Photo:  Ian Schneider

Photo:  Ian Schneider

I know a 16-year-old girl who once drove through the streets of her suburb late at night on icy, snow-covered streets with two of her good friends in the car.  They were on their way home from a friend's birthday party after having consumed a few wine coolers (yes, wine coolers). Filled with the passion of life in that moment, this teenager thought it would be funny to spin the steering wheel back and forth to the rhythm of the song that was playing on the radio...and it was pretty funny, all three of them singing along to the top 40 tune that was playing on their favorite station...until she got her arm caught behind her friend's back (all three girls were in the front seat), they hit a patch of ice and she couldn't get control of her mom's station wagon.  In an instant the car, and the girls, careened through 2 feet of snow and into the middle of a stranger's front yard, nearly missing a cement mailbox post on the way through. 

She could have killed herself and her two friends...at least that's what the police officer told her when he came by and helped her call a tow truck to release the snow-packed family truckster from the middle of the yard.  While she was mildly scared about what the officer said could have happened to them because of her carelessness, she was MUCH MORE fearful about what her parents were definitely going to do to her when they found out what she'd done.  

Of course, she never told her parents all of the details (luckily, neither did the cop), until many years later when she was a much wiser adult and knew her brutal honesty wouldn't hurt her.

That sixteen-year-old girl was me.

I did A LOT of stupid, thoughtless, irresponsible things when I was an adolescent.  

I'll bet some of you did as well.

Which is one reason why, as parents of teenagers, we tend to freak out about what might happen to our kids, right?  Not to mention, we all know the world was a much safer place before social media sharing...I shutter to think about the picture and caption I would have posted after instigating such a dumb stunt back when I was in high school.

The hormone-charged-dopamine-enhanced brain of an adolescent is not fully capable of discerning the consequences of its actions, so as parents it is up to us to put some boundaries and safeguards in place to help ensure (as much as possible) the emergence of our kids from teenagers into young adulthood.  Sometimes, even if they know what they are doing is dangerous, the thrill and potential high that comes with having reckless fun with friends can overshadow whatever good judgment they might have 99% of the time.  Because the brain is being rewired during adolescence, EVERYTHING, including taste, smell, sight, emotions, risk vs reward activities (drinking/sex) are enhanced.  

Fun is just plain more fun when you are a teenager.

Which is not to make excuses for kids who do dumb, reckless, sometimes fatal things with their peers during the teen years...but it is an important warning sign for adults to understand that even the kids with their heads screwed on pretty straight still have the potential to cave to their ill-equipped gray matter once and a while.

Based on my experience as a mom of three sons who have graduated high school and are now on various independent paths, and having seen and heard a lot of other parents' experiences (in addition to personally living through my own), I believe there are a few key things moms and dads can put in place, and consistently hold to, during the teen years that will greatly increase their son or daughter's successful launch into their twenties.

First, set them up for success by showing care to give them enough independence to face some challenges and make some decisions, but not too much so that they are tempted to get themselves into trouble.  For example...sixteen-year-old son has a part time job, but he's had to miss several days of work due to school sports.  His mom and dad have a well-deserved weekend getaway planned and no family nearby to stay with son who is scheduled to work a shift until close on Friday night, but who has off until the Sunday afternoon shift.  Leave your fairly-mature-solid-academic-son home by himself? Bad idea.  While you may convince yourself your son is capable of "holding down the fort" for the weekend, and you are pretty sure he won't do anything stupid like have a party, or invite that cute neighbor girl over...you'll want to err on the side of caution.  He's still two years away from college (when, let's face it, you won't know what he's up to), and there is (fingers-crossed) a lot of brain development and maturing that can go on in the years between sophomore and senior year.  Better plan:  call his friend's mom and explain the situation, ask if your son could spend the weekend.

Second, show them the value in delayed gratification by not giving in too easily and by demonstrating this yourself.  Let's say your middle-school daughter wants a phone for Christmas (I actually happen to know one of these pretty well...) she really doesn't need a phone to call anyone, she wants it because "everyone else has one" and because it's what everyone else is looking at during lunch in the cafeteria. You sympathize, of course you understand why she wants a phone...but, there are lots of things you'd like in life as well, right? New car, nice handbag, regular trips to the spa...(everyone else does)...but, just because you want something doesn't mean it's the right thing to go out and buy it.  Will there be a time when the phone is necessary?  Yes, of course.  And when the time is right, it will happen. In the meantime you take the time to explain to your daughter the pros and cons of owning a phone, what expectations you will need to agree on before the phone arrives, and then suggest she spend some time observing how it is/isn't changing the friendships in her life with those who already have phones.

In addition, successfully navigating adolescence requires the development of self-control. One of the key elements in our kid's doing so comes from the way we parent.  The three aspects of this development include parenting with warmth, being firm, and supporting instead of attempting to control our adolescent's growth.

Warm means making time to connect with your child, showing genuine affection and praise of their efforts, and responding to their emotional needs.  It also mean being vulnerable when necessary...like taking the time to apologize when you know you have inadvertently caused hurt feelings.  This helps kids develop the sense that what they say and feel is important, and the world is a safe and benevolent place to explore.

Paternal warmth makes children feel calmer when they are on their own, which is essential for the development of self-regulation.
— Dr. Laurence Steinberg

Finally, be the parent who gets past their uncomfortable feelings to have very needed conversations with your adolescent.  Last week I attended a meeting at our local high school about teen suicide.  The gathering was in response to two recent student deaths and an effort to inform and support the parents in our sometimes too driven suburban community.  The event's intention was to give parents the tools they needed to have a discussion with their child about the signs of suicide, what to do if a friend talks about wanting to kill themselves, and how important it is to make it clear to your son or daughter that no matter what, you love them for who they are, not what they achieve.  I hadn't mentioned to my middle-school son or daughter the topic before the meeting, because honestly I wasn't sure how to best approach it.  When I returned from the school, it was bedtime.  Though I was not 100% sure what would come out of my mouth, I resolved to go into each one's room and talk with them about where I'd been, what I'd learned, and to reiterate (with direct eye contact) that there was nothing they could ever do, say, or share with me that would change how much I loved them.  

I would be willing to bet most of us lived through at least one, if not more, reckless/careless moment during our teenage years.  Having the brain science to back up the notion that "kids will be kids" or better understanding the prefrontal cortex (decision/consequences area of the brain) does not fully develop until the mid-20s is evidence we can't ignore as parents guiding our teens into the next phase of their life.

Yes, it's a tightrope walk, but one with huge benefits if you can navigate the shifts with openness, honesty, and faith.

If you need help along the way, I have a great program I would love to personally work through with you to help you become the parent you wish to be.  Want to know more?  Click here.

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