The greatest difficulty is our own fear in the face of our teenagers’ powerful striving to create themselves. As a teenager, my oldest son, Yonatan, had friends who were far from representing our values, and his wardrobe and activities gave me a lot to worry about. After two years he was done and moved on. As we were talking one day about growing up, he said to me, “Mom, the best thing I had these last few years was your complete trust in me.”
Trust is powerful for both you and your teenager, especially when she is trying out new fads or impressing friends in ways that worry you. Your trust keeps the core being in your child or teenager alive, so she can feel confident in her own ability to return to herself, much like she did when she ran away as a toddler. Parenting is letting go of control while staying connected and aware, and knowing when a teenager is yearning for guidance. Secure and confident teenagers don’t become like their parents: they carve their own path. They want to find a way to be part of the community while preserving their inner sense of self.
To melt your anxiety away, start by realising that you cannot know how it will end up. What looks scary today often becomes the springboard to great unfoldings tomorrow. Your worry is created by your thoughts and your ‘worst-case scenario‘ images of your teen. Yet here is your son or daughter, lovely, engaged, making friends, and excited about new experiences. Your teenagers have in you a deep relationship and unwavering support. Keep the gates of communication open and non-judgemental, so that they can feel safe and at ease to speak to you.
How to stay connected
Instead of expressing your concern, ask non-judgemental questions of sincere interest. “What do you like the most about this skirt/make-up/friend/video game/movie/…?” or “Who is your best friend? What do you like about her/him?” You may discover some real depth in your teen’s responses. When he answers, ask more and really listen. Be a safe listener: one who has no judgements and does not offer advice without permission. Say things like, “Wow, that is so interesting! I love that you are enjoying your own new directions.”
It is fine to share your ideals, but only if your teen is interested – ask first – and do so respectfully and without the air of “I know better.” After she speaks openly and feels at ease, you can say, “This is so different from my teen years. It is fascinating how unique each generation and each person is. Would you like to hear how it was for me/what my view is?” She may welcome it, or not. Be honest with yourself: if you want to share in order to influence, she won’t be likely to hear you or speak to you later on. When you share with genuine fascination about differences, you create a connection and nurture your teen’s core being. Of course there may be situations that require intervention, but first keep the gate of trust open.
Staying connected will ensure that your teen doesn’t hide his life from you, and it will secure his safety and your peace. Most young people try different fads, and when satisfied and clear, they move on with authenticity. Hold him to his true spirit, and he will stay awake to himself.
Why fitting in is not helpful
The desire of children and teenagers to fit in is what makes them susceptible to peer pressure and peer influence. In the early years, we are our children’s main social circle. If we are not, the void will be filled with peers as the primary influence even earlier. The ability to stay rooted in themselves starts when our children are babies. For example, letting a baby sleep when and where she chooses tells her that how she feels inside is right and is her true compass. So that she can learn to follow her inner guidance and not the voices of others, we have to respect her autonomy: her choices about her body, timing, learning, and non-addictive interests.
When we respect a child’s authentic choices she learns, “How I feel inside is right – I can trust myself and don’t need to measure what is right for me by listening to others.” This does not mean permissiveness or licence. We are talking here about trusting authentic human direction. Likewise, it pays to model a commitment to be rooted in ourselves and stay away from teaching children to ‘fit in’. Asking someone to fit in is just another way of saying, “Be like others,” or “Match your peers’ expectations.”
Often parents demonstrate their own anxiety to fit in with relatives, neighbours and friends, and children observe and learn this behaviour. Not only it is crucial to empower the child to listen to herself about her own direction, but it is equally important that we provide a model of such respect of ourselves and others. Insecurity means seeking approval and not trusting oneself. It shows up when we don’t speak up for ourselves or for our children because we want to impress others, or avoid hurting their feelings, more than we wish to protect the child in line with our values. With such experiences, by the time they are teenagers, we will have given our children countless messages to fit in, compete, impress, and override their true being. Falling for peer pressure is often the natural outcome.
Never too late
For parents who are already living with teenagers, it may seem too late, but it isn’t. Although it is optimal to build self-reliance in the early years, teenagers are still very open and yearn for their parents’ love and involvement. Their passion for fitting in can be transformed into a desire to prove their independence (including not being influenced by parents). They need inspiration, example and emotional support. Here are some ways you can deepen your relationship with your teen and inspire self-reliance:
- Bring to light the power of self-reliance by modelling, by relating real-life anecdotes about people you know, and/or by sharing books or videos about people who have the strength and wisdom to follow their own path.
- Talk about yourself, your inner explorations, memories from youth, fears, failures, regrets, successes and joys. Let your teen into your life, and he will have in you a friend who has values and a deep connection he can model his future relationships on.
- Ask her about her life and ideals, and listen with interest and without judgement. Appreciate her point of view. You may learn a lot from her.
- Bring into your teen’s life experiences that will create a bond of appreciation and that will elicit conversations about different values and lifestyles and the power of being oneself. Share visits to the theatre or concerts, volunteering, hiking, or family camping trips.
- Join your teen on his ideas of good times. When one of my children was 14 he was eager to see the film The Lord of the Rings, which is not my cup of tea. I went with him so that I could share the experience and be able to discuss it with him, including values, art and acting. You don’t have to pretend to like it, but you can join in, be open and curious and enjoy the shared time.
- Go as a family to a self-awareness workshop. This can be life-altering for all of you as well as an experience to talk about and explore further. Maybe your teen would enjoy a weekly yoga class or a one-time short event. However, if she won’t go, let her be.
- If your teen has interests that may lead to a social selection of a kind you believe will nurture his spirit and talents, support such a direction. A science group, art, theatre, music or other focused group may draw him near new potential friends.
- Explore worrisome themes together. When one of my sons wanted to play video games, I showed interest and asked some questions. His response was a passionate online search of opinions and statistics, which he shared with me. After we discussed the issue openly, he decided to limit the amount of playing.
- Invite friends or relatives whose teenage son or daughter you may like and whose influence you will appreciate. If you don’t have anyone in mind, take yourself to new activities and meet new people yourself.
At the end of the day, it is your confidence in your teenagers and your unconditional love that will keep their inner spark awake. You need not pretend to love their choices along the way: simply delight in their being, and their spirit will stay alive.
Naomi Aldort is the author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, which has been published in 17 languages. Parents from around the globe seek her advice by phone, in person and by listening to her CDs and attending her workshops. Naomi is married and a mother of three. For information on private phone/Skype sessions, workshops, articles, videos and a free newsletter visit naomialdort.com.
First published in Issue 48 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.