No doubt about it, parenting is hard work!
When I had younger kids, parenting was physically exhausting. Developing sleep and feed schedules, matching the energy of a toddler, and navigating natural communication barriers and emotional outbursts. As my children have grown into their teenage years, they can communicate more clearly and are more self-sufficient. Parenting is now less physically demanding. However, mentally I often find myself drained and overwhelmed. I once heard that the quantity of hormones or hormonal changes in a teens body is like that of pregnancy. This helped me have more empathy for teens, as puberty lasts years and pregnancy only 9 months. Imagine having “pregnancy brain” and unpredictable mood swings for YEARS?!
Teen years are the natural progression for young adults to discover who they are and push away from their parents. These little kids that we have poured our hearts into, now begin to reject us. They start to make their own decisions with their partially matured teenage brain. To make things worse, video games, social media and other digital media are influencing young people. Reducing our influence over our children and exposing them to content that can affect their mental health for life.
It’s easy to see why this stage of development is difficult, and why parents often want to “check out”. But I urge to think about what you needed as a teenager! They might be a little prickly (and sometimes stinky) on the outside, but inside is a person who is longing for love, guidance, and acceptance.
So, what can we do as parents?
Here are four tips, using an easy to remember E.P.I.C. acronym that I present at most my workshops.
Likely one of the first things you did when you were pregnant, was purchase the “What to Expect while Expecting” guidebook or similar. Which by the way, has been revised several times, even though pregnancy has been around since the beginning of time. Like this stage of your child’s development inside your body, many factors are constantly changing for development outside your body. We need to stay curious and informed to be able to guide our children. Our children’s needs in lower and middle school are different to those of high school.
A hard lesson I learned, was giving my child a smart phone. While I did hold off and believed I was informed and buying my son a phone for MY convenience only. I was not prepared for the constant oversight and worry this little device caused me. A recent meme on social media said, “Nobody told me that parenting today is 70% checking my teens phone”. This is so true! As far as I know, nothing detrimental has happened from having a smart device, but it hasn’t benefitted him or our family either. There is no developmental need for a child to have a smart device. If anything, devices hinder emotional maturity, resilience, true connection, critical thinking, physical strength and coordination and potentially harm their mental health.
Did you know that your child’s brain is only fully matured at age 25?
The last part of the brain to develop is the frontal lobe, which affects behavior, personality and executive functions. The executive functions include delaying instant gratification, regulating emotions, planning, decision making, predicting consequences and more. With this knowledge, it’s easier to have empathy and patience for our teens.
Do yourself and your family a favor, by being educated about all decisions related to your family. The good news is that in today’s technological world there’s an abundance of information and support. You have the opportunity to be informed and then choose which path to follow. You are the primary influence in your child’s life, don’t take that for granted. The more informed you are about relationships, healthy development, balanced eating, substance use, mental health, technology and more, the better choices your family can make for themselves.
We cannot give away what we don’t have.
#2 be PRESENT
Parents of teenagers often talk about their teens friends as being the most influential and important. This is the greatest myth! What they are truly longing for, is their parents love, acceptance and approval! Ours are their first close relationships and set the basis for all things to follow. One of the easiest ways to be present in our children’s lives is to put down our own smart devices! I am concerned that we will have a whole generation of children who feel alone but can’t figure out why. “My parents were always around”, they’ll say. “I don’t know why I feel empty inside?”.
I see it all around us, at the mall, at sports practice, at restaurants and in cars. Parents, people in general, are physically present, but emotionally, mentally, spiritually unavailable because they’re staring at their smart device.
When my children walk into the room or car, I put my device down. I look them in the eyes (removing my sunglasses) and greet them. I use my device sparingly when my children are around. I narrate what I’m doing if I do need to return an important email, text or add to my calendar. By setting limits for my own usage, I set a good example of using technology in a healthy way. We spend quality time together, eating as a family at the table, without screens, at least several times a week. We have movie nights, play outdoors, and play board games, we talk and sing in the car. I know who their friends are and try keep up with what’s going on in their lives.
Pay attention to their likes and dislikes. The more you’re present and know, the easier it is to spot a red flag. Including drug use, suicide ideation, being involved with the wrong peer groups, or just needing some additional support. By just being present, you get a front-row seat to appreciate all the amazing things in your children’s lives! And they will know you’re there for them. Hopefully with unconditional love, even it needs to be at a distance in front of their peers.
The first step is knowledge, but it’s not enough to just educate ourselves and be around our children.
We must take action.
If we know eating candy for breakfast is unhealthy and never tell them, how will they learn the right decision for themselves? It’s the same if we don’t tell them about the dangers of social media, drugs or sex. If we know about explicit content on the internet but don’t implement content filtering, then our education hasn’t protected our children. They could learn the life lesson the hard way. Implementation is also an ongoing process as technology advances, and our children mature. Setting boundaries and house rules, with natural consequences is important. Pre-determined rewards for good behavior, good grades, or household chores are key. Children feel safer and more in control when they know what to expect.
Parenting is in the trenches, every day all day, there is no easy button to press.
Implementing time settings, parental controls and monitoring with preset rewards and consequences, can lessen the day-to-day conflict. This is something I cover in my workshops leading up to the long summer months of school being out. Endless hours for kids to fill up often leads to many more hours online. The daily conflict occurs when mom or dad is the “bad guy” turning off devices or nagging or yelling. This pins parent (bad) against teen, friends & technology (good). Much like telling them not to date someone. This makes us the enemy and the desired object of affection more irresistible. Invest in tools like the Gryphon Router, to filter content and set time limits, so that you’re not the bad guy. Another favorite tool is for when a boundary, such as a time limit is not respected. I don’t yell or get angry. I do however go back later and calmly remove the console power cord or HDMI cable or game controllers. To be effective, these consequences should be as consistent as possible, and communicated beforehand, bringing me to the final section.
#4 COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE
Age appropriate and often. It’s never too early to start. This is the key to all three previous steps. You cannot inform without communicating. You cannot be truly present, and you cannot successfully implement a strategy or boundaries without communication. Active and open listening is important when raising teens. We’ve all had that friend or family member who loved to hear themselves talk or only listened to respond. Our teens are not going to open up to us if we are not listening. This goes for reacting (or overreacting) as well. Yes, you are fully entitled to freak out when your baby has viewed porn or been bullied or other! But take a deep breath and save your freak out for a trusted friend or your partner later. No matter how much we tell our kids that we’re there for them –
if we overly react or negatively react – they will not feel safe to come to us.
Communicate in snippets, avoid the serious “We need to talk” discussion facing each other at the table. It can cause defensiveness and fear, leading to a lack of understanding. My favorite way to get my teenage son talking is to bring a deck of cards and challenge him to a game of Spades. Or join him while he’s shooting hoops. Soon, we are laughing and talking, enjoying each other’s company with information flowing freely back and forth. My daughter and I have our best chats at bedtime or driving around in the car listening to favorite music.
Sometimes your children need to tell you something. But they’re afraid of your reaction or can’t bring themselves to say it aloud. Prepare for these situations in advance by letting them know they can email, text, or write you a letter. It doesn’t mean that you will never talk about it. However it does give them a way to express themselves clearly, fully and without your reaction. It also gives you time to calm down prior to responding.
Our children learn to navigate relationships and build social skills through communication with us.
One tool I use in daily life, is Bark, a monitoring app on my son’s phone. It doesn’t prevent something from being sent or seen, but does alert me to inappropriate, explicit, sexual, or other content. He’s aware of the set up and doesn’t love it. However, it helps keep him safe and communication open, while letting him have some privacy. Any alerts that I receive are an opportunity for practical advice and connection between us.
These four simple letters can be your roadmap to being an EPIC parent.
They are simple, but not easy! To truly raise our parenting, we need to practice these steps on ourselves as well. We need to take an honest look at ourselves and what we believe parenting is. We need to educate ourselves about our own fears, desires and potential triggers related to our children. So often we act out of fear or perfection and prevent ourselves from being present in the moment. The fear of them getting hurt or not succeeding in life, causes us to spout out rules and nag. We miss the opportunity for learning and connection. We preach and try convincing them that we are right, instead of hearing what they have to say. We provide them with a phone to track them and lessen our own anxiety. While giving them access to bullies or explicit content that may increase their anxiety. We exhaust ourselves, and forget to model self-care and reflection, we don’t ask for help. Be the person you want them to be when they grow older.