It happened overnight…twice! It happened once with our daughter Missy and then seven years later with our son Chad. The first time it occurred we were convinced it wasn’t going to happen to us so when it did, we weren’t ready. We expected it the second time around, which paved a way for a different experience.
All parents reach the point when they wonder who kidnapped their perfectly well behaved and parent-loving child. The shift in parent-child relationship is painful, confusing and often surfaces old pain stored in a parents’ memory. Between the ages of 12 to 18, children experience a crisis that Erik Erickson terms as ‘identity vs. role diffusion’. When younger, children understand that they have no power and that adults do. This allows them to align themselves with those adults as a way to share some of that power and status. Now, they want power for themselves with the same people that they’ve been subordinate to for the first twelve-plus years of their life. It’s not okay to be someone’s child…they want to be their own person. In an effort to discover who they are, there’s a natural tendency to separate from their parents and seek psychological autonomy. As parents, it’s important to accept the fact that ‘pulling away’ is totally natural; and to prepare our hearts to live in that tension so we can make the most of what’s happening during this phase.
The power of safe space and natural consequences: During this phase, kids go through the process of self-realization to determine who they’ll be as individuals and ultimately as adults. They begin to show interest in things that are different and often opposite of those of their parents. This gives them the ability to evaluate and measure these new experiences against their familiar childhood lifestyle to help them discern what’s uniquely valuable to them. This time-period of pulling away produces high levels of fear, anxiety and feelings of failure in parents. Though difficult, I had to learn how to disconnect what my children were going through from what I was feeling. Their search for a personal and separate identity was natural but I found myself feeling like a failure when I saw them making choices that didn’t reflect how I’d raised them. Instead of trusting what I had instilled in Missy when she was young, I found myself fighting against the choices she was making and over-controlling her by placing unrealistic rules in place that made her feel un-trusted and punished. Seven years later, Chad had realistic boundaries in place, which gave him a safe environment to process, fail and develop. In Chad’s words, “Missy was a recipient of punishments while I learned lessons from natural consequences (which were often painful) and received little or no punishment.” Teens need a lot of guidance and support but want the freedom to come to their parents rather than receive unsolicited advice. They’re also less likely to rebel against parents when they experience natural and realistic consequences for their actions. Often, Chad intentionally would ask some shocking questions, just to test the waters. Staying calm in the middle of scary conversations offers our children the assurance that we’re not easily disappointed and that we’re committed to them through thick and thin.
The power of community: I fell into what I believe is one of the most costly parenting traps. I bought into the lie that I was the only ‘one’ that my children needed. I’ve come to realize that because of the what ‘identity verse role diffusion’ entails a parent’s voice will become soft during these years which makes it extremely vital for us to intentionally posture other trusting adults who will echo what we believe during these years. Something beautiful happens in the process... our kids learn the value of community. As I watch my adult daughter struggle, I wish I had figured out how to give her what my son had – a community of loving and invested adults who were committed to being present for him. Today, I admire the fact that my son loves community and knows how to be community. He takes the time to build relationships as well as reaches out to others with ease and transparency when he needs support, prayer and advice. As parents, we need to accept the fact that other adults are essential and are not a threat to our children or us. Before our son hit adolescence we became intentional about being present for other teens. We found ourselves being more patient and understanding with Chad because of our unfolding experiences with those teens. Now years later, as empty nesters, my husband and I continue to find deep joy and purpose by creating safe places for those that wrestle through these years.
The power of forgiveness and transparency: One day, when my kids were still young, my son challenged me about knowing something with more accuracy than I did. I was 100% confident that I was correct. Well, it turns out that I was wrong. I remember how difficult it was to ask for forgiveness, especially because he laughed at me after I lost the bet. What he didn’t realize is that he triggered a childhood memory that evoked a severe reaction from me. Something that had the potential to be a meaningful memory turned into a nightmare. We forget that our kids have a front row seat into our lives and are absorbing the good, the bad and the ugly of our parenting till they hit the phase. As they try to gain independence and establish their own value system they openly start voicing their opinions about what they’ve experienced thus far. Partly because this is how they gain independence, and mostly because they’re trying to understand why we did what we did to parent them. It’s important to give our children the space to respectfully share their feedback. This might mean hearing some unpleasant things about ourselves, admitting our failures and asking for forgiveness. My husband’s ability to be transparent and ask for forgiveness from our son has had a huge impact on Chad. Now as a young adult, Chad finds himself modeling the same thing with his friends and co-workers.
We also need to be mindful of our own triggers that impact how we parent through this phase. I saw myself in my daughter’s behavior and that stirred up a lot of pain that I had shelved. Her behavior caused me to project my own rebellious and regretful history into Missy’s future and I assumed that she’d repeat my mistakes. I did her a disservice by failing to separate my experience from hers. I began to parent her with fear instead of using it as an opportunity to be transparent about my own poor choices and the regret it brought me. It was about her and I made it about me.
Parenting is not easy. By anticipating and preparing our hearts for the unique tensions that exists during adolescence, we can confidently help our children and others, navigate their pursuit for an independent identity that reflects the values we hold close to our hearts.