Many parents can struggle with the transition of their child into a teenager, and especially with teens’ increased need for freedom. Parents can be terrified of giving their child more choice and freedom in the midst of this intense biological need to try and manage their teen’s schoolwork, social media use, after-school activities, friendships, and more.
That’s why I like to think of parenting a teenager as bowling with the bumpers up. Your role is not to hold your child’s hand as they roll the ball down the lane or even bowl for them—that won't help much. Additionally, you don’t want to just let them bowl like an adult, without any bumpers or support, since teens are not ready for complete control (unless they're a surprisingly capable bowler, but let's pretend they're not for this analogy). Instead, your job is to be the bumpers in the lane. You allow your teen to try, to have some freedom in rolling the ball, while ensuring that they don’t go down the gutter.
And it’s important as a parent to figure out what going down the gutter would look like. At what point should you be concerned about allowing too much freedom? What would the warning signs look like specifically? Once you are clear on that, you can set up systems and support structures in place to ensure that your child has the freedom they crave without the opportunity to completely crash and burn, potentially harming themselves or their future. While your teen won’t always bowl a strike (and they’ll learn from their experiences either way), they will have your support and help when they need it the most.
In the past, I’ve discussed the importance of failure and learning to find the gift in the struggles of teenage-dom. I think a huge reason this is so hard for many parents is because parents are biologically wired to make their child’s life better than their own—to give them more opportunity, more success, and ideally more happiness. So of course, many parents want their children to get A's, go to an amazing college, and not have to deal with the anxiety and pain that comes with being a teenager.
But when your child focuses on perfection, being the best, and outside achievements to determine their self-worth, it can derail their ability to create a strong, unwavering sense of self.
Here is an exercise for when you start getting worried about their grades, friendships, peer pressure, etc. You can do this mentally or write out your answers.
1. Ask yourself, "What is it that I am worried about this school year?" Is it that they’ll fall behind in school? That they’ll prioritize their social life over grades?
2. Now ask yourself, "What is it that you want for them?" To get or keep their good grades? To have a best friend whom they can trust?
3. Now ask, "If they had that (a great best friend, good grades, etc.), thenwhat would happen?" They’d be able to get into a good college? They would be less stressed?
4. Ask again, "If they had that, then what would happen?" They’d be successful or get a good job? They’d be more at ease?
5. Keep asking yourself, "Then what would happen?" until you feel like you are at the core of what you want for them—you might even feel a gut feeling of relief or grounding associated with it. Hint: It will probably be something like “Then they’d be happy.”
Finding the core desire of what you wish for them is important—whether that be peace, happiness, love, etc.—in order to answer crucial questions. Is striving to get A’s making them happy or stressing them out? Is being on the baseball team making them at peace or is something they dread every week?
You then get to ask yourself: How can I best support them in being happy, feeling loved, or being at peace? And it may be different from what you originally wanted for them because here’s the thing: Money, achievements, and straight A's don’t often make someone happy. We’ve all already been told countless times that this is a myth, yet many of us still believe it. Heck, I have to check myself on this all the time! Happiness most often stems from compassion, gratitude, acceptance, and connection.
In his Time magazine article "In Praise of the Ordinary Child," Jeffrey Kluger writes, “But we cheat ourselves, and, worse, we cheat our kids, if we view life as a single straight-line race in which one one-hundredth of the competitors finish in the money and everyone else loses. We will all be better off if we recognize that there are a great many races of varying lengths and outcomes. The challenge for parents is to help their children find the one that’s right for them.”
As always, if you have any questions, thoughts, or insights, I’d love to hear!
Here’s to your own happiness,
I am a teen-empowerment coach. I work with teen girls, ages 14-17, who struggle with self-acceptance, perfectionism, seeking attention from others, and deep sadness or anger.