Do any of these parent-to-teen comments ring a bell?
- “Have you done your homework yet?”
- “You have to do better if you want to go to college.”
- “You just have to try harder—do you know how much your tutor is costing us?”
- “If you don’t get moving, you can forget about getting into a great school.”
- “What do you want to be? You can be anything! You just have to go for it!”
I think I see a few hands going up…oops, starting with mine.
We all want our kids to do well and be successful.
That’s why we nudge them. We know it’s a tough world out there, tougher than they can imagine. And we want them to take advantage of all the rich experiences their world affords, so they’ll be ready for all that’s ahead: a good school, a good internship, a good job. And if, along the way, we harp about homework and try to light some fires under them…well, that just feels like responsible parenting. Right?
Except for this one thing: That approach is more likely to backfire than actually help, because our teens often aren’t on the same page as us—developmentally or emotionally.
Instead of feeling psyched and responsive about plotting their future, many feel…”overwhelmed,” “pressured,” “stressed out.” That’s how they describe it to Lorraine Platt, a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay Area whose practice, Teen Solutions Therapy, specializes in adolescents. “They feel like expectations are so high that they don’t get to just be themselves,” she says.
Add to this heaping helping of achievement pressure what psychologists call choice overload.
“All they know is, they’re supposed to do something great because they have everything,” Platt says. “Instead of being inspired, the prospect of so many amorphous possibilities can cause a kid to freeze!”
“The fact that some choice is good doesn’t mean that more choice is better,” says psychologist Barry Schwartz in his classic analysis, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. In fact, he says, having too many choices can be demotivating, leading to self-doubt, anxiety, stress, and depression. Even for bright, good students, motivation can lag, grades may drop, confidence shakes, the stakes feel too high. Who wouldn’t duck those nosy parent questions and comments and escape to their room to “study”? Or whatever.
Here’s a way better way:
The answer isn’t to limit our kids’ options—or to make decisions for them, Platt suggests. Our teens ARE figuring things out—but on their own, age-right timetable and on their own terms, she says. It’s a lot like when they were branching out as toddlers, exploring how the world works and how to navigate it as their own person separate from us.
Remember how strange stepping back felt then, too? Here’s what works now, Platt says:
Let your kid be…a kid.
Sound like odd advice when our teens are on the brink of emerging adulthood, with so much at stake? Think back to when you were 14, 15, 16, and 17. How many of your current interests, career skills, or future plans seemed very clear then? “Most of us forget that we didn’t know much at that age, and it worked out okay,” Platt says.
“It’s the craziness of our culture that expects kids to be so advanced for their age,” she adds. “They still want to be a kid.” Many kids who are smart, sociable, into clothes and sports and fun—but a little clueless about their future—are now seen as “late bloomers.” But those traits used to apply to most middle- and high-schoolers, she adds.
Some kids are naturally more ambitious and motivated than others. But all teens need space in their lives for play, downtime, and exploration.
Find ways to connect (that’s supporting without controlling).
Teens are most receptive when they perceive our comments as coming from a place of support, not control, Platt says. That’s why ”connecting”—before diving in with messages about what they should and shouldn’t be doing—is the key to almost all parent-teen conversations.
Her suggestions: Eat together when you can. Take walks. Talk, but not necessarily—and definitely not exclusively—about your kid’s grades or future. Just talk about stuff, so that you can hear what’s important and interesting to your teen.
“Parents often tell me, ‘Oh, she’s so happy when she’s with her friends,’” Platt says. “That’s because they feed on what’s important to them when they’re together—a sense of playfulness, exploring, being creative about clothes and music, baking, wondering.”
Help your teen look inward to narrow the possibilities.
There’s a lot of emphasis in high school on what other kids are doing and competing with them. To get your teen to focus on what’s important to him or her, have ongoing, low-key conversations about his or her skills and natural strengths. Let your teen do most of the thinking and discovery, with just a little guidance from you.
You might say something like, “What do you think your strengths are? Here’s what I see; is that what you see?” Offer more specific ideas than “great personality” and “smart.” For example, “You’re really well organized. You’re curious and amazing at science—do you like it as much as you seem to?”
Encourage your child to get feedback from others who know her, like teachers, tutors, or coaches.
Help your child see that all kinds of qualities can be positive traits to build on.
Help your teen discover his or her passions.
It’s often helpful to expose our kids to different ideas and interests through movies, books, museum visits, classes, camps, or workshops—but without an agenda! That last part is key. “They can tell when you’re pushing them or want something,” Platt says.
Lead them to resources and ideas, but give them room to take it from there.
Ask, “Do you want to go to college?”
The college quest is a treadmill most of us hop onto without even considering if it’s the best, or only, way to set our child up for success.
“For many parents, not going to college isn’t an option,” Platt says. “Yes, education is important—but maybe your kid needs a year before making that commitment. It can be hugely helpful to ASK the question so she has room to find her way.”
For some, junior college or community college (two-year programs) are a better fit, “not a sign of failure,” Platt says. “It’s a low-cost way to get general-education credits out of the way, while giving a student extra time to explore interests before enrolling in a four-year institution.”
Ease off when you see signs of stress.
Bad report cards are often warnings of stress and lost motivation. Girls may be short with you or act closed off. Boys often “check out” into video games. Almost all teens, when under pressure, isolate themselves, sometimes to an extreme degree, like spending all their free time on their devices, disengaged from family life.
Platt believes that many cases of indifferent students, acting out, and destructive behaviors, like cutting, can be traced to kids feeling under excessive pressure for extended periods of time. “They feel disconnected. School has no meaning,” she says, “because they’re running fast to get somewhere, but they don’t know why.”
Starting high school, especially, is often a rocky transition as kids struggle to find their place. It helps, she adds, for parents to let them know: Yeah, this is a big adjustment, but we believe in you.
Platt sees even middle-schoolers flinching under the pressure to compete, excel, and board the college-bound trajectory. Developmentally, they’re all about adjusting to greater school and social demands, like fitting in. And sometimes, it’s a dangerous clash.
Ultimately, it’s about balance.
Sure, our teens eventually have to grow up. And they will—when we find that sweet spot of guiding, somewhere in the supportive middle between babying and controlling. As child development specialists remind us again and again: They do better, go farther, feel more confident, and wind up happier when they’ve turned opportunity into action on their own terms.
It’s mostly a question of approach. We’ll pretty much always be needed to kiss the proverbial scraped knee when they trip. But, mostly? This growing up thing is about them. Not us.
Photos from top: James Theophane/Flickr; Thomas Mueller/Flickr; R Pollard/Flickr; John Loo/Flickr