well.
Listen more, lecture less. Your teen should be using a lot of the information she learned from you and trying it out. Adolescents are working on experiencing life more than they are receiving head knowledge. While you should always be teaching, guiding, and correcting, the focus needs to shift. Listen more and draw her out, so that you can see what she is thinking about and struggling with. Refrain from moralizing about every wrong thing you hear.
Ask questions. Ask questions that require more than "yes" and "no." Instead of asking, "How was school?" which can be answered with an "Okay," ask, "What did you do first period?" or "Tell me about the science test; what were some of the questions?" or "What is Daniel up to these days? I haven't seen him for a while."
Follow up with more questions that are based on what you have heard. For example, suppose you asked about Daniel, and you heard, "He's okay ... he had a big fight with his girlfriend." Go after the fight. Keep finding out more. Begin with questions about facts, move to thoughts, and then to emotions. Your adolescent needs for you to know him at a heart level, not just at an event level. This opens him up to your parenting him where he truly lives. For example, you might say, "What did you think about Daniel's argument with his girlfriend? Did you agree with his side or hers?" Now you are into his thoughts and opinions. After that, you can ask, "Did you feel bad for him? Were you angry with her?" You are now helping your teen express and put words to emotions and feelings deep inside himself.
Take off the physical pressure. Don't walk up to your teen and say, "So talk to me. Now!" Instead, say, "I don't want to lose touch with how your life is going, so I'm going to need a few minutes with you several times a week, just to touch base. Doesn't need to be a long time, but enough to see how you are doing, how we are doing, and if there's anything I can help you with." Your teen will likely protest, but insist on this. It's important.
Rather than sitting down to talk, take some pressure off by taking a walk, throwing a ball, or going out for an evening with just the two of you. (I don't recommend trying to talk while watching television or playing a video game; it's just too powerful a distraction). Create a safe space for the teen to feel okay about opening up with you.
Excerpted from Boundaries with Teens by John Townsend Copyright © 2006 by John Townsend. Excerpted by permission.
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