Parenting Teens: Finding The Middle Ground

Why do we set our children up for failure? Almost everywhere I go, I meet a growing number of frustrated parents who are literally wrestling with their teenagers to comply with basic household rules and ...

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Why do we set our children up for failure? Almost everywhere I go, I meet a growing number of frustrated parents who are literally wrestling with their teenagers to comply with basic household rules and minimal life expectations. Too many parents feel that the little authority they have as parents is continually being undermined by an endless list of well meaning, but misguided adults.

We live at a time when the average teenager believes that he or she is in charge. They also believe that at sixteen, they do not need to be accountable to anyone but themselves. Therefore, traditional rituals like the family meal and casual family conversations are not necessarily important or needed. As a parent, if you raise those concerns you are often told that you're out of step with the times and that no parent makes those kinds of demands on his teenage son or daughter today.

It is very frustrating when you are trying to stay reasonable and flexible as a parent and your son or daughter bombards you with: you are overbearing, overprotective and too restrictive. TJ is sixteen. On the surface, he is the type of son every parent hopes for. He's a good student. He's polite, charming and engaging. He respects all authority outside his house and couldn't be more helpful if you needed a helping hand. Unfortunately, for his mother he is a living nightmare.

At sixteen, TJ thinks he is old enough to do what he pleases. He does not believe he should have a curfew or have to be home for dinner every night at 6:00pm. At sixteen, he thinks he should be permitted to stay out till the early morning hours and drink socially on the weekends if he so chooses. When his mother confronts some of that thinking, the constant refrain she receives is that he should be able to come and go as he pleases!

TJ's parents have acknowledged reasonable communication with their son. More often than not, they talk about their conflicts and their differences and can usually find an acceptable middle ground. Unfortunately, around the issues of curfew and social freedom, they are in constant turmoil. TJ's parents have expressed their concern around his choices and have tried to remind him that they are still the parents and they are still in charge. TJ on the other hand does not agree with his parents and has ignored them. There is an impasse on a regular basis unless they decide to do things his way.

Needless to say, his parents are devastated. What sixteen year old should be in charge, calling the shots? He continues to come and go as he pleases. He comes to dinner when it's convenient and speaks only when spoken to. Their home is like a simmering fire waiting to be stoked.

TJ's parents have sought various systems to help them with their son. Their frustration has intensified. Many of the professionals they conferred with feel their issues are not that serious. They believe it's only a phase TJ is passing through.

The lack of support these parents feel has caused them to become alarmed about their son's well being. They realize that they are not the parents of the year. They realize that their sixteen year old is not invincible, does not have all the answers and at times is very nave and immature. TJ thinks he knows everything. His friends make him feel that he is always right. The struggles his parents have with him on a regular basis make him feel trapped. They've tried to challenge TJ in a non-confrontational way. He has become very defensive. This once very open teenager has become very closed to everything, especially to what every adult has to say.

It is very frustrating as a parent when you try to hold you son or daughter accountable and you reach out to the school and to the community and are given a mixed message. Too many schools are not willing to enforce the very rules that are written in their handbook. That frustration is further intensified when you seek the support of the family court system and they say one thing but do another. If your teenager is eligible for the PINS process, you have to hope that your assigned probation officer will have room in his or her caseload to actually do what the PINS process on paper says it's supposed to do. The process usually mandates weekly counseling, drug testing and oftentimes a set curfew. If the teenager is not compliant with all of the mandates and you inform the probation officer, but nothing is done, then the teenager is given the message that the system is a joke and/or inept.

Most teenagers love going to school. However, they don't all love going to class. School is their social universe. They value the opportunity to connect with their friends on a daily basis. It is in that environment that we have a golden opportunity to empower our children to be respectful, responsible and accountable. When your son or daughter is not compliant with school guidelines, is cutting and skipping days of school at a time, but is a nice kid in class and usually is not disrespectful to faculty and staff and thus nothing is done, in the final analysis that is not helpful.

Parental frustration mounts as you make that concerted effort to seek the cooperation of the school and work with the school administration to see that your son or daughter is fully compliant both academically and socially, but if the school is not fully cooperative, it becomes an exercise in futility.

It is very troubling when even good high schools give a mixed message to our children and run the risk of setting them up for failure. There are too many pressures pulling at our children today. It is overwhelming when one stops to think of the kinds of choices our high school children have to make even before the school day begins. That decision making process ends in conflict when our children get mixed messages from the people in their lives who are supposed to be setting positive examples as role models.

The cheating and deception that is escalating every day has to be very confusing for the average teenager. It is becoming more and more difficult to clearly understand the difference between right and wrong.

As parents, we need to be more conscious of the example we set or fail to set for our children. We must not abdicate our responsibility as parents. We must hold school, community (church and temple) and government entities accountable for the part they play in supporting or infecting the positive growth and development of our children.

These are turbulent times for young and old alike. As adults, we must seek the courage to stand up and be counted. We must give voice to a renewed language that speaks of respect, justice, peace, inclusion and tolerance for all.