Do you remember being a teenager? Do you remember what you were like, and the things that you did? Your memories might help you be a better parent. Let me explain.
I was 15 when we lived in Oyster Bay, a small town nestled in a cove on the Long Island Sound of New York. After class, we would walk to the beach, and hang out for a while before heading home. One day, I borrowed a small Sunfish with my best friend, Iris. She was brilliant, an honors student like me. Also like me, she was a good kid, but adventurous, and inclined to push at boundaries.
Iris and I hopped into the Sunfish and sailed out into the harbor. The breeze blew, and we easily sailed along. We basked in the sunshine and the expansive ocean view. Our long hair waved free in the salty air. Together, in harmony, we sang the Crosby, Stills and Nash song, "Find the Cost of Freedom." Then, it started to get late.
“How do we get back in?” Iris asked.
“How do we get the boat back? I’m not sure.”
“Wait,” I said. “I don’t know. I thought you knew how to sail this thing.”
“No. I thought you knew how to sail it.”
“Well, I have no idea.”
“Me neither.” We looked at each other for a bit, quizzically, falling silent. Neither of us panicked, but there was a serious feeling in the air.
Iris offered, “Well, I guess we just have to get the sail to move around.”
“Yes. Also look, there’s a paddle here. Worse comes to worse, we can paddle.”
And that is what we did. Iris did her best to get the sail to move so that we could catch the breeze back, while I paddled. It took us quite a while, but we got ashore safely.
40 years later, Iris is a highly regarded academic and I am a successful psychologist.
Why on earth am I telling you this story? Teenagers, even smart ones, do ridiculously dumb things. They take risks; they have poor judgement. Raising a teenager can be enough to put you in a constant panic attack. And yet…
If you can think back, really think back, and remember what you did when you were young, you might feel less panicked. I did a million dumb things. Most of these memories make me smile now. I hitchhiked with friends. I walked barefoot in New York City, casually stepping around the broken glass. There are more memories that I don’t care to publish on the internet. But trust me, I took risks, and I had a mighty good time. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m glad I had those adventures; they are some of my favorite stories. Living now as an endlessly responsible adult, working hard and paying bills, I’m glad I had my time to be free and a bit reckless.
My ability to remember my own adolescence helped me immeasurably when my children became teenagers. When my smart girls did dumb things, I would sit for a minute, closing my eyes, envisioning how I felt when I was their age. These memories would calm me, whispering, “See? This is what it is like to be 16… Remember the freedom? Remember the fearlessness?” Once I touched my memories, I could talk to my girls about their behavior without panicking about their recklessness. I could be factual and helpful, “Drinking that much is not a smart thing to do, and here is why. You could lose control at a party and be taken advantage of. It isn't safe to drink that much, physically or socially.” With a logical and kind parenting tone, my girls could hear me. But if I became hysterical or judgmental, they would shrink away.
When my oldest daughter hit 14, I bought a book called Yes, Your Teen is Crazy. I heartily recommend this book. The author, Michael J. Bradley, describes a teenager’s developing brain, and how that brain isn’t fully wired for judgement and impulse control until it hits about 26 years old. At the same time, teenagers grow; they need to move away from hovering parents, so they can learn about consequences and develop maturity. The author suggests that parents should aim to become a trusted advisor. This means having a positive relationship with your kid, so that you can talk with them about the big world they are about to enter, without your protective presence. Your best bet as a parent now is to teach them, not to control them. Let’s be honest: teens will get away with what they want, if they are determined to do so. Trying to control them and forbidding teens will usually lead to them lying and doing it anyway, behind your back. Your best bet is to be warm and trustworthy, so you can have meaningful conversations. That is the only way you can truly advise them on the risks and dangers of life. (The author does advise, and I fully agree, taking firm control of adolescents if they are involved in legal jeopardy, or life-threatening activities.)
This concept, the trusted advisor, helped me enormously with my children. I myself wouldn’t turn to someone for advice if that person made me feel stupid. I would never share my vulnerabilities with someone who says, “What a dumb thing to do! How could you do that?” So, I had that vision of “trusted advisor” in my head.
In my heart, I also held the image of the stranded 15-year-old in a boat. Closing my eyes, I could feel that tug of adventure, the whisper of, “what could go wrong? It’ll be fun!” I tried to keep that spirit in the forefront of my brain, so I could connect more empathically with my adventurous daughters. They were smart girls. Also, they wanted to have fun. I used to be like that too, and I survived.
Raising teenagers isn’t for the faint of heart. Parents have to set limits, and teenagers never want them. You have to enforce rules about morality, reliability, and safety. You have to set expectations about behavior and responsibility. I urge you to do so. At the same time, I invite you to remember your own 15-year-old self. Where were you? Who were you with? What did you do? Did you always follow the rules? Was it fun? Are you glad you did it?
If the answers to these questions bring a smile to your face, let your memories reassure you. Barring disaster, your child won’t be a teen forever. They will grow up, learn from their mistakes, get a job, and be a functional adult. If they do something stupid now, hopefully they will learn from it. If they do something ridiculous, and are willing to talk to you about it, be gentle and calm. Yes, you have to teach them right from wrong, and to show them the consequences of their choices. But try to talk in a warm, accepting tone, so they can hear you.
For me, I just have to close my eyes and see myself, stranded on that boat I had no idea how to sail. I was a smart girl, doing a foolish thing. That’s what teenagers do, sometimes. I learned from it and I’m glad to have the tale to tell.