Ah, parenting. It’s a frustrating job. And a never ending one. You spend hours reading books about baby care and how to manage the toddler years. You get to the point where all your kids say “please” and “thank you” reflexively and you master the art of potty training. But are you done parenting? Not by a long shot. Because your kids keep growing and changing. Until you wake up one day and realize most of your parenting skills are obsolete. Now that you have teenagers you don't need potty-training skills—you need pot training skills. Or rather anti-pot training skills.
Luckily, you don't have to start over completely. Some lessons work almost as well with teens as they do with toddlers. So haul out your old parenting manual and blow the dust off the cover. Here are some lessons you served up once already and, like meatloaf, they're almost better the second time around.
Teenagers—just like toddlers?
Both teens and toddlers are going through an amazing amount of development—social, neurological, physical, and cognitive. This makes 2-year-olds and 12-year-olds equally awkward in their growing bodies, and equally prone to tantrums.
But we don’t talk enough about the specifics of parenting teens. Go to any bookstore, or browse the list of titles on Amazon—for every 50 books on baby and toddler-care, there is a single, slim volume on what to do with your hungry and volatile teen.
There's not only a lack of advice out there, but also a lack of energy. When our kids were toddlers, parenting was a novelty. It was something we knew for sure we needed to learn because it was brand new. So we read up on baby sign language and talked to strangers in the park about how much sleep their kids were getting (or not). We put some serious effort into learning our new roles as parents.
But by the time you've got a teenager in your house you’ve been doing the parenting thing for thirteen years. It’s hard to work up any enthusiasm for something you’ve done every day for 4,000+ days. So you can be excused for letting the mantle of attentive parenting slip just a little.
That’s how I woke up one day and realized that although I’d been a parent for more than a decade, I was still a rookie when it came to parenting teenagers. I needed to up my game. So here are some reminders of the toddler lessons you probably mastered once upon a time, and might need to bust out again:
Use your words
If I had a nickel for every time I used this phrase when my kids were little I’d be writing this blog from my own private Fijian island. We all know that little kids need help learning new words. But how many of us forget about that once the kids head to kindergarten? I did. I forgot. Because, in theory, my kids already knew how to say “no.” It’s a word they perfected around age two and it’s been an active part of their vocabulary (“Want some broccoli, Colin?”) ever since.
But it’s a fact that knowing the word no and being able to use it in all the tricky situations that come up when you’re a teenager are two quite different things. So we aren’t really done teaching kids to say no once they learn how to form the word with their lips.
Glennon Doyle Melton, who blogs at Momastery, wrote a charming piece about this. In it, she encourages her now-12-year-old son to continue to use his words.
If we want teens to use their words – we’ve got to provide some words for them that they can keep in their back pocket and pull out at the right moment. Because we’ve taught them how to get along with others, but now we need to teach them how to get along with others while also taking care of themselves. On their OWN. That’s new.
She suggests that it’s far easier for people of all ages to say yes than to say no. Saying “yes” is the end of the conversation. Saying “no” begs for a follow-up. “Why can’t I borrow your homework notes?” “Why won’t you send me a bikini pic?” “Why can’t you at least try the broccoli?”
Glennon and her husband sat their son down and worked out some possible follow-ups he could use for those tricky teen situations:
When someone offers you weed: My mom used to smoke pot when she was younger and now she can smell it from a mile away. She checks my clothes every night. Can’t do it, man.
You find yourself in a sexual situation you’d prefer not to be in: Hey, I like you too much for this to go down this way.
Someone is about to drink and drive: Don’t risk it, man. My dad’ll get us home- no questions asked. He’d rather pick us up here than in jail.
I can think of a couple more. And I’ll bet you can, too. The trick is to sit down with your kids and talk through it together. I know, I know—one more thing you have to take the time to sit down and talk about. But you're upping your parenting game, remember?
Control your impulses
Your toddler grabs a toy from a playmate’s hand. Your teen steals the spotlight from a friend by posting a snarky comment on Instagram. It’s all a matter of impulse control, and both teens and toddlers have trouble with it.
Dr. Jay Giedd at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, has used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to look at what happens in the brains of typically developing children and teens. His team uncovered something unexpected. Researchers used to think that brain development was structurally complete by about age 5 or 6. And it turns out that's mostly true. About 95% true. But there's another little growth spurt that happens in kids' brains right before they reach puberty (11 in girls, 12 in boys):
Giedd and his colleagues found that in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, the brain appeared to be growing again just before puberty. The prefrontal cortex sits just behind the forehead. It is particularly interesting to scientists because it acts as the CEO of the brain, controlling planning, working memory, organization, and modulating mood. As the prefrontal cortex matures, teenagers can reason better, develop more control over impulses and make judgments better. In fact, this part of the brain has been dubbed "the area of sober second thought."
So it's accurate to say that the teenage brain is under construction. This period of growth and maturation seems to take several years to complete. And it's a good bet that's at least part of the reason teenagers can seem particularly irrational, impulsive, and scattered.
The lesson here is simply to remember that the next time your teen does something stupid, it's probably because his brain is growing again. So take a deep breath and control your own impulses before you shout at him for not being able to control his. :)
Ask for help
When there’s something enticing on a high shelf, you don't want your toddler climbing the furniture to get it herself. “Ask for help,” you tell her. It’s really no different with teens, although I must admit I’m a little ambivalent about this one.
One of my biggest goals for my own kids is that they develop independence. And while I sometimes struggle to let them do big things on their own (“You want to take the train from one big East Coast city to another? By yourself?”), I firmly believe that it’s important to say yes whenever possible.
However, taking this lesson to heart could mean that sometimes our teens get the impression that they can—and should—do everything on their own. They might come to believe that asking for help is bad or wrong, or means they’re weak or overly dependent. And that’s not true. Everyone (EVERYONE!!) needs help now and then. So the lesson we want our teens to learn is that independence is good—except when it’s not. And then, when you realize you're in over your head, it’s okay, in fact necessary, to ask for help.
Navigating social situations, especially the tech-driven kind, is a perfect example. I haven’t banned my kids from using social media because I personally feel it’s a skill they’ll need to work out in order to be safe and sensible adults. Letting them have the freedom to begin to explore cyberspace (with limits and supervision) is another way to let them grow into true independence.
But there's a risk with this approach: eventually they'll almost certainly come across an image, a comment, or a situation that makes them uncomfortable. What I hope will happen then is that they’ll come to me for help. Maybe I’ll simply agree with them that the image is inappropriate (“…and wouldn’t it be nice if people thought hard about what they posted? Let’s do that ourselves from now on, shall we?”). Or maybe there’s a lesson embedded in that uncomfortable scenario. Something I might not even have thought to teach them if the real life example hadn't come up.
I'm hoping this approach strikes a balance between encouraging their independence and instilling a willingness to ask for help when they really need it.
Supervision is essential
And that's a pretty good seque into my next point: You’d never turn your back on a two-year-old. You shouldn't turn your back on your teenager either, for all the same reasons.
Both stages are all about pushing boundaries and trying out new skills. But that means sometimes they'll stumble. So just as you would keep an eye out at the playground, keep an eye on what your teen is up to. This, of course, applies to where they are and what they're doing in real life. But also to where they're spending their time—and who they're spending it with—online.
There's all sorts of evidence that parental support actually erases the negative outcomes of certain online behavior, so I won't beat that dead horse. Let's just say that it's no longer enough to believe your child is "safe" just because she's in her bedroom. Because unlike when they were toddlers, your kids can now be with their friends even when they're not with their friends. Social media has changed everything. It's worth investing the time to find out where their brains (and hearts) are, even as their bodies are flopped on the beds upstairs.
The truth is that every child needs his or her parents, regardless of how old that child is. Our adolescents must forge an identity, and must separate from us to be psychologically healthy and independent. But that same adolescent will thrive when independence is achieved and there is still a strong connection with parents who love, nurture, support and guide.
Those are words to live by whether you're raising a 2-year-old, a 12-year-old, or a 22-year-old.