When I began my nursing career, I worked with teenagers in a psychiatric hospital. This was a challenging environment as we dealt with children who were hurting, carrying bruised egos and deep wounds.
Often they were abused or neglected resulting in low self-esteem, depression, suicidal thoughts and attempts, and substance use. Hurting themselves or others, they demonstrated how they felt about themselves by what they had learned through childhood.
One thing that was consistent with all patients, even the ones with a clear psychiatric disorder such as the budding schizophrenic, a manic depressive, or a child with ADHD, everyone wanted to feel comfortable in their own skin and they wanted to be treated with respect.
They wanted to feel OK with themselves as they learned to understand and manage their mental health challenge.
I remember people saying to me, "How can you work with teenagers?"
Well, I loved it! And still do. I vividly remember my teen years and how I longed for a mentor, someone to teach me what I needed to know about life and how to live.
I wanted - more than anything - to feel OK with myself; something I would not learn until much later in adulthood.
And although I was warned that it would be different when I had teenagers of my own, I still love teenagers! In fact, I just accepted a new position in a behavioral health setting working with teens and I couldn't be happier.
And my son and step-son are both 16. Yes, they can be challenging at times. Each has their own idiosyncrasies and strange behaviors. But really, what does every child want? What does every human being want regardless of age or life stage?
Love. Acceptance. We each want to feel that we matter, that we are valued. So, when dealing with teenagers, the best approach is one that treats them with the respect they need and the guidance they often don't want but also need. I like to refer to them as Adults-in-Training.
Let's face it, teenagers like to think they know everything but we know better! The reality is that they have been taught to be good children. They were given rules to live by and, hopefully, taught some manners and social skills. They learn how to play, how to behave, and to get along with people.
When they reach the teenage years, however, things change. They change. What they need from us (the parent) changes. And our relationship with them needs to change as well. If you continue to behave as you have been - telling them what to do, giving instructions, and teaching rules - then you will struggle in your relationship.
The teen years are a time when young people seek to find themselves and to create a unique identity. There is an overwhelming need to express one self. This often shows up in changing hairstyles or hair color, unique clothing styles, a desire for tattoos or body piercing, or even experimentation with drugs, alcohol and sex.
Remember your teenage years? The one thing we all have in common is that we've all been through it and luckily, we survived. Often, in the moment, things can seem so important but in the scheme of things, they are not such a big deal.
Learning to pick your battles will be important to maintain some peace in your life. And although teens are striving for independence, they are still dependent; they require oversight, guidance, and support.
Develop Strong Self-Esteem
Your approach to teaching needs to change to adapt to the changes they are going through. We're not raising children; we are raising our kids to become men and women. This is another example of "thoughts create things." If you think of your children as children, then you will treat them that way. If you instead consider them as young adults learning how to be grown ups, then you will treat them accordingly, like an Adult-in-Training.
They must be taught new things such as responsibility, accountability, organizational skills, and critical thinking skills. The best gift we can give our children - our teens - is to develop them as adults so they enter the world feeling good about themselves as human beings. There is no greater responsibility as a parent than to have our kids enter adulthood with healthy self-esteem.
A child with healthy self-esteem learns to think for themselves, is confident in making decisions, and feels that they have value; they are okay being themselves, whatever they choose to do.
Too often, parents want their children to be a certain way. But children have other ideas. Raising a child is a gift. You do not own this person; you have been charged with the task of training and teaching him or her so that she can become her own person.
She doesn't belong to you; she belongs to herself. If she is always seeking your approval or behaving in ways to please you, then she will not learn that it is herself she needs to please. She will continue to look outside herself for answers of how to be OK.
Here are six strategies for shifting your relationship with your teen so you can teach them the skills they need to be successful as adults - and even enjoy the process.
- Respect your new adult-in-training with each passing year. Let go of the 'baby' and embrace this young man or woman. S/he is seeking to become her own person. Let go of the need you may have to baby them or enable them. For many, this can be very difficult. What they need from you now is not to coddle, but rather to teach them the critical skills they need to be successful adults: financial skills, critical thinking skills, self-care and life skills, and a good work ethic.
- Consider the kind of relationship you want to have with your teenager - this adult-in-training. Envision it. What do you want? Use this as a starting point for creating your reality. Too often we operate by default doing what we do because we don't stop to consider what we want. Your vision will help you to create something new and different as you take on a new role in this young person's life.
- Listen but don't have all the answers. Teens often talk sideways without giving you the full story. They don't want to look foolish or to admit they don't have the answers even when they clearly don't! None of us want to feel foolish or to admit we don't know something. We like to be 'right'. Let them off the hook. Help them to see that it's OK to ask questions and to not have all of the answers.
- Let this young adult learn to think things through. Provide support, help them to anticipate the consequences of their choices but refrain from telling them what to do or giving your opinion of what they should do.
- Teach responsibility. With each decision you make, there is a consequence. Responsibility is an essential element for success. Too many people blame others. Teach your young adult to be accountable for their choices. Each of us must own our choices and the resulting effects. Be a good role model for being responsible and lead by example.
- Show appreciation. Look for every opportunity to point out how wonderful your young man or woman is doing. Be specific about what they did that is good. Don't assume they know how you feel. Be proud of them and tell them so but also encourage them to be proud of themselves.
Raising a teenager doesn't have to be unpleasant. A challenge, yes. But what in life isn't challenging? Respect them, love them, acknowledge them, teach them, listen to them, support them and most of all, enjoy them. They will become adults before you know it.
Julie Donley is the author of several books including Does Change have to be so H.A.R.D.? and The Journey Called YOU: A Roadmap to Self-Discovery and Acceptance. To learn more, visit www.JulieDonley.com. Contact Julie at Julie@JulieDonley.com.