In my last post, I laid out what I consider 3 fundamental developmental tasks of the late teen years:
1) moving toward interdependence
2) clarifying identity, and
3) grieving the loss of childhood.
Not all teens transition successfully into adulthood. Some fail to develop the capacity for true interdependence, which requires an ability to both give and receive loving aid and mercy. Some fail to achieve true autonomy: they remain tethered by what their peers or parents expect of them. They never figure out what it is they really want for themselves, so they drift from job to job without real focus, or they do what is expected of them but lack passion and satisfaction. Others never face their mixed feelings about growing up; they never grieve the loss of childhood so they are left with nagging sadness or dis-ease, or they do self-destructive things to keep themselves from leaving their parents.
So how do we raise kids who are able to accomplish these 3 developmental tasks? I could write a whole book answering this question (and many have been written), but for our purposes let’s focus on some basics, especially things that we can do beginning today. Most of you have kids who are much younger than mine (who range in age from 7 to 18), but this question is very relevant to you. Optimally, the seeds for a successful transition to adulthood are sowed very early.
1. Give Kids Increasing Responsibility
When our kids are tiny babies, it’s natural that we do everything for them and that our own needs are put on the back burner to attend to their more urgent needs. But as our kids mature, we actually love them more by giving them increasing responsibility around the home, including chores and caring for younger siblings. Is the picture in your home ever like it is in my home sometimes: mom and dad dusty and sweaty cleaning, pruning, and mowing while the precious children sit on the family room floor staring at a television screen? Frankly sometimes it’s just easier to do everything myself, but I know that in the long run this is an injustice to my kids. By doing everything for them, I am denying them the opportunity to exercise their interdependence muscles! Feeling a sense of responsibility to their family also increases their self-esteem – they know they are necessary and important to the smooth running of our home.
2. Build Healthy Communication
Beginning very early, it’s important to build a strong rapport and sense of trust between ourselves and our children. If teens fear their parents judgment (or loathe them like liver and onions), they will struggle to transition to adulthood. When teens feel comfortable talking to their parents about their self-doubts, their curiosities, or their anxiety about leaving home, everything will go better! These children feel comfortable exploring their changing interests, even when their parents are surprised or caught off guard. These children know that even though their world is changing and even though they have to leave the comfort of home, there is still a net to catch them if they need it. They are able to gain perspective by leaning on their parents. This gives them confidence and courage in the face of the uncertainty of new adulthood.
Healthy communication begins early: Building a foundation of trust in the early years is essential for healthy communication in the teen years. For me, one of the key ways I built and protected trust with my very young children was dealing with their behavior issues in a gentle, respectful ways. As you all know, I believe in non-punitive forms of discipline. There are many ways that we build trust with our kids (for example, building a fun family culture and instituting clear rules and boundaries), but trust is tested most – and can be damaged – during times of struggle and disconnect in our relationships.
I know it’s easy to get sucked into a punitive mindset. Many people will tell you that you are spoiling your child by not spanking them, or that kids who are raised with gentle methods are brats. Not so. In fact, the opposite is true. Spanking and shaming children may work in the short term to get a quick result, but in the long term children will do the right thing primarily because they are FEARFUL, not because they have internalized self-control or a maturing life of virtue. Some kids who are raised by harsh, punitive parents become dependent on the parents’ approval: they never develop a sense of autonomy and self-motivation – they are only motivated by fear of disapproval or punishment. This isn’t healthy. Or they may go in the opposite direction and close themselves off from their parents, becoming secretive or even deceptive. When kids are scared of us, they are not confident in our love for them and they certainly won’t feel comfortable talking to us about their problems.
3. Create Family Traditions
To make a successful launch to adulthood, I’ve learned recently that kids need to be rooted in their families without being trapped by them. The positive memories and secure identity they develop through our family traditions and rituals, through the history they build with their parents and siblings, gives them a sense of connectedness, loyalty, and strength as they leave home.
Family history and traditions become a trap when adult children feel like they are somehow betraying the family by leaving home either physically or emotionally. Some kids never really leave home or go through the grieving process that I talked about in Part 1 because they fear their family will fall apart without them. They remain trapped emotionally or even physically at home. This isn’t good. A balance is necessary.
So, children need the freedom to go out on their own beyond their family history, but without the history and traditions they will always feel a little wobbly.
For Catholic families, including our faith in our family traditions is imperative. Making Catholicism part of every day family life is a great gift to give our children, because the world is radically secular and colleges are unapologetically anti-faith. It’s something all of our children will have to face. When faith forms a strong part of their history, identity, and sense of meaning, our kids will be strengthened against these destructive, deceptive forces.
4. Give your child the freedom to confront hard questions
Little children ask hard questions all the time: Where do babies come from? Why does Father Mark wear a dress during Mass? When are you going to die? We are taken aback, but we catch our breath and – sometimes after an intermission and some research – we attempt to address our child’s stumpers. This is excellent. As kids get older, though, they will have even bigger, harder questions. Delicate questions with serious consequences. It’s important that they have a safe place to ask them.
As our kids mature, they will have many questions about and struggles with friendships, morality, and faith. Kids are nervous about what their friends think of them. They begin to play with their identity – they kind of try on different hats. Because their identity isn’t completely stable yet, and because they are so hyper aware of their peers’ opinions, they can easily meander down the wrong path looking to define themselves. They have natural questions and even doubts about why we do particular things in our family, or even more alarming for parents, why the Church does particular things. All this can make parents a little nervous!
You are your child’s best bet to navigate all this craziness. Giving your child the freedom to grapple with their problems with your loving support is far better than giving the job to her 13 year old BFF. If your child trusts you, she will likely come to you before or at least in addition to her friends. Some tips:
Don’t interrupt or deny: When she does come to you, let her talk without interrupting and try to avoid the temptation to talk her out of her feelings. (“You’re not upset about that are you? Don’t be upset!”) This is what I mean by giving her permission to confront her problems. We sometimes deny that our kids have a problem altogether, so they shut down. Let her have her feelings, even if you don’t understand them.
Don’t fix her problem: When a toddler is struggling to climb into a chair, we want to pick him up and put him on the chair to save him from hardship and strife. Guess what? This parenting impulse continues even when your child is big enough to pick you up and put you in the chair!
Because we love our children so much, we want to fix their problems for them, but we all know it’s better to give them the tools to fix their own problems. This gives them a sense of mastery and self-confidence. This doesn’t mean we can’t give them advice, but it does mean we give them a chance to figure things out for themselves.
Sometimes with my two older children (aged 13 and 18), I don’t really say much when they are talking about a problem. I just listen to them and empathize. When I can tell they are looking for advice on how to solve a particular problem, I do offer it, but I try to do it in a way that allows them to develop their own judgment. For example, if they are struggling in a friendship, I won’t tell them what to do, but I will share my own experience or I will help them see things from their friend’s perspective. And I always try to include a discussion of the Christian virtues because I’ve found that practicing a virtue is always necessary when confronting every, single problem in life.
When our kids have doubts about Church teaching, we can share our own struggles and how we dealt with them rather than making them feel like they are BAD for doubting. Doubt is part of the path. We can teach our children that facing our doubts honestly will make our faith stronger in the long run, but that we should also remain respectful to the Church and we should continue to pray during our times of doubt.
Emptying the Nest by Brad Sachs
Parenting with Grace by Greg and Lisa Popcak
Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Dan Siegel