Parenting Teenagers the Joyful Way
Four and a half years ago I made a big decision. I took my son, then aged 13, out of his secondary school to educate him at home. He had personal and medical issues that made mainstream, institutional education traumatic and ineffective. It was the beginning of a journey for both of us.
The Teenager began to explore who he was, what he wanted to do and how he wanted to be, and I had to learn how to parent – alone – a growing child with individual needs. We would be spending a lot more time together than most teenagers and parents, in challenging circumstances because I would not be able to work full time while facilitating his education. I could have looked at this situation as ‘difficult,’ or I could have seen it as an opportunity to grow, learn and discover. Luckily, for most of the time, I have chosen the latter.
My Teenager is now nearly 18 and is articulate, knowledgeable and independent minded. He is a talented musician, playing several instruments, singing, writing songs and performing regularly with a band. He knows exactly what he wants to do in life – he has already started – and he knows the next steps to take.
Sometimes I am not sure how we got from there, in 2009, to where we are now. I am aware, however, that I have indeed grown and changed, and that most of what I have learned is about myself, not about my son. I have become a conscious parent.
Parenting a teenager is unlikely ever to be easy, but it can be fun and rewarding. Here is how I have learned to do it:
Look after yourself. You can only be the best parent you can be if you nurture yourself, making your own needs a high priority. What’s more, you want to know that, when your teenager becomes an adult, they will be capable of looking after themselves. When it’s no longer your job. The best way you can possibly teach them to do this is by example.
Know that you can’t control your teenager. They are no longer a small child and, if they don’t want to be controlled, you won’t be able to do it. The way you are most likely to influence them is by working on your relationship with them.
Practise acceptance. Accept that you won’t be able to control them as you may have done when they were little. Accept them exactly as they are. They may not want to do the A levels you want them to do; they may not want to go to university. Or, like my Teenager, they may not even be able to sit GCSEs. It’s not the end of the world. Accepting things as they are, accepting the things you cannot, in all honesty, change, will make you all happier.
Let go. Parenting is a constant process of letting go, more and more. Giving birth is letting go, as is taking them to school for the first time, staying at home when they go on holiday with friends, trying to sleep when they are out at night. I had to let go of my academic aspirations for my Teenager and, when I had, I started to appreciate his creativity and talent so much more. I let go so he could be himself.
Be grateful. Practising gratitude is a powerful and simple way to have a better life, every day. If your teenager is getting on your nerves, being moody, or worse, you have a choice: you can make the situation even more uncomfortable by focussing on everything that is wrong, or you can sit down with a pen and paper and make a gratitude list. Write down every single thing you can think of about your young person that you could be grateful about. You may not feel grateful but you can be grateful. This simple task, if you are willing to go through with it, will change your thinking and your experience.
Expect ‘down time.’ Teenagers need time to do nothing. They can get very tired; personally I think that this is to do with all the growing and the hormonal changes. It’s not easy going through all that. They also need to get very bored sometimes in order to be creative. Keeping too busy can stifle our creativity because we don’t have time to have ideas, to daydream, to be inspired. If teenagers don’t go through this process at this stage of their lives, they may lose their natural creativity before they have really discovered it.
Live in the now. All we have is the present, the here and now. We can all benefit from remembering to become present often during the day. It is so easy to think that children, and especially teenagers, must spend their time working towards the future, that ‘it will all be worth it in the end.’ But teenagers are people now. They are alive now and they deserve to be happy now. If something is making them unhappy now, is it really worth it? Of course it is important to plan and prepare, but it’s also vital to be aware of the cost that we, and they, may be paying now if that planning and preparation causes pain.
Spend quality time. When our children become teenagers, they often want to spend their time doing things that don’t appeal to us. Suddenly, the trips to the beach, picnics and outings are rejected. Don’t let this be a reason to give up spending quality time together. Make an effort to watch the film they want to watch, learn to play with the x-box or find out about their particular interests. Doing this is vital for developing your changing relationship (see no. 2).
Respect. This one is difficult, sometimes! If you want your teenager to respect you then it will be much easier if you afford them the same level of respect. This covers the way you speak to them, giving explanations, replying to texts, respecting their privacy and apologising when you are wrong. I never enjoy that last one but it’s really worthwhile!
Finally, seek out fun. When our children are little, we get on the floor with them, run around, play games, laugh just for the sake of it. Then, when they are about 12 and they begin to let go of play, we do as well. In fact, everyone needs to play and have fun – adults as well as children. It’s just that teenagers are often trying very hard to be grown up. You will embarrass them whatever you do; it’s your job. Don’t worry about that, just focus on having fun yourself, finding excuses to laugh whenever you can. A fun-focussed attitude is vital for your wellbeing, and, again, you will set a great example, showing your teenager how to be responsible for their own wellbeing and happiness when they are older.