Letting Go Is All About Letting Your Teen Grow – Part 1

How can you as parents give your teen the space he needs while ensuring that his journey from adolescence into adulthood is a balanced and well-adjusted one? Here are insights from a two-part series.

By Arundhati Swamy *

Letting Go Is All About Letting Your Teen Grow – Part 1
Your teen needs your love and support to soar, to grow...

“Rishi, Rishi wake up! Come on, Papa wants to go out for Sunday breakfast together. Get up, Rishi!”

Reena is knocking on her teenager’s door.

Finally, Rishi, 14, opens the door.

“Mom, I don’t want to go out,” he mumbles.

“Rishi, it’s 11.30 am already! Your light was on till past 1:00 a.m. last night. I’ve told you before not to stay up so late. Now, get ready and come with us,” snaps Kiran, his dad.

“No, I told you I don’t want to go anywhere! Leave me alone!” Rishi shouts back and slams the door.

Reena and Kiran look at each other helplessly. Their son used to love going out. Now, he refuses to go anywhere with them and prefers to be in his room. Or hang out with his gang of friends. They don’t know how to reach out to him for he hardly talks to them. Their teenager, they worry, is slipping away from them.

Are you experiencing the same unsettling changes as Reena and Kiran? Do you too feel your teen doesn’t need you anymore?

When your child enters the teenage years, remember he is learning something new every day, in different ways. He is now beginning to shape himself, his personality, and create his identity. A big part of this exploration happens through his interaction with his peer group, his friends. In fact, it is with them, rather than you, his parents, that he learns the most about himself henceforth. He learns from the choices he makes, the risks he takes and yes, the experiences that impact this path of self-discovery.

With her friends and peers, your teen understands a little bit more about herself, her likes and dislikes, she learns about her own emotional responses and reactions, abilities and capabilities. These interactions lead to self-discovery and hence, are vital. As parents, it may seem that your teen is drawing away from you. You may feel lost and uninvolved at times. The truth is, your teen still needs you. The relationship she shares with you continues to be a deep and loving one, but it is also evolving, every day.

Change is a constant

Think back to when your child was younger. At each stage of his growth, the parent-child relationship was different, wasn’t it? In fact, the period immediately just before teenage — the preteen years — is one when your child is no longer completely dependent on you but is still eager to share things with you. The years of middle childhood leading up to the preteen years are when growth occurs at a steady pace. You have a lot of interaction with your child and you still retain considerable control over her.

Then adolescence sets in. And everything changes, for your child and for you. You may believe that you are ready for these changes, but your emotions may well overwhelm you. As your teen begins to focus more on his friends and other social groups you may feel lost and unwanted. Your child is not seeking you out as often as before. Like Reena and Kiran, you may think: ‘My child used to share everything with me. Now he doesn’t do that anymore!’ or ‘My child doesn’t need me anymore.’ It feels like the control over your child is slipping away, that there’s less to do with your child. You may be confused about how to hold on to a relationship that is changing so much.

Your teen needs you, but differently

Why does your teen need you more than ever, now? First, let’s look at all the changes your teen has to cope with.

  • Physical growth: Puberty sets in with a spurt in physical growth, awkwardness and body image concerns, the gradual awareness of sexual feelings and urges.
  • Cognitive growth: Your teen now questions almost everything. She seeks to understand through logic and reasoning. She begins to explore and formulate her ideals and therefore, can be very judgemental and have strong opinions.
  • Emotional growth: There are new emotions to cope with — intense feelings, attraction to the opposite sex, infatuations, falling in love.
  • Social growth: Teens are widening their friendships, there is increased interaction and dependency upon peer groups. Their hectic social lives revolve around choosing friendships and multiple social groups, finding a comfortable place in them and engaging in a variety of activities with them.

Your teen is dealing with all these complex changes. Your role as a parent remains intact, but how you play that role is important. Your teen needs to know and believe that ‘I can always go back to my parents and talk to them about anything that might be disturbing me or worrying me. Or what I am curious about.’ Which is why your teen needs you — to answer her questions or, simply, to be available for support. She must think: ‘My parent is there for me to lean on, especially when I’m not feeling good.’ However, your teen will determine when she wants to connect with you. Be aware that this is the most natural way for your teen to behave.

So, how can you equip your teen right?

Ideally, your teen should have begun learning many important life skills from early childhood. Else, she will have to start now. A bigger challenge for you and your teen would be to help her ‘unlearn’ behaviours that prevent her from becoming a responsible teen. Here are some skills your child needs to become more competent for the challenges of the teenage years:

  • Making decisions: Teach your teen to make decisions on her own, or with your support. Involve her in family discussions that lead into making decisions. Have debates over social issues. The different points of view will give your teen a broad understanding of life situations and the different ways in which they can be handled.
  • Let’s look at Reena and Kiran again. Instead of telling their son Rishi that he has to get ready this very moment, they ask him what he would like to do. “I want to have peanut butter and jam sandwiches,” he replies. ‘Well, then, let’s make it together,” says Reena, to Rishi’s surprise. Kiran offers to make his special masala omelettes to round things off. Rishi is amazed. Breakfast actually turns out to be fun.
  • Managing emotions: Show your teen how to manage her emotions. Teach her how to name her emotions and accept them as being natural. It reduces the intensity of her emotions to more manageable levels.
  • Instead of becoming angry with their surly teenager, Reena and Kiran demonstrate to their son how they are managing their own emotions in the situation. They stay patient and calm. They tell him they understand that he feels sleepy and disoriented. “Do you want a cup of coffee,” asks Reena. Rishi is surprised. He had assumed his parents would be mad at him for getting up so late. “I slept late because I was designing a poster for my friend Smitha. It’s her birthday tomorrow,” he explains, a little shyly.
  • Learning to wait: Your teen may want many things just as soon as she thinks of them. By not giving into these demands all at once, she learns to wait and cope with frustration.
  • For instance, Smitha, Rishi’s friend, wants a new smartphone for her birthday. Her mother Anitha, believes that Smitha can still use the one she has and suggests that she can perhaps save up to be able to pay for part of the cost of a new phone in the following year. In this way Smitha will learn to wait and also practice a good habit of saving. She will also learn to value the new phone when she gets it later.
  • Communicating with people: Be a role-model to your teen. Show him how you communicate with people in respectful ways – using courtesy, apology, agreeing to disagree, pleasant tone of voice and positive body language that show genuine interest in what people are saying and doing.
  • Rishi’s room is a mess. “Clean up my room,” he orders Shyla, their maid. But Reena, his mom tells him he cannot talk to Shyla like that. “Also, it is not Shyla’s job to do that,” she points out. “It is your room, your mess. So, you must fold up your clothes and pick up all the stuff you have strewn around. Then, Shyla will sweep and dust the room,” Reena adds. Here, Reena is firmly pointing out that he cannot order the maid around. Rishi also learns that he is responsible for his own stuff, including keeping his room neat and tidy.
  • Showing empathy: Teach your teen about empathy – the ability to feel what others feel. Present her with a situation and ask her to think about what a person might be experiencing. This will help her recognise emotional cues in other people and respond suitably.
  • Rishi’s mom Reena is looking upset. She goes into her room and Rishi can hear her crying. “What’s wrong? Why is mom so sad,” he asks his dad. “She just found out that her best friend has a rare form of cancer. It has been a terrible shock. She will be okay, Rishi. She needs some time, that’s all,” Kiran explains. Rishi now understands. On an impulse, he goes to his mom and gives her a hug. She hugs him back, holds him close and feels better about everything.
  • Becoming resilient: Let your teen know that she can always bounce back from failure. Help her learn from mistakes. Ask her to identify what went wrong and what she can do differently to help herself do better the next time. She will develop a positive attitude towards setbacks and failures. ‘It's okay that I failed or had a setback; I can always learn and move on'.
  • In his mid-terms, Rishi scored just enough to scrape through in Maths. The teen is upset. “I hate Maths, I don’t want to study it anymore!” he exclaims. Reena and Kiran know their teen is upset. So, they gently ask him what he found tough in his exam. “The section on Calculus,” he admits. Turns out the teacher has not explained the chapter well. With his parents’ help, Rishi looks up YouTube videos that explain Calculus simply and clearly. Now, Rishi realises it is not so tough after all. “And if I had not scored so badly, I would not have bothered to understand it better,” he tells himself.

Letting go is important

A teen mind is usually preoccupied with many things. So, your teen’s conversations with friends are more interesting as they share similar growing up experiences. Hence, he may be less expressive with you. Often, he will answer you with phrases or monosyllables such as ‘fine’, ‘ok’, ‘maybe’, ‘later’, ‘why’, ‘I know’, ‘how come’, etc. His reluctance to talk about his day with you is often prompted by his fear of being judged, misunderstood or criticised. It’s possible your teen may also feel lost and confused about all the changes, strong emotions and new experiences.

Which is why the parent-child relationship needs to move to a different level altogether. Actually, teens need their parents more than ever now, but in different ways. So, letting go and yet being there for him is like a musical duet where sometimes he goes solo, sometimes both of you are in harmony and you are always like the back-up chorus.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you are there for each other. For, it is your love and support that will help your teen learn and grow through the ups and downs of these teenage years.

* as told to Divya Sreedharan

In Letting Go – Part 2, next week, we talk about the delicate balance parents need to maintain. Stay connected, but don't try to control, your teen. Don't be your teen’s buddy... just be there for her. 

About the author:

Written by Arundhati Swamy on 2 April 2019.

Arundhati Swamy is a family counsellor and Head of the Parent Engagement Program at ParentCircle.

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