Adolescence: a time to “get back your life,” to “let go,”, to “push independence”…or, maybe not. These common cultural ideas around adolescence  don’t actually reflect what our teens really need from us. 

When their children become teenagers, parents often feel that their job is somewhat “done;” that they can devote more time to their pursuits: many parents begin to work more hours, travel more, undertake home renovation or, in other ways, “clock out” a little bit more. After all, it’s been hard work these first thirteen or so years of our children’s life; don’t we deserve a little break? Well, yes and no. Yes, we “deserve” a break (all parents do, and let’s work to create a society where parents have more support all along the way) and no, this isn’t the time to back off of our parenting responsibilities. While we may not need to be as involved in some places (the physical aspects of parenting, for example – getting our children dressed, bathed)*, we must still remain attentive, engaged and available. We need to let our children know that we care about all aspects of their day – their classes, their teachers, their friends, their emotions – and we need to be physically present enough to convey this and to draw them out in conversation. 

Their connection with us; their feeling (deeply: in their bones) that we are their best bet meets their attachment needs. When these needs are met – filled to overflowing –  they are freed up to do the work of adolescence, which is to fill themselves up (with their own ideas, opinions and choices). When our teens are not filled up by us; they will look to their peers to get their needs met. Peers are unlikely to offer the steadfast, mature care-taking that parents are, thus teens looking to peers for fulfillment rarely find it. Instead, they get stuck in a cycle of seeking – each from the other – so that fulfillment (that overflowing cup) never happens and the teens find it difficult to discover what is in their unique heart and mind.

Teens seeking fulfillment from each other is a driving force behind teens and their obsession with social media and their phones; they are constantly checking to make sure they are “liked,” to see where they are – at that moment, which may change in, literally, the next moment – in the pecking order, to make sure they aren’t being left out. Does this sound like the type of state from which true self-discovery (which is, when you get right down to it, the journey of adolescence) could emerge? It sure doesn’t seem likely. Teens – heck, all of us! – need to be free from the constant pursuit of being liked and accepted to be creative, still and contemplative (all stops along the path of becoming our own person). If we – their parents – are filling up our teens, we aren’t sending them hungry out into the world; if they are satiated, they don’t need to eat a steady junk-food diet of who’s in/who’s out/who’s post got the most likes/I better talk, dress and think like “everyone” else. Instead, they have some inner “rest” to discover who they are, to engage with their interests and to develop true, deep friendships and relationships.

In his book Hold On to Your Kids, my teacher, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, explains that parents have two invitations to issue in regards to the independence of their children: the first is the invitation to be dependent (to be offered generously, for as long as needed) and the second is the invitation to be their own separate person (to be offered, again, generously and with love – we can cry about it in the bathroom, if we need to!).

So, if you are parenting teens, remember that you are still very much “on the clock.” Your teen needs to feel your love and acceptance and it is your job to figure out how to make sure that message sinks in. After our teens cross the bridge of adolescence, we will be off the clock, and at that point, we’ll probably be hoping to be (as Dr. Neufeld puts it) “hired back on as a consultant”!

*Of course, for teens with developmental disabilities, parents may very well still have to perform these “hands-on” tasks for/with them. Everything else, though, still applies: Hold On so that they can Let Go…