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Parenting the Healthy, Independent Teen: Pitfalls and Tools (Part II)

Jonathan Mitchell, MA, LPC | Senior Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Boys

Featured Team Members: Jonathan Mitchell, MA, LPC

In Part I of  Parenting the Healthy, Independent Teen: Pitfalls and Tools, I discussed how parents can listen so that their teens share more with them, as well as how to accept feelings, not behavior. Now, we move on to a few other critical points I have found in my work with teenage boys, and how I have seen parents forge a new, authentic, and healthy relationship with their growing teen:

  • Encourage loyal opposition
  • Be more transparent
  • Let your children come to you

Encourage Loyal Opposition

Classically, loyal opposition means being opposed to the actions of the present government or ruling party without being opposed to the constitution of the political system. In organizations (and families), this term has come to mean having a different opinion than another person or committee that remains congruent to the mission or stated purpose.

For example, a couple of weeks ago a field guide unfamiliar with the culture of Team Avatar (my group of adolescent boys) entered my group for the week. He was very enthusiastic in getting to know the boys and started to implement a certain way of sharing that was different from what the boys were used to. One of the senior boys called a “council” and shared that he would like the new field guide to observe how the group functions in specific ways, and to respect the culture that he and the other group members had spent many weeks creating and refining. For this young man to share this with an adult field guide was truly appropriate and courageous; a great example of loyal opposition.   

One of the predominant and most effective ways adolescents define themselves is through disagreeing with the status quo of their family or parents. Encouraging your child to express his or her independence while remaining true to the family values can feed two birds with one hand: you are supporting a strengthened identity in your child while refining and bolstering the bedrock of your family’s values. Asking your kids about their opinion and exploring with them why they see things a certain way can help increase critical thinking skills. This also deepens your relationship with them. However, it is essential to be curious about your child without having ulterior motives, as any step a child makes toward sharing their true opinions is an expression of vulnerability and authenticity, and should be highly valued.

Be More Transparent

Many parents believe that it is important for their kids to see them as the stereotypical “strong” adult: emotionless, steady, predictable and unshakeable in their ability to be available when others need them. However, one of our group mottos is “vulnerability is power” and I have worked with countless teens who have been the ones to teach this to their parents. Kids trust parents who they truly know; parents who have been vulnerable with their children and allow their children to be vulnerable with them. Why would a child open up and share something risky with a parent who has not proven that they will react in an emotionally appropriate way? For parents who wish for their kids to share more, to trust them or to open up, I recommend that they demonstrate this behavior first. Without this example, a child looks elsewhere to find a foundation from which to differentiate into their own person.

Of course, a parent can also swing too far to the other end of the spectrum by confiding in their child in ways that make the child the caretaker of that parent. The most effective parents I have worked with have found a way to be emotionally available when they need to be for their kids, and find the appropriate people to support them when they need the support (e.g., spouse, friends, therapists).

Let Your Children Come to You

Another pitfall I see parents make is giving unsolicited advice. During some of Open Sky’s “Family Quests” (a 3-day wilderness family therapy intensive), I can practically hear a teen’s eyes roll when, after they share a feeling with their parent, the parent responds with:

  1. advice (i.e. problem solving), or
  2. rescuing (e.g., “but look at the bright side of things…, “but look at how great you are doing now!”)

Through experience and research, I have found that allowing people to experience their emotional difficulties leads to higher emotional resilience. Furthermore, sharing about your own experience in a transparent, humble, and vulnerable way increases the chances that your child actually listens to you. Let them know you are available if they ever wish to share, and when approached, share what you know about the subject while “leaving room” for them to find their own solution. These actions will lead to more maturity, increased emotional intelligence, and higher resilience over time.

If you find that your children don’t come to you, I recommend exploring some of the following:

  • Learn more about yourself through personal transformation work (e.g., therapy, meditation, yoga, self-growth programs, wilderness rites of passage). Open Sky Wellness Weekend are an excellent opportunity for parents of current students to do this.
  • Get outside of your comfort zone through traveling, picking up a new hobby or activity. Kids love it when they see their parents being silly, excited, uncomfortable, etc. (Note: all of these ways of being exhibit emotional vulnerability.)
  • Be curious about your child – the less you think you know about them, the more freedom they will feel to be someone unique and different.
  • Listen more, speak less.

In my experience, the parents who make the most progress at Open Sky are those who have been the most flexible and courageous. Perhaps most importantly, they are the ones that are the most willing to become the parents their child has never known they wanted. At Open Sky, we believe in the importance of families working together to meet goals and find success throughout the therapeutic process. We provide many opportunities for parents to learn, grow and be involved in their child’s journey.

November 14th, 2017

Jonathan Mitchell, MA, LPC | Senior Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Boys