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Seems appropriate to address Independence in July. The celebration of a country free to manage itself, woohoo!! Growth and self-sufficiency however, is not easily earned.  It requires persistence, sacrifice, and the ability to postpone instant gratification in pursuit of a larger goal and reward. Celebratory fireworks in a July night sky are as thrilling as they are dangerous, when recklessly managed; similar to a 17 year old in search of a fun night out with a freshly minted driver’s license and a car full of friends.

It is a leap of faith as a parent to allow our teens their desired freedom, yet necessary if they are to make it on their own in the future. Finding the balance between fostering dependence and forcing independence can be hard to navigate. Not all teens are ready to handle the same responsibilities and freedoms. Some teens are more precocious and mature, while others are hesitant or perhaps even avoidant. Some will need a gentle push to trying new things on their own, others will need parent generated brakes to align the pace of privileges with the growth of needed skills. How can we raise this generation through safe passage to independence while fostering strong parent-teen relationships so they value the guidance we have to offer?

The answer is not by unilaterally dictating their path. Teens are more likely to be receptive if we consult with them and synthesize bi-generational perspectives. This can help them figure things out for themselves with the benefit of our experience and wisdom. Let’s look at some of the relationship skills that can nurture this growth.

While all the “What Works With Teens” relationship skills are useful (Respect, Authenticity, Kindness, Predictability and Acceptance), here let’s focus on two that for me, at least, can be pretty challenging when responding to a negative situation (aka bad behavior choice).

Kindness and Acceptance.

When our teens have engaged in behaviors that shake our confidence in them, it is tempting to take over by unilaterally reacting and restricting. It makes us feel better. But does it help them build the skills they need and learn from their mistakes?

Fundamentally accepting that misjudgments and missteps are baked into the constitution of the adolescent experience, and using kindness in our tone, allow for a more thoughtful response. It is not our job to prevent all bad things from happening. They will anyway. It is our job to help them foresee and avert as many challenges as possible and learn from the ones they stumble (or even dive) into. Here is an example of using kindness and acceptance when responding to challenging teen behavior.

Scenario: Your teen gets a speeding ticket (not their first one).

Possible (Likely?) Parent Emotions: Fear/Worry, Anger, Disappointment. Be careful here. It is tempting to lose it, yell, scream, judge and ultimately punish. This may make us feel better in the short term but we lose the opportunity for valuable teaching and conversations. Emotional expression is important to model, though dysregulation and disrespect can feel overwhelming for teens. When teens feel shamed or controlled, they are more likely to lie, circumvent and sneak, which ultimately teaches them not to tell us when bad things happen.

Goal: Increase Independence using Kindness and Acceptance

Relationally Skillful Parental Response: First, express your honest emotions without berating, yelling or judging harshly. There is something valuable about modeling the expression of honest emotions without losing control. Then say something like, “Are you ok (inquire how they feel about what happened)? Can you walk me through what happened?” Hold them to reporting a detailed account. The emotional discomfort inevitable in this step may help to elicit accountability. Honest conversations and tolerating difficult emotions are one of the most overlooked and valuable natural consequences.

Let them know why you are concerned, “We (parents) are worried about your and others’ safety when you speed and this is not the first time this has happened. We will discuss next steps based on your actions. Until then please hand over the keys.” Then have a thoughtful discussion among parents before outlining an appropriate consequence or response to your teen.

If your teen tries to offer excuses when consequences are presented, validate that it IS hard to attend to all that driving requires and follow the rules of the road.  It is in fact a big responsibility that uses multiple skills sets still in progress for teens. Then respectfully communicate appropriate limits (use of car), accountability (pay for the ticket, go to court, take a driver’s safety class?), and incremental ways for your teen to earn back driving privileges. If your teen has a hard time tolerating the conversation or argues, simply pause and let them know when they are ready to hear you out and discuss ways to get back on the road, the discussion may resume. We must also be able to accept that teens will have hard emotions as well (and they are less artful in their expression).

When we accept that teens are fallible, and show understanding by using their behavior as an opportunity for learning and growth, teens are more likely to accept their responsibility, and work on skills development needed for increased independence. Using kindness and acceptance to respond to difficult situations can decrease the likelihood of an emotionally dysregulated (or crisis) reaction, and give teens less reason to circumvent, lie, or sneak. They may even be more open to valuable guidance conversations in the future.  Ultimately, we want them to be honest with us when the next bad thing happens (because it will).

Happy Independence years!
Julie Baron, LCSW-C