Adolescence is a search for identity. Figuring out who you are, what and whom you like, what drives your motivations and what values guide your path is a complex journey. As we enter into a new year and in fact a new decade, let’s convert the saying New Year, New You (signifying goals for change) to… New Year, Real You (accept and be who you are).
Living authentically is a critical ingredient to solidifying one’s identity. It means being honest and transparent as well as genuine. For the teens we serve, our own commitment to being, doing and saying what matches our true thoughts, feelings and beliefs, is a powerful model to help them do the same. Authenticity is not as easy as it may seem. It requires self-awareness, self-acceptance, and the willingness to make ourselves vulnerable. As I reiterate in countless sessions with clients, there is no authenticity without vulnerability and both are required to achieve any level of intimacy or real and genuine connection with others.
Consider the value of your own authenticity in your work with teens and how it cultivates a trusted relationship and encourages those teens to explore their genuine selves. Consider how our own honesty can also encourage theirs. Here are some ways to practice authenticity with the teen clients, patients, students and athletes we serve:
- Be honest about what you know and what you don’t know. Answer questions honestly and offer to get the information if you don’t know the answer (or say you would rather not answer). We may be tempted to say something is dangerous or over exaggerate the potential consequences of behaviors we want to discourage. This usually discredits us and undermines our overall influence. Better to be honest and help teens weigh inevitable pros and cons of decision making. We also need to check our understanding of their perspectives and listen openly. A common complaint from teens is that adults say they understand and the teen truly feels at times we don’t. Assume that there are situations that we may not be able to fully understand and say so.
- Be transparent. Owning mistakes, apologizing and being real about our own fallibility goes a long way in building relationship cred. It also models humility and is the foundation of what we as humans have in common. Take the time to explain our roles and expectations in the work. Invite feedback from teens about how we are doing and if we are meeting their needs. These strategies pave the way for openness through the process.
- Share of yourself. This may mean sharing aspects of your life like pictures of family or pets, inspiring or meaningful experiences or travels, or your feelings or opinions. Even being real with regard to your temperament (shy or outgoing, adventurous or cautious) is a way for teens to get a sense of knowing you. Be able to laugh at yourself and use humor genuinely. A word of caution however, when sharing yourself with the teens you serve, be mindful of the ethical boundaries of your profession’s standards and that what you are sharing is relevant to the work and goals for that teen.
- Say or ask what is hard. Be real about concerns you may have and the feedback you can offer to teens, always in the interest of helping them to reach THEIR goals and better self. Holding teens accountable with compassion and without judgment but with honesty will help them reflect while mitigating the inevitable emotions. Yes, life is hard and no they (or we) cannot just “get over it.” Tolerating the emotions teens express or may be feeling (and inquiring about those emotions) will help them express themselves honestly and learn about how things affect them. Remember that many times a teens actions or even silence may be a way of asking for help or a show of interest that makes them feel valued.
Parenting Teens with Authenticity
Is hard. Why?
Here are my thoughts. We often feel we are walking on eggshells trying not to set off an emotional explosion. We fear our kids will shut us out or lie to us to avoid listening to us or disappointing us. We are busy, stressed and oh so tired and just can’t handle an argument or push back. We worry if we upset our children, they will do something impulsive or dangerous or just leave. We are riddled with comparisons from the postings of other parents and all the SHOULDS that our teens may or may not be living up to. How about the questioning fellow parents on how they could possibly LET their teen do (fill in the blank), as if our teens are not separate beings. And there is more. It’s no wonder why being honest, forthcoming and transparent with our teens is such a challenge. And we haven’t even discussed the pitfalls of tolerating their authenticity (lest it not match what we hope, expect or compare with others.)
I believe that in order to foster authenticity in our parenting approaches and within our relationship with our teens, there are a few things we have to accept:
- We need to tolerate difficult emotions (theirs and ours).
- We need to let go of SHOULDS and know that what is right for each teen is different and we have to figure out with their collaboration what that looks like
- We may have to accept that the person our teen is growing into is not the vision we had for who we thought they would be. As Wendy Mogul describes, kids are like raising a fruit or vegetation, except the bag of seeds is unmarked. It is up to us to observe them and know how much food, water, sunlight and the right temperature they need to grow. A strawberry will never grow into an oak tree.
Helpful strategies for exhibiting authenticity in parenting are the same as above but with a twist:
- Be honest about what you know and what you don’t know. You don’t always have to know in the moment asked how you will respond to a request. You can hear them out and let them know you need time to think it through (ie: can I go to…)
- Be transparent. Consider where your own lines are with regard to oversharing vs. undersharing personal experiences.
- Share of yourself. Be real with thoughts, opinions, values and emotions. Accept that yours may not also be theirs.
- Say or ask what is hard. Teens want their privacy and that is valid. Parent gut is also a powerful detector and worthy of scrutiny. Be open with your teen if you are in search of information that can help you determine if they are at risk or in danger. Ask them as well. If they say everything is fine and your gut says it is not, describe the discrepancy in your observation from their words and see where that leads. If questions are explored with genuine concern rather than judgment and a goal to catch, your chances for an honest interaction are much better. It also sets you up to collaborate with them on a solution.
Julie Baron, LCSW-C