Raising teens with intention and purpose

How surrounding your teen with a safety net of trusted adults helps build healthy independence
By Kari O'Driscoll  Published on 05/23/2018 at 12:00 PM EDT

When I was a teenager, my stepmom was my saving grace. I had a mom, but Susan was the one who knew most of my secrets. It was better that way, precisely because she wasn’t my biological mother, because I didn’t live with her, because she didn’t even live in the small town where I went to high school so she knew all the players in my life by name only. She couldn’t punish me and she didn’t want to alienate me by betraying my confidence. Thirty years later, she is one of the people I count as most important in my life. And it’s because of the way she treated me as a teenager; she didn’t coddle or patronize me as though I was a little kid; and she didn’t treat me like an equal. She was a natural at something I now know is crucial for adolescents–developmental relationships.

When our kids are little, it doesn’t take long to realize we can’t keep them safe and healthy all by ourselves. We have to enlist others to help us; grandparents, teachers and babysitters–people who make sure they’re not dashing out into the street or eating slugs or playing with fire. Other people teach them things we can’t–social skills, multiplication tables, how to play kickball–even if we are still there, helping them nearly every step of the way. But when our kids hit their middle and high school years we are told that the best thing we can do is back off and let our kids become independent and self-sufficient. If we don’t, we’re accused of being overprotective or “helicopter parents.”

But there’s a middle ground in there somewhere that is vital. It is important that we help our teens develop a network of other trusted adults to help them through these challenging years; adults like my stepmom, who will let them grow and learn even as they look out for them and keep them safe. The connections teens have with adults who aren’t their parents have an incredible impact on their ability to navigate the world with confidence and support, and the fact is, they are often more likely to listen to those folks than they are to pay attention to us once they hit the adolescent years.

Teens are really good at pushing parents away, convincing them that they know what they’re doing, claiming that they don’t need help. And while sometimes it’s true–they are capable and competent–they also lack the life experience and the brain development necessary to handle complicated situations and glean all the lessons they can from any particular scenario. That’s where other adults come in. No matter how well we think we know our kids, we don’t know every facet of their personality. I’ve been at parent-teacher conferences where I’m convinced that we aren’t talking about the same person because my kid is described as “quiet, compliant, and helpful.” Huh? Who? The fact is, our teens need to be different things to different people. It’s vital that they have lots of opportunities to test out ways of being and bump up against different rules and circumstances. That’s life.

When my oldest daughter was 16, she got a job at a local bakery. Despite the myriad attempts I made to teach her the family recipes I love so much, she never cared. She said cooking and baking weren’t her “thing.” But she came home from this new job buzzing with energy, telling us over dinner that she spent her day making hundreds of cookies and hand pies and “learned so much!” It was hard not to be irritated, but she learned a lot more about collaboration and cooperation and deferring to someone with expertise at that job than she ever would have from me, partially because she was being guided gently by someone who didn’t already have a personal relationship with her. When she was corrected, she was much less likely to take it personally, and she paid much closer attention. The stakes were different.

It didn’t take me long to be grateful for my daughter’s boss and stop being annoyed that I wasn’t the one teaching her how to bake. And when my younger daughter came home from school complaining about something she was struggling with, I knew that she didn’t want me showing up at school on her behalf, so I asked who she trusted–an advisor? She said she had never really clicked with her advisor, but there was one teacher she liked a lot, who seemed to care what she thought and how she was doing. I encouraged her to reach out and ask if this teacher would help her advocate for herself and it turned out to be a great solution. The teacher knew the protocols and the players and she really did care about my daughter, and together they were able to get to a reasonable outcome.

Bosses and mentors and teachers and coaches, aunties and religious leaders and grandparents are all examples of people who see our kids differently than we do and expect different things from them. And they’re all incredibly important pieces of the puzzle because they are gradually building our kids’ confidence and emotional intelligence and networks. According to The Search Institute, five crucial elements of relationships teens need in order to thrive are:

  1. Caring – who, in this teen’s life, is dependable, warm, offers encouragement, listens to the teen and helps build their confidence?
  2. Growth – who sees this teen’s potential, holds them accountable for their choices, and helps them reflect on their mistakes and define areas for improvement?
  3. Support – who guides them through systems they encounter, empowers them to find their own path, advocates for them and helps them stay on track?
  4. Shares Power – who respects this teen, includes them in important decisions, collaborates with them and gives them opportunities to lead?
  5. Expands Possibilities – who inspires this teen to dream, exposes them to new ideas, and connects them to other people who can inform and assist them?

There is a lot of talk about independence when it comes to teens, but I think it’s overblown. None of us is truly independentCan you replace your water heater on your own if it fails? Can you purchase a car without a loan from the bank or credit union? If someone close to you is struggling with a difficult life event, do you reach out and offer emotional support or let them deal with it alone? I think that what we really want for our teens is to become interdependent instead–to know that over time they have surrounded ourselves with people that they can rely on when they need help, and who believe in them.

During those tumultuous teen years when our kids are still living at home, we can help them build connections with adults who care for them, challenge them, allow them to experiment, and act as their champions. Maybe your teen is a musician and wants to start finding places to perform. Asking their piano teacher how to go about that can open up possibilities for kids that parents don’t have. Do they want a job or summer internship? Extended family can be a terrific resource because personal recommendations are always better than a generic job application. And who knows, maybe that boss or mentor will be the ear your teen needs during a really difficult time, or maybe they’ll introduce them to someone who can help them get in to the school they want.

My daughter is heading to college on the other side of the country this fall and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’m nervous. But hopefully, the experiences she has had with bosses and teachers and her mentor have helped her develop a pretty good set of skills that will help her when things go sideways. If she can’t contact me (or doesn’t want to), she knows how to discern which folks will be most helpful. She knows how to leverage her voice and her network and she knows that it’s okay to ask for assistance. The more people we can enlist to care for and support our kids as they grow, the more resilient they’ll be when they’re out on their own.

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