One of the most difficult things about parenting is to keep your level of involvement in balance as they get older and need more independence and less controlling.
I get asked a lot, “Am I doing enough for my teen?” “Am I doing too much?” “How do I tell the difference?” When it comes to parental involvement, there are two extremes.
On the one hand we have “helicopter parents.” These parents hover over their children so much that it can keep them from growing up. This is usually done with the best of intentions and motives, but not only does it hinder the maturing process, it frustrates the children as well. Helicopter parenting sends an inescapable message, “You are incapable of making good decisions, so I’m going to do it for you.”
It’s natural for parents to want to protect their children from making mistakes. None of us want to see our teens hurt by bad choices. The truth, though, is that mistakes are a vital part of growing up. Kids need to make mistakes, because they mostly learn by the consequences of those mistakes. It is tough for most parents to allow their children to experience any kind of pain from consequences, but it’s vital if the child isn’t learning and maturing any other way.
Of course, the opposite problem is when parents are under-involved. But even though “absentee parents” can scar their children’s psyche and self-image, I’ve observed that their kids tend to be pretty good at making decisions and taking responsibility—they’ve had to. I came from a home like that, at least as far as my dad was concerned; he wasn’t very involved in my life. As a result, I was forced to learn a lot for myself. I missed out on some things that could have helped me be a better man, and I spent years struggling with notions that there must be something wrong with me that my dad didn’t want to spend time with me—but I did mature.
So, you might ask which of these two extremes is “better” for teens. As I’ve said, neither extreme is good; balance is the best form of parenting. But if you need to know, I’ve discovered that the vast majority of kids who have been brought to me for help have come from over-involved parents; parents who tend to revolve their own lives around their children. It seems counter-intuitive, but it is true — over-involved parents often produce under-mature and frustrated teens who act out just to force their independence.
Why do some parents become over-involved? It’s usually more about the parent’s insecurities and fears than it is about their teenager’s actions.
To prevent mistakes. Some parents adopt the mistaken notion that they can control their children into doing right. That may work (at least to a degree) while the kids are in the home, but what will happen when they leave home? You know what will happen. Like a slingshot, they’ll try on everything their parents sheltered them from. I can name a string of the most outrageous and influential cultural icons and entertainers today who came from strict homes like that.
To extend neediness. Some parents struggle with the notion that their teen can make good decisions on their own. Rather than a validation of the job they have done to prepare their teen for independent living, they fear they will no longer be needed. So, they force being needed. Seeking personal validation by forcing your child to need you is an inappropriate and selfish way to parent.
To alleviate fears. As the saying goes, “It’s a jungle out there.” The more we know about the challenges and dangers that face our teens, the harder it can be to let them ever leave the safety of the zoo (our home). But a wise parent will trust in God and in what they have taught their child. They’ll allow them to begin making “survival training” forays into the jungle. How else will they learn to live in that jungle?
Because it has worked pretty well for over decade. Mostly, parents got into the mode of being in complete control when their kids are young children, and they fail to realize that they need to gradually back off such controlling when their children reach the teen years.
Telling your teenager how to feel, what to think, or what to wear (within reason) are all signs of over-involvement. These are signs that you are probably doing too much for them at their age. Again, this could be done with the best of intentions, but it produces damaging results — just the opposite of what you are trying to accomplish. If you shelter your kids too much all of their lives, they aren’t going to be prepared to respond properly to the real world on their own, so it will likely consume them.
It’s also important to remember that your level of involvement is also almost certainly going to vary from depending on their age. Some children need more guidance, direction or freedoms than others. Even so, I encourage parents to err on the side of trusting their kids a little more than they think they should, rather than a little less. Be sensitive to the way each individual child responds, and tailor your level of involvement accordingly.
The bottom line is this; we need to strike a balance in how involved we are with our teenagers. We need to live our own life, and allow our kids to live theirs. Of course, certain boundaries must be observed, obvious dangers avoided, and regular check-ins made, but outside of that, simply find ways that you can enjoy and celebrate life together.
Above all else, let me encourage you to maintain a strong relationship with your teen. It doesn’t mean hovering over them and controlling them, nor does it mean it’s time for you to hang up the parenting hat and retire. It means intentionally having fun together and getting to know the adult that is growing within them. It means being a head coach, encourager and sometimes a cop and judge, but never a nanny or their shadow.
If your child knows beyond any doubt that you love and trust them, it changes the way they view every interaction with you and their world. If they need more time with you, be sure to notice that and respond to it. If they act like you’re too involved, then back off, but never so much that you lose touch. Trust what you have taught them and the principles you have sown into their hearts and minds. And remember that the goal of parenting in the teen years is not to make them perfect kids, but to become successful, responsible and independent adults.
We talked about this issue in-depth on our radio program last weekend called “Parents Who Are Involved.” To listen online look for the program dated July 9, 2011 at http://www.parentingtodaysteens.org.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.