Now that we have three kids on the other side of adolescence and have worked closely with teens and their parents for over 30 years, we thought we would offer 10 tips that have worked for us during these important years. We humbly offer them as food for thought and to set the table for conversation.
1. Prioritize the Marriage. A strong marriage helps create stability, open communication, and a level of support, which are all important ingredients in the adolescent years. This is not to say that kids from single homes or in co-parenting homes don’t excel. I grew up as an only child in a single home, and it was a source of inspiration and motivation. I have seen many kids in co-parenting environments do very well. I have also seen kids in intact families where the marriage is suffering be negatively impacted.
Kids in families in which the marriage is not a priority are missing out. Often, when our kids our born, we stop all things related to our relationships as couples. The marriage disappears. After all, the kids have so many needs, how is there time for "us”? Of course, there are real practical needs. However, placing our kids, who are naturally inclined toward self-absorption, at the center of the family is a mistake. The marriage will suffer. We need to prioritize our marriages and do the heavy lifting to build strong families. Placing boundaries around our kids’ needs so we can work on our marriage is very necessary. I’m not advocating that we neglect our kids and go travel the world, just that we don’t let the marriage fade into the background. If Mom and Dad are in a good place, it pays tremendous dividends for everyone else (this is true in any family arrangement). The opposite is also true.
2. Expect Surprises. Teens will make mistakes, and sometimes they can be large ones. A 10th-grade boy may get caught cheating on an exam and get an F, or a junior girl may come home drunk from a party. These things, unfortunately, are part of the adolescent landscape. Our kids are trying things out for the first time, charting new territory. There is a learning curve. We should expect our kids to fall short. Expecting mistakes and surprises will prepare us for when they need us most. In these important moments, our kids will be hurting, confused, afraid, frustrated, and angry. This is when they need us to be strong, clear-headed, present, wise, in control, and loving. Often, the shock and surprise throws us into a tailspin. We lose our composure, get overly emotional, lash out, get angry, and more. These are moments for real teaching, connection, and growth. If we aren’t caught off guard, we are more likely to remain composed, leaning into our kids in a way that will capture them. We will offer important wisdom, reasonable consequences, comfort, presence, and more. They need it, deep down want it, and will ultimately appreciate it. When we lose our cool, focus on our own emotions, and make it about us, we close the door to our kids. We push them away. Where will they go? To the obvious place: They will turn to the tried and true wisdom and sage advice of other 16-year-olds. This is not the best road. When mistakes happen, it is our chance to do some great work. Be prepared. Expect surprises.
3. Let Them Fail. This sounds crazy and might be the hardest part of parenting. If our kids are to be well-adjusted, independent adults, they need to learn. One of the greatest learning tools is responsibility. Giving our kids important tasks and responsibility helps them learn. Why don’t we give them these types of opportunities? Of course, because they will mess it all up. We can do it better. So we shelter them, do it for them, and we take away one of the most valuable tools of growing from adolescence to adulthood—responsibility. When we remove challenges and do everything for our kids, what we are really telling them is, “You aren’t good enough. I have no confidence in who you are and in your abilities.” This is a dangerous message that can take years to unlearn.
There is no doubt that you can create a far greater fourth-grade mission project than your son. His will look crooked and sloppy. Yours will be magnificent, straight, and beautiful. You will get an A+! However, it will be yours, not his. He will be deprived of opportunity and will simply not grow up. I learned some of these lessons when my family pointed out my habit of speaking for my kids and finishing their sentences. I wouldn’t let them speak. I spoke for them. After all, I knew what they were thinking and could say it better than they could. What a mistake I was making. Give your kids responsibility and allow them to fail, and you will produce young adults with grit, perseverance, wisdom, and confidence.
4. Spend Time with Your Kids. Of course this is cliché. But it is absolutely right. We have so much to offer. We pass down family traditions, values, faith, good advice, and more. Plus, spending time creates close connection, memories, and fun. I am not suggesting a four-week road trip across the country, although that might be fantastic (or not). Do simple things. Go to the store together to pick out ice cream, catch the last few innings of a Dodgers game on TV, learn to play Fortnite, have dinner together as a family, throw the football, go sit on their bed in the evening, keep their doors open, and engage. Should you have an agenda? Sometimes. Be intentional. Talk with them about important issues—family memories, goals, sex, drugs, education, and more. Other times, just show up with no agenda at all. Will there be lots of awkward silence? You bet. Might they fall asleep in your presence? It’s very possible. No need to say anything. Just listen, wait, and be present with them. Don’t ask them how they are doing. If you do that, you will get one word back: “Fine.” Instead, tell them how you are doing, what’s on your mind, and what you have been up to. How about this rhetorical question: “Guess what happened to me today?” They are fascinated by this and are more likely to engage and tell you things that are on their mind in return.
5. Be Consistent. When we change the rules of the game over and over, we confuse our kids and lose their respect. They stop taking us seriously. Be clear and consistent, and follow through. When they know where they stand, they do better. Uncertainty breeds insecurity. Certainty and consistency breed confidence. They may not like what you are consistently saying and doing. However, they need it. Threatening our kids and not following through is like spinning our wheels. We go nowhere, and in fact, we often regress.
A corollary to being consistent is Being on the Same Page. It is important that both parents be unified when it comes to parenting. Mixed messages are confusing, frustrating, and no good for our kids. But what if we don’t agree? Work really hard, privately, to work it out. Do your best to come to a consensus and compromise. Even if you don’t fully agree, present a united front and don’t undermine each other. Your kids need you to hold the line and lead. When the line is blurred and we are leading in two different directions, our kids suffer.
6. Pick Your Battles. Yes, the teen years are a battle. Why? Our kids are separating, taking on decisions, and making mistakes. We are holding on, trying to control things, and deathly afraid of failure. This creates natural tension we can’t avoid. This battle is a rite of passage, and if done properly, things will turn out for the good. This axiom was true for our family: Fight every battle and you will lose the war. Pick your battles and win the war. Fighting over every last issue pushes them away. We lose them. Our goal was to win the war for their hearts and minds. To do this, we couldn’t fight every battle. Our kids could only take so much engagement and conversation. We focused on the things we believed were the most important and went from there. We remained consistently engaged in all of it and never gave up. However, we didn’t wear them out. A key thing we learned was that our kids were not clones of us. They would not act, think, choose, and live exactly like us. At first, that was unsettling. We have really good lives, and anything different would be not as fruitful or good. Why wouldn’t they just copy everything we did and were doing?
Once we (or maybe I should say I) realized we all had different personalities, different wiring, and that our kids could lead a good life and be themselves, some of the things we battled for fell off the table. It was freeing, and they appreciated being honored as real people, not copies of their parents.
7. Set the Example. When my kids started copying my good habits, I was thrilled. When they started copying my bad habits, I was horrified. The example we set matters. If we want them to think and live well, we must think and live well. Living authentic lives out in front of them—flaws and all—is a great teaching tool. They learn there are gifts to be used, shortcomings to work on, personalities to be shaped, habits to form, and so much more. Live the life of faith and virtues you want your kids to adopt. There may be a time of rebellion. However, typically, kids put on many of the good things lived out by their parents. They come back around to what they have experienced as good, right, and true.
8. Surround Them with High-Quality Adults. Kids need to be around a solid peer group. This matters. However, current research shows that teens also benefit from having high-quality adults, in addition to their parents, engage in their lives. They don’t always listen to us. Again, there is a natural tension with parents and the need to break away. When this happens, having other wise adults around is key, people that can reinforce our values and good habits in the lives of our kids. They can be grandparents, coaches, teachers, youth group leaders, aunts, uncles, family friends, and more.
9. Take Them to Church. One of the best gifts we have given our family is the church community we are a part of. I know that not everyone reading this shares my view on faith, so my comments here are more personal in nature. Consistently going to church and being a member of a church community has provided our family with a vehicle to help grow our faith, kept us accountable to our goals and standards, and helped us foster virtue—perseverance, charity, self-control, wisdom, humility, patience, and kindness. We live in a material world, and we need to pay attention to its physical realities. They are God-created. However, we also live in a spiritual world, yet to our detriment, most of us ignore the spiritual side of life, leaving us as spiritual infants. Church has helped us keep the material and spiritual realities in balance and helped us grow as whole people.
10. Don’t Quit. Battling is hard. Parenting is hard. Adolescence is hard. We get weary and tired, and sometimes there is a desire to disengage. I see this begin to happen at about seventh grade. Parents are simply at their wits’ end, and they begin to walk away from their kids. They quit! But we love our kids and our community too much to quit. Hang in there! You are not alone.