"How Can We Be Better Parents?"
Recently I received a telephone call from Carol, the coordinator for a local church’s Stephens Ministry program, asking if I would do an educational workshop for their members. Stephens ministers are congregational members who have chosen, as their way of being a part of the body of Christ, to visit with church members who are experiencing physical or emotional difficulties. At a time when there are so many demands on the pastor’s time and energy, Stephens Ministers serve as an extension of his/her arm of pastoral care to the congregation.
When I asked what subject she would like me to speak about Carol took a moment to think and then began talking about how difficult the adolescent years can be for both parent and child. She indicated that their congregation, like most others, had several families with teenage children who were experiencing the frustration and confusion of this transitional time. Then she went on to frame the content to which she wanted me to speak; and that is what prompted me to write this article. She stated her request in the following words, “How can we be better parents to our adolescent children?” Without realizing it, in the framing of her question, Carol had demonstrated one of the most important approaches to building better relationships in all areas of life…personal accountability…figuring out what we contribute to the problem and finding ways to change ourselves first. “How can we be better parents?” The question was not, “How can we get our child to do what we say?” It was rather, “How can we be better parents?”
When individuals with relationship concerns come for counseling their initial emphasis is frequently placed on the offending person—the one with whom they are experiencing difficulty. This is a natural part of the process because they need/want to release emotions surrounding the one who is causing their hurt, frustration, or anger. The following is a simple example of the way a parent and then the adolescent son might present their concerns to the therapist. The mother might explain her perspective in the following manner, “Bob and I set Bill’s curfew for 10:30 p.m. We constantly battle with him about getting home on time. He’s always late! He’s completely irresponsible and besides we don’t trust what he and his friends are doing after 10:30 at night. We want him to respect our rules.” Can you predict Bill’s response? He will likely say something like the following (leaving out the probable expletives!), “My mom and dad are so unfair. They’ve never trusted me. All my friends stay out until way past midnight. Their parents don’t tell them what time they have to be at home. Why do my parents have to be so unreasonable? They treat me like a child!” And so we have two contrasting points of view over the issue of Bill’s curfew. When Bob states his position we will have a third perspective to add to the discussion. Now we have three people with strong opinions demanding that the other one/s change. It will take time and work before each person opens up to looking at all sides of the issue and begins making personal changes in an effort to resolve the conflict and build a more trusting relationship. Let me add that my example in no way is meant to imply that teenagers should be completely free to come and go as they wish. It is simply meant to highlight a common area of conflict in which all parties become polarized and close down the possibility of finding another solution.
Jerry and I have two daughters that recently transitioned from adolescence and into young adulthood. Thus, I am intimately familiar with the challenges that adolescence brings into the teenager’s life and consequently into the lives of their parents. It is a difficult time for everyone. Prior patterns of parenting no longer work as they did when the child was young. Yet, these patterns are what we know and have become comfortable with. If we maintain the same parenting styles we used when our children were young we will likely encounter rebellion and a loss of on-going connection with the child at a time when they most need the influence of loving adults to help and guide them. It is important to be clear about primary family expectations, such as respect for one another, while at the same time supporting the child’s right to self-exploration.
Open and honest communication at any age can be difficult. Adolescence is perhaps the time of greatest challenge—for this is when we find our children being most strongly influenced by their peer group and (at least outwardly) least affected by family values and beliefs. Releasing our power to concretely control and influence the direction in our children’s lives is perhaps one of the greatest challenges of parenting; and I would venture to say that taking on concrete responsibility for self is one of the greatest challenges of the young person’s life. Yet it is the goal to which we are all called from the moment we become parents….to prepare our children to become fully-functioning independent adults. This can only happen when we give them enough freedom to discover their unique identity. The challenge is to gradually give them more and more responsibility for their own decision making. The freedom to make decisions carries with it the burden of living with the natural consequences for the choices they make. This will be as difficult for them to accept as it is difficult for us to begin releasing them knowing that they will make mistakes along the way.
Needless to say, there are extreme situations such as drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and runaways in which parents must intervene for the safety of their child and society. In these circumstances the outside help of a school counselor, therapist or treatment facility may be necessary.