Dear future self,
I’ve been seeing parents dealing with their teenage and middle school children lately, and sometimes it makes me cringe. Based on my own memories of being a teenager, and my experiences teaching teens for three years, it seems like a lot of people go about it all wrong.
Here’s a few things I want to be very careful to remember in ten years, because I can only assume that the parents I see have forgotten these things, and their children suffer for it.
Teenagers aren’t scary monsters
Teenagers are not horrible monsters that come and replace your sweet babies after a few short years and do their best to ruin your life. Based on the reactions I get when I tell people I like teaching middle school, and the self-pitying comments I hear from parents, I get the impression many people think this.
Adolescence is just the next stage in a child’s development, and while it will be difficult because of hormones, mood swings, and potential personality clashes, it can be a wonderful time if managed properly. Young adolescents have the energy and enthusiasm of a child, coupled with a budding adult intelligence, which makes them a lot of fun if managed properly.
Teenagers need respect
Just because you are someone’s parent doesn’t mean that you can disrespect them and their ideas and still expect them to respect you. Respect is a two way street, even in parenting.
Teens and preteens are if probably more sensitive about their personal dignity than you are. If you demean your child you are placing him in an impossible situation: either he must accept it and see himself as worthless, or, if he wishes to see himself as redeemable, he must see you as wrong.
Teenagers are neither adults nor children
They are not adults, of course, and they need to be guided towards good choices and guarded from bad ones. Internet filters and rules about technology are necessary. Just as you wouldn’t give a fourteen year old a car, a credit card, and a full liquor cabinet with no guidance, a full-function smart phone is too much for a teen to handle without guidance.
However, this does not mean they can or should be treated like two year old olds. They must be given opportunities to learn responsibility. And this means no more and no less than giving them responsibility. They need to be treated as competent if they are ever to become so. And they have to be given the opportunity to make mistakes. The great thing about giving a teenager limited responsibilities is that they can learn about making mistakes while the consequences are manageable.
A twelve year old should be able to do all of these things:
- Keep track of their own school work. (It’s not your job as a parent to pack your fifth grader’s backpack–don’t let anyone tell you different. If they forget something at home, the consequences will be relatively small, and should be felt by the child.)
- Decide what appropriate winter wear for the day is. (If you’re doing something unusual, guidance can still be helpful)
- Plan and cook a simple meal for the family
- Babysit younger siblings (maybe not for days at a time, but certainly for an evening out).
- Do their own laundry. This doesn’t mean they have to do all their laundry, but you shouldn’t have to hunt down their dirty clothes, or did their clean ones.
- Earn money working for people (they will need help connecting with people to work for)
- Respectfully and intelligently discuss their own rules and discipline. (Teach your child how to respectfully ask for exceptions or modifications to the rules)
- Set personal goals (with help)
- Start budgeting and tracking their expenses
- Go to the store, ride bikes, or take walks in a reasonably safe neighborhood without a hovering adult.
- Order their own food at restaurants without your help. (Giving them a budget is reasonable)
- Start using power tools under supervision
- Mow the lawn
- Take care of their own garden plot
- Remember to bring their own things to routine events. Church books, school supplies, etc.
- Understand that they are a contributing member of the household with responsibilities in making everything run smoothly.
Depression is not just a bad attitude
A lot of teenagers suffer from more or less severe depression. If your kid has consistently bad moods, low energy, poor sleep, or general lack of motivation, it’s likely not just a bad attitude. You won’t solve it by yelling at them. It’s probably not their fault.
If your kid has these problems, look for simple solutions first.
- Trauma: if the behavior came on suddenly, figure out if there was a trauma of some kind. Gently try to get your kid to tell you what happened and work through their feelings in a positive way. Having a good, respectful relationship with your kid is invaluable for this. (Depression-causing trauma doesn’t have to be something serious like sexual assault. Even something as trivial as being called a “baby” by an authority figure can cause long term issues if not sorted out. Trust me.)
- Exercise: Make sure your kids are getting enough strenuous activity. Outdoors is best. If a person is already depressed, they will almost definitely need company to help them exercise.
- Nutrition: a good multivitamin can do wonders, especially for girls. And almost everyone who doesn’t live in the tropics can benefit from taking vitamin D3.
- Social life: does your kid get out and spend time with good friends often enough? Healthy social interactions can keep you break the downward spiral of negative thoughts.
- Responsibility: if you have nothing in your life that is your responsibility and of which you can take ownership, minor depression can quickly develop into feelings of worthlessness. It’s important for everyone to feel that they have a role to play and that they would be missed.
Depression is sometimes a physical condition that doesn’t respond to normal methods like those above. Antidepressants can help in extreme cases, but alternative medicine usually has fewer side effects and can sometimes yield very good results.
At the moment, dealing with a two-year-old, I look forward to the day when I can have an intelligent conversation with my own child. I look forward to being able to start having a friendship with my child, to trusting her, to learning things from her, to watching her mind grow and develop as she becomes a woman.
I know it can be hard to share a house–and especially a kitchen–with another woman, and this is probably part of why so many mothers struggle with their teenage daughters. And I know it’s hard to watch a child struggle and learn things the hard way, and that this is what growing up looks like. And I am sure I will have my share of arguments and disagreements with my children as they grow up.
But hopefully this letter will remind me that my children are people and that they want to be treated like people. And that adolescents can be very enjoyable.