6 More Principles for a Healthy Parent-Child Relationship
Carrie and I have enjoyed watching our three sons grow– from the day they came home from the hospital, to their first steps, to watching them get on the bus for that first day of school. Our bookshelves are lined with photo albums and numerous videos of warm memories from those precious days gone by including soccer games, graduations, holidays, family and friends. Each new year has brought us new challenges and new joys.
We had just started to think that we were getting this parenting thing down when adolescence appeared on the scene. This is the time a parent’s life that our well-intentioned friends (not to mention our own parents) warned us about– “You’ll see, just wait until they’re teenagers!” To listen to common wisdom, the teenage years are often seen as a hurricane in the sea of life, marked by rebellion and defiance that cuts a path of damage through the lives of parents who find ways to take shelter and wait for the storm to pass.
Many parents, perhaps including you, also realize that teenagers have many wonderful strengths. They can have a zest for life that is powered by boundless energy. Their sense of humor is often witty, and they can be fiercely loyal. They are generally more responsible than not, and their sense of fairness can bring strong reactions to injustice. Last week I shared the first 4 of 10 principles for raising healthy teenagers. For those of you who missed last week’s column here they are:
1. Support their involvement in various activities by attendance
This is one of those obvious ones that we all know but that is easy to forget. Go to their concerts, their games and their school plays. Your support will give them a sense of security and competence. They may not thank you for going, but you can be sure that they will remember your tangible expression of love and support well into their adult life. In Denver our boys were active in a variety of sports and had a lot of playing time. When we moved to Siloam Springs they were new kids in a new system. This translated into more time on the bench than they had ever experienced. From our perspective it became more important than ever that we show up for as many games as possible.
2. Become an encourager more than an enforcer
Unfortunately, bashing teenagers is common. As one youth pastor remarked, “Teenagers are young people who get too much of everything– including criticism.” Pointing out their faults and immaturity is easy if that’s where you choose to focus. But so far we have thoroughly enjoyed our sons’ teenage years! In fact, in many ways this stage of life has felt more rewarding than any other stage of their lives. That’s not to say it’s always been smooth sailing. It hasn’t. Adolescence is filled with changes and challenges– most of them enjoyable and some painful. But for us it has more often been like an adventure– an exhilarating ride on a roller coaster rather than a disease to be treated.
Out of our love for our kids many parents try to “help” them in their quest for maturity by offering “suggestions” and “constructive criticism.” Unfortunately, despite our good intentions, our kids are likely to interpret our comments as signs that they aren’t measuring up to our expectations, that we are disappointed in them and they aren’t good enough. Carrie and I have learned that correction and criticism are accepted more enthusiastically if they are sprinkled rather than poured.
What needs to be poured is the message that our children are loved and accepted unconditionally, and that we will stand by them through their struggles. In the New Testament you can read about a guy named Barnabus who played a significant role in the founding of Christianity. Barnabus was a nickname that meant “son of encouragement.” As parents we need to cultivate the example of Barnabus. Healthy parents spend time trying to become “moms and dads of encouragement.”
3. Connect privilege and responsibility
Teenagers often want the privilege of being treated like an adult, but they don’t always want the responsibilities that come with that. As parents we want our growing children to be responsible like adults, yet it can be hard for us to give them the corresponding privileges. But these are two sides of the same coin. Healthy development will include growing amounts of both. Healthy parents learn how to negotiate increased responsibilities AND privileges with their kids as they get older.
4. As much as possible, treat them like an adult
I can hear some of you saying, “Dr. Oliver, that’s a lot easier said than done.” Teens love to be treated like the adults that they will become. In our efforts to remind them that they have haven’t arrived there yet, parents can be tempted to treat them like children. Indeed, that is how they sometimes act. But we would all rather be seen in terms of our potentials, not our immaturity.
One of the most helpful concepts we have used is to look at adolescence as the toddler stage of adulthood. Remember the days when your little guy was learning to walk? We got pretty excited when that happened. As a dad, you stood about ten feet away, encouraging your young bundle of determination to make the long journey from one to the other. As his eyes grew wide and he stumbled forward, you were there to encourage him and help him up when he fell. And there was no way for him to learn to walk without falling. Skinned noses and bruised knees were badges of effort, and eventually he gained confidence and learned to walk with skill. Feelings of joy filled your heart as you thought, “That’s my boy!” We would never have thought of trying to hold him back and keep him in his crib.
In a very real sense our teenagers are adults in training. Their initial attempts at adulthood are pretty wobbly at first, and they often fall and scrape their emotional and social noses. But with praise and encouragement, they keep trying. If we hang in there with them, if we offer help and encouragement instead of put-downs and criticism, they eventually gain confidence and become more skilled in adult-like attitudes and behavior. Our job is to guide and encourage them to learn to walk as healthy young adults.
5. Get to Know Their Friends
You child will develop new friendships, and gradually they will spend more and more time away with friends than at home with you. As parents, we wonder about the influence of those friends. The good news is that the quality of friends your child selects generally is not much of a problem in early adolescence. Get-togethers with friends who do not live in the neighborhood or nearby towns still depend on parental cooperation (although you can quickly start to feel like a chauffeur). Interactions with friends can still be controlled and regulated by parents as they see fit.
This is not meant to be some trite spirituality tossed in for good measure. As Christian parents, Carrie and I have learned to recognize the power of prayer. God loves our boys and has a plan for their lives. The resources that we have available in Christ and the principles in the Bible help us guide our boys through their adolescence and discover that plan. The resources of our local church have provided a valuable network of support. Pray for wisdom, patience and understanding during the difficult times. Pray for the ability to see the world through their eyes.
Remember, the essential starting point in quality parenting is to realize that the greatest gift you can give your child is not only in what you do but also in who you are. Don’t get me wrong, what you do with and for your children is important. However, it is easy to focus on our performance to the exclusion of our person. It is easy to forget that some truths are better caught than taught. The lifestyle your children see you model day in and day out is much more powerful than what they are told. Both are important. But there must be congruity between the talk and the walk.
Ask God to help you be the kind of adult you’d like your son our daughter to become. It doesn’t take very much time or cost very much money to say I love you, to listen intently to what they are saying, to look them in the eyes when you talk to them, to apologize, to ask forgiveness, to touch, to call on the phone, to pray for or share a prayer request with, to send a card, to compliment, encourage, nourish and build. Which one of these simple suggestions are you willing to put into practice this week?
Medical information within this site is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of any health condition. Please consult a licensed health care professional for the treatment or diagnosis of any medical condition.
Taken with permission from Gary Oliver, Ph.D.
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