Parenting Guild

Helping Teens Hit the Target

Written by: Biff Barnes

Teenagers are a lot like guided missiles. After a missile is launched at a specific target, it spends over 90 percent of its time in flight off-course. But the missile contains an internal guidance system that constantly takes in information about its position in relation to the target. By using this information it makes mid-course corrections, which ultimately allow the missile to hit the target.

Teenagers, too, have a target: becoming happy, responsible and productive adults. And, for a good part of the years between 12 and 20, most teens seem to their parents to be off-course.

What parents need to learn is to trust their teenager's internal guidance system. Unfortunately, that's a lot easier said than done.

Off-Course Decisions

During their teenage years your teen will, no doubt, express ideas that you believe are wrong and do things that you know are mistakes. You will want to intervene to "protect" your teen from the potential pain these choices can cause. Don't. Intervention in a teenager's right to make his or her own decisions, more often than not, pushes the teen in the direction opposite to the one you want.

At one particularly difficult point in my older son James' somewhat stormy high school career, a psychotherapist offered me a very useful insight. He explained that regardless of my own knowledge and experience, I was "powerless" to change the course of events in my son's life. I could offer advice, but there were some things that James had to learn for himself. Any efforts to intervene wouldn't change his behavior and would probably make him less likely to listen to my advice on future occasions.

James was convinced that because he received grades in the high 90-percent range on geometry tests, he didn't need to do homework. His teacher didn't agree. James arranged to plead his case in a meeting with his teacher and his counselor. James was convinced that he would argue his case so forcefully that they would agree with his point of view. I knew better.

Having been a high school teacher for 26 years, I could agree with James' viewpoint. I could also foresee the problems that his chosen course of action would lead to. If he would just listen, the problems could be avoided. Instead of telling James what would happen, I accepted the fact that my advice would have little effect on the course of events.

Internal Guidance System

My son went ahead and argued his case to his teacher and his counselor, just as I had hoped he wouldn't. He convinced nobody, continued not to do homework and got a "C" in geometry. But within a few weeks James was also explaining his insight: that it wasn't very profitable to fight the system. He told me that he thought he would avoid doing so, when he could, from then on.

James' internal guidance system had gathered some information from the experience, and he adjusted his course to avoid similar problems in the future.

However, when risk permits, being able to allow your teen to make mistakes of their own is critical. Psychologist J.L. Simmons advises: Hear a youngster out when she is expressing an idea or opinion, even if it differs a lot from your own. Consider not contradicting her if it doesn't matter much. She's likely to change her mind next month anyhow.

Kids continually try out ideas, discard them and toy with new ones in the natural process of developing their own outlook. With this tactic you give them the psychological space to do so. (Simmons, "Letting Children Have Their Say," Single Parenting in the Nineties, 1995)

This parenting style requires that parents display some confidence in both themselves and their teenagers. First, parents must believe that if they have spent the first 13 years of their child's life teaching a positive set of values, a healthy way to express emotions, and the ability to make good decision, some of their efforts will pay off. They will have helped their child construct an internal guidance system with which to navigate adolescence. Second, parents must be confident that their child will, upon becoming a teenager, begin to use that system to gather the information necessary to adjust their course to move toward the target.

This is not to suggest that parents should passively hope that their teen will always make good choices. Psychologist Michael Riera, in his book Uncommon Sense for Parents with Teenagers, suggests that while the parent of a pre-teen may constructively play a managerial role in their child's life, that same parent's role in an adolescent's life must shift to that of a consultant. As he explains, what teens need most is reliable information. Indeed, teens may come to understand that: Their parents can actually serve as very useful and important advisors. After all, who knows a teenager's history better than her parents do? Who want only the best for her? Who will constantly take risks for her? Who loves her and forgives her no matter how much she messes up? Who believes in her at least as much as she does? These attitude shifts are possible, however, only if parents can assume the new, less directive advisor role, and if adolescents can trust their parents in this role. (Riera, Uncommon Sense for Parents With Teenagers, Berkeley: Celestial Arts, 1995)

Advice, Not Edicts

Teenagers want more independence and control of their own lives, but they are often uncertain about how to cope with the complex and confusing decisions they face. They require sound information. Increasingly, adolescents turn to their own experiences, observations and to their peer group for advice.

My years as a high school teacher have demonstrated that teenagers also recognize that adult advice can offer a good counterbalance to the errors or excesses of that given by their peers. Teens will listen openly to parental advice, as long as it is not accompanied by an attempt to control them. Of course, parents should understand that their children will not necessarily follow their advice to the letter. They will weigh what parents say against advice from peers and personal observations and make their own judgment about what they should do.

Your children may not do what you had hoped they would. But, by allowing them to test their own internal guidance system, two things will happen. First, they will get better at exercising good judgment. Second, they will be more likely to come to you for advice the next time they are confronted with a problem.

By providing advice rather than edicts, parents can keep the lines of communication open, and allow themselves to play an important role in helping their teenagers learn to rely upon their own internal guidance system. That system will allow them to become happy, responsible, productive adults, especially if you don't fight the system, like my son learned.

Article Copyright 1997 Kayena Communications.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 1997 issue of Parenting Today's Teen.
Used with permission.

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