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Encouraging the Adult & Acknowledging the Child: helping your teen become an adult.

Teenage learning stage

I often refer to teenagers as Adults in Training. The teen stage is all about the transition from dependent child to independent adult. It is during this stage that we parents, are trying to navigate the unpredictable ebbs and flows of teen angst, drama, and demands whilst trying to get them to adulthood as unscathed as possible. How we find the headspace to survive, let alone achieve the goal of nurturing them to adulthood, is nothing short of a miracle. I am pretty sure I am going to ‘Steven Bradbury’ my way to the end goal: slipping, sliding, ricochetting off the walls. As we speak I am pretty sure that I am sliding across the finishing line on my arse...but I am going to get all my teens across that ‘adulting’ line!

The challenge for many of us parents is not only encouraging the emerging adult in our teens but not to forget the child still trying to let go. It is so easy to forget that child when they look like grown-ups and sure as hell want to act like grown-ups. And as with most of what I say about raising teenagers, the onus of responsibility lays with us the parent, to remember that child hiding inside and ensure we do not ask too much of the child too soon. As equally as important is for you to remember that you can not hang on tightly to the child whilst the adult is trying to develop. Part of parenting the teen stage is us saying goodbye to the child. As tragic as that sounds.

The best way to encourage the emerging adult is to offer everyday opportunities to help in practicing ‘adulting’. Think of it like your teen being on their Learners: they can not learn to drive just by reading a book, and they can not do it safely on their own. They need you there, next to them. But you can not have hold of the steering wheel. They are learning how to be in control of the vehicle, watch the roads, and make decisions. It is the same thing with learning to be an adult. (If we could hang an 'L' plate around their neck it would help.)

In order to assist with the big adult stuff, we need to build trust with them with the little adult stuff. Learning again how to have a conversation with them, rather than just talking at them (we do this a lot whether we will admit it or not). Involving them in the real world grown-up stuff like choosing weekly dinner menus, allocating tasks of responsibility for being a member of the household. Yep, these things are pretty boring but they are apart of the reality of being a responsible adult. Openly acknowledge this fact and discuss with them how much having to come up with meal ideas almost drives you batshit crazy as well… but as a grown-up, we have to. The crap stuff goes hand-in-hand with the good stuff.

For a teen, the good stuff may include more say in what they do, where they go and with whom. It could also include some pretty serious grown-up stuff like relationships, working, later curfews, and so forth. The best way to teach responsibility is by making the association with the ‘good stuff and the crap stuff’:

if your teen can happily complete their chores (crap stuff) without being childish (hence adulting) then they should be rewarded with good stuff (an extended curfew for eg).

But what if my teen just acts like a spoilt little brat? I think bratty behaviour is really the child who is scared or struggling. Try to view bratty behaviour as a symptom of something rather than an issue in itself. I can hear many of you scoffing at this, and rightly so. Easy for me to say as my teens are older, but believe me, that bratty shit went on in my house too. Did I handle it ‘right’ all the time? Absolutely no. Were the outcomes of me not handling it well good ones? Hardly ever. When I was tired or busy my tolerance was low, I could go to mega-bitch mum in seconds due to a wet towel on the bathroom floor. I could scream like a banshee, and have been known to threaten to garrotte them with said wet towel.

I usually ended up feeling like an arsehole though because the thing I was cross at them for was actually only a simple thing ( a wet towel? Really!?) something a child would never consider as important, eg: said wet towel on the floor. To be honest, when it was picked up, I probably did not acknowledge that enough either. Often I failed at considering the child or acknowledging the adult, making the whole thing harder than it should have been.

When faced with your teen doing something wrong: before struggling to find the words, before mentally check listing what punishment you could impose (or grab a wet towel) ask yourself: is this the ‘child in them’ or is this an ‘adult task’ they have not grasped or achieved? This is not to say you don't have a reason to be angry or there will not be any consequences, but by pausing for a moment, it will allow you to be measured in your response. As I said, most bratty behaviour stems from the child not really knowing what to do, feeling overwhelmed, and not having the adulting skills to deal with it correctly, so they revert to an easy teen attribute: smart-arse. Try saying “Are you aware that by rolling your eyes at me just kinda reinforces that you have a way to go in effective communication. You can not expect me to listen to you when you will not do the same for me. How about you try again?”

Harking back to the driving lesson analogy: it is almost a given they are going to stall the car (if anyone learns in a manual these days?). And they are going to take the corner too quickly or completely miss the odd give-way sign, but we do not bring the car to a screaming holt and delegate them to the back seat again. We have to accept and respect that they will make mistakes and they will learn from those mistakes if given the chance. Sometimes they will keep making the same mistakes until one day it just ‘clicks’. Earning responsibility does not always means they will respect the responsibility. They will almost without a doubt do something to fuck it up at least once: expect it and it will then not affect you too personally and you will respond accordingly. It is a timely reminder at this point to say that not even adults get it right all the time.

Encouraging the adult in our teen to enter a world that (to us) can be big, bad and dangerous, is a hard task. We want to protect our baby, and so we choose to only see our baby in our teen. The reality is that they ARE becoming adults and as much as we don’t want to let them go, that is what we ultimately need to do. To encourage the adult is almost counter-intuitive to a parent, but let me assure you - from experience - the pride that your teen can bring out in you when they do ‘adulting’ well is beyond words. Heart-bursting, parent-pride ultimate! And when they say “I could not have done it without you” it seriously smashes those times of wanting to garrotte them right out of the memory banks.

Suggestions to encourage the adult to develop:

Involve in everyday tasks of housekeeping (“because you live here”) and involve them in task allocation - what do they want to do around the house?

Encourage them to get a part-time job

Ask questions about world events and seek their opinions on things

Ask them what they would do faced with a dilemma you are currently facing

Respect their opinions

Be mindful that if you want to speak to the ‘adult in training’, talk to them as adults

Calmly point out behaviours/actions that fall short on ‘adulting’

Be conscious of role modelling - are you being a living example of what sort of behaviour you are wanting to see?

Praise them often when they show developing mature thinking and actions - thank them as well

Forgive them when they fall short

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