Unsolicited Advice: Attachment Parenting Teens, Part 1


(I should preface this post by warning you that on the day I was going to post this article, my 14 year-old was holding a tray containing 4 servings of Second Cup hot chocolate. She didn’t like the way her younger siblings were behaving so she decided to hold-on to their hot chocolates until they improved their behavior. It had the opposite effect, as you can imagine. Which caused her to hold-on to their hot chocolates even more, and so on. I said: “Honey, you are acting in a completely stup  id way out of principle. Why didn’t you give them their cup right away?”

Hearing this, my 17-year-old daughter guffawed and, referring to our parenting, said: “Pffft, you guys do stupid stuff out of principle all the time!” So this is how my posts on parenting teenagers should be viewed. Stupid stuff out of principle. My teenagers are generally fun to be around and seem to enjoy doing things with their family. They are engaging – even to their parents – and easy to talk to. We sometimes have to ask more than once but their chores are generally done and they respect our family rules     on curfew, dating, driving, churchgoing and media use even though they don’t agree with them. They are generally successful academically and socially and are all-around pleasant people. They think their younger siblings are annoying as heck but hug them all the time.  But that’s all on their own merit. Our parenting has nothing to do with it, being dimly viewed as “doing stupid stuff out of principle.” I just thought I would make that clear.)

Parenting teenagers can be trying even on a good day. I was recently chatting with a few good friends about parenting teenagers and we all experience challenges, doubts and genuine self-doubt about our goals and approaches. Are we too strict? Too lenient? Too old? Too out-of-touch? Teenagers and toddlers have a lot in common in terms of maturation, counter-will and their quest for individuation, but whereas toddlers are barely verbal and still immensely dependent, teenagers have words and are almost able to strike it out on their own. In fact, they did not that long ago in evolutionary terms. My husband once muttered, looking at our strapping 16 year-old waste yet another hour on the Internet: “They used to send them to war at that age!” Others were married and running households by the age of 19. Do we really need such an extended bumper-zone between childhood and adulthood? Probably not but those  are the cards we are dealt nowadays.

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The biggest challenge of parenting teenagers is to find the right balance between forming them, as they are still maturing, and giving them enough latitude to apply the lessons of their upbringing to their lives. My husband calls it “Giving them enough rope to hang themselves”…

My husband’s quip illustrates another big challenge or parenting teens: teenagers have the ability to make decisions that will follow them for the rest of their lives. Hence the hanging. Whether it’s getting pregnant, getting someone else pregnant, dropping out of school, contracting a chronic disease or crashing a car full of friends, it takes a lot of parental equanimity to let teenagers make mistakes and try to grow from them.My husband and I set family rules that are based on principles of honesty, accountability and integrity, then we trust our teenagers to respect them. Giving our teens age-appropriate limits while giving them enough freedom to mature and develop their own judgement is a balancing act that will leave the most seasoned circus performer rattled. It is also guaranteed to be strongly criticized, challenged, and generally scorned by our teenagers, regardless of how lovingly we enforce it.

That’s why the only way to parent teenagers is through a strong and loving relationship. As Gordon Neufeld so wisely writes in “Hold on to your kids: Why parents must matter more than peers” on p.16:

“Imagine that your spouse of lover suddenly begins to act strangely: won’t look you in the eye, rejects physical contact, speaks to you irritably in monosyllables, shuns your approaches, and avoids your company. Then imagine that you go to your friends for advice. Would they say to you, “Have you tried a time-out? Have you imposed limits and made clear what your expectations are?” It would be obvious to everyone that, in the context of adult interactions, you’re dealing not with a behavior problem but a relationship problem.”  

While all teenagers are bound to have slips in judgement and moments of rudeness, your journey shouldn’t be marked by crisis.

WHAAAAT? Say that again?

While all teenagers are bound to have slips in judgement and moments of rudeness, your journey shouldn’t be marked by crisis.

I know. You always heard that it was the other way around. That parenting teenagers is one long storm interrupted infrequently by short bouts of sunshine, usually when money or the car keys are at stake. Teenagers are rude. Teenagers are mouthy. Teenagers are sulky and entitled. The teenage years are like a long root canal treatment: something entirely unpleasant but inevitable.

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Teenagers can (and will) be rude. They can (and will) be mouthy. They can (and will) be sulky and entitled. But these behaviours shouldn’t define your relationship. If they do, you are dealing with a relationship problem, expressed in difficult behaviors. I often say that I will be parenting teenagers for the next 20 years of my life (yes, I will). Every time I hear someone say that you just have to suffer through the teen years, I think “Hell no I won’t!”  

Parents who expect their teens to behave like normal human beings often feel like they are fighting an uphill battle. While this expectation — often expressed in rules of basic cleanliness, manners and self-control — is not too strict objectively-speaking, it often makes us feel like freaks when compared to our children’s school friends’ parents. Control-crazed totalitarian monsters. Most teenagers long to be somewhat “normal” and restrictions or expectations make them feel “abnormal”. They don’t care if “normal” means “totally messed-up” in many cases. That’s why parenting with love and confidence in the knowledge that you are doing the right thing, even in the face of criticism, is key.

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I did some damage to my relationship with my teens during my twin pregnancy (too much hormones…) and I had to work very hard to repair it to the point where we can now have conversations about rules and discipline without getting angry or shutting down. But it takes some work!! It is possible to impose firm (i.e. unpopular) rules and guidelines on the teenagers living under your roof but you must also work on your relationship. It is the only way to enforce unpopular rules with love and without war.

But here’s the thing about relationships: they take time to build. And if, like me two years ago, you have a damaged relationship, you may have to fake it until you make it: teens can really push your buttons! Some people often think that until they have a solid relationship, they should back-off. Here are two analogies that helped me understand that being a doormat was not going to get me anywhere. The first is the cruise boat analogy (AKA Costa Concordia…): if you want to make a u-turn with your Costa Concordia, you better start now and not when you’re within eyesight of the shore. Right? If there is something that needs to change in your parenting relationship or in your discipline approach, you need to start now to see results down the road.

The second analogy is the sour milk analogy. Did you ever take a big sip of milk that had turned? Did you spit it out gradually or all at once? When there is something wrong in your household or in your discipline or in your relationship, you spit it out right away. Change takes time, turning around is a process, better start now.

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Don’t think that because you have a strained relationship with your teens you should leave them alone and let them isolate themselves from you and the rest of the family. Your teenagers are still very much in need of a strong attachment relationship. If you leave that space, their friends will fill the void. Peer-attachment, also known as peer orientation, is not a solution to your problem: it is a much bigger problem. You still need to be present in your teen’s life. When you feel your attachment waning, it is time to renew this vital relationship, not compromise it by introducing more distance.

In my next post, I will share with you some practical tips for building a strong relationship with your teens. In the meantime, go and love your teens. They need it.

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9 thoughts on “Unsolicited Advice: Attachment Parenting Teens, Part 1

  1. Lauren

    I am a single mom, raising 2 teens and I am raising them in a much different way than I was raised. I love my parents dearly but I have the ringing in my head of their non stop nurturing words of- go figure it out yourself, well you will only make that mistake once, you made that choice now live with it. This was their way of parenting me as a teen.
    Much to my fathers disapproval- I feel this is a time that my children need guidance and direction from me. I am learning to set boundaries-” I am your parent not your peer.” I too, base my rules on responsibility, honesty and respect. They are fun to be around as well- that being said- I am not looking to be the cool mom, the lenient mom. or out of touch. It is actually just the opposite. I want to be present in my children’s lives and I will be there even if it is waning. For now, I will go and love my teens and look forward to your next post!

    • I always get going when people tell me that they want to treat their children like their friends! My kids have dozens of friends but only one mom. They don’t need another friend, they need a mom!

      I also think that letting teens “figure it out” is a recipe for disaster! To some extent yes. But just like you don’t let a toddler “figure out” the consequences of falling off a balcony on his own, you don’t let teenagers make life-altering decisions unchecked. Some of them will but it doesn’t mean you have to let them! It drives me insane when people say about teenagers being sexually active “They’re going to do it anyway…” Not necessarily and they need someone somewhere to tell them that being sexually active can have negative consequences on their physical and emotional well-being and they should wait to be in a loving and committed relationship to get the best of what sexuality has to offer.

      Teenagers do need boundaries. And that’s one of my biggest parenting challenge: setting boundaries in an environment where teenagers have none. For instance, my dating teens (16 and 17) are not allowed to be unchaperoned with their boyfriend/girlfriend. Especially not if they are at home. I know so many parents whose idea of supervision includes having teenagers alone in their room with their boyfriend/girlfriend! As long as the parents are in the house. Sounds like some people have forgotten how powerful sexual attraction can be! Instances like this one force me to be a much more restrictive parent than I would be otherwise, if I was surrounded by parents who also believed in setting limits and not letting teens figure everything out on their own!

      • Lauren

        I should tell you, my niece- Holly Leonard, told me to read your article. She knew it would hit home with me. I’ve always been very open and upfront with my teens but I was finding that I was ‘looking’ like the cool mom and felt like all the kids thought I was excepting of whatever behaviour. I’ve slowly started to set boundaries (I am reading a book Holly suggested). The thing is the kids still think I’m cool. They like the boundaries and are respectful of them. I even find Sunday nights they want to find out what’s so great about mass and tag along with my children and I. — I’m really shocked at how many if these children don’t like their parents, don’t tell them anything and would rather be anywhere than at home. I think so many parents are so far out of touch.
        Thank you for responding! Holly says you go to her church- I have been with her several times. I am from Windsor. You do not need to post this. :)

  2. LOVE…I have a post on my blog called “attachment and the teen years” so much wild fun.

    BTW, I do homeschool workshops and recently I had a couple of french speaking moms attended a workshop I did (from Vancouver) who are looking for French children’s literature (story books and novels) that are not translations. They are finding translations flat in general. Would you have any resources to recommend? BL

    • Oh absolutely!! I am preparing to homeschool my elementary school kids (and some high school) starting in September and part if my prep is to draw-up a decent reading list. I have in right in front of me on a white board! It’s a work in progress but here is what I have so far:

      Children’s story books (these may contain some translations from foreign languages but they are well worth it):
      – Trésor de l’enfance
      – Les grands classiques du père Castor

      These two first books are “recueils” and are really the best and the brightest of children’s stories.

      – Tomi Ungerer books (we love “Jean de la Lune” and “Le géant de Zeralda” right now. Totally politically incorrect children’s lit at its best.)
      – Larousse editions has a few books of “First fairy tales” and children’s poetry that I recommend.

      In terms of elementary school, I have many books that are to be read to the children rather than read by the children. I think they will be readable by older children but my two elementary schoolers are currently in grade kindergarten and 2.

      – Tistou les pouces verts (Maurice Druon)
      – Les Contes du chat perché (Marcel Aymé)
      – Roman de Renart
      – Nils Olgerson (Selma Lagerlof, trans from Swedish, to read to young children or by children aged 12+)
      – contes d’Andersen
      – contes de Grimm
      – contes de Perrault
      – Fables de Lafontaine

      Bayard Presse has a couple of books to use in the context of a homeschool curriculum. I don’t know yet how readable they are by the children but they should be:
      – Le feuilleton d’Hermes (Greek mythology)
      – poème de Victor Hugo (those that are child-friendly)
      – poème et chansons de Jacques Prevert.

      There you go! That’s what we have for now.

      I will go look for your post on attachment parenting teenagers! Fun times indeed!

      Warmly,
      Veronique

  3. Maria

    Hi, Veronique!
    Again, your article came just in time:) My teenage daughter is stubbornly convincing and arguing to be allowed to go for a bday sleepover during the weekend exam week and I find myself doubting whether I am indeed too strict because all her friends who have exams as well are allowed to go. I simply said they are not my kids but it didn’t work. I won’t bore you with the details but I find I have to work harder on my relationship and not just impose these so-called rules. How I wish we were neighbors. Keep up writing these articles:)

    • Gah. The sleepover party. Hate. Hate. Hate. We do not allow sleepovers and some of my children are fine with that (they never even ask) and other children/teens have been butting-head with this simple family rule since they were old enough to be invited to a sleepover (which is increasingly young).

      Do you normally allow sleepovers but did not this time because of exams? Regardless, I think that not much sleep happens during sleepovers and restricting it during exam periods is a very wise thing to do. Our family doc was recently telling our oldest teen that teenagers still need 10h of sleep a night. Anything under 8h has the same effect on their brains as alcohol. My daughter still doesn’t get more than 7h of sleep a night on a regular basis but it just shows how, even at that age, we (parents) need to be on top of their sleep hygiene.

      I wouldn’t expect common sense to prevail on your teenager on the topic of sleepovers. You explained to her why you didn’t allow it, she disagreed, now you can just stay calm and stay firm. That said, you may want to consider letting her go to the party until a set time (ours is usually 11pm) and maybe taking her out for brunch the next morning. Sometimes, it’s not the rule that’s problematic, it’s the delivery. Our stricter rules make our teens feel like we’re always saying “no, no, no”. So throw-in some positive too. Is there something that would make her studying easier? If you are using her exams as a reason for disallowing the sleepover, try to use the exams as a reason to allow something unusual. A break for chores for instance: “I’ll clean your bathroom this weekend so you can start working on your math earlier” type of thing.

      • Maria

        Sleepovers are discouraged in our house especially for the younger ones. The older ones are allowed for occasional birthdays and you are right some are ok with staying up at a certain time and we just pick them up. As for this certain weekend sleepover- my teen d’s argument is that she has studied all week during lunch for her exams (it starts today till next Thursday) but then I was concerned of her sleep and with all the other “study” stress she’s getting that her health will eventually be compromised. And believe me when I was arguing with her I was trying so hard to check myself that I wasn’t being just strict about no sleepovers versus putting her health and exams on priority. I know in the future there will times where she will really set her priorities and cannot say yes and be there for every single invitation.
        Thx, again for your help. Take care- M

  4. Hi Yanit! That would be a good topic! While I enjoyed our Montessori experience, we only did it because I needed childcare. When I am home full time, I do not send my children to preschool. I think that preschool can be a beneficial experience for children but it’s not essential. In my case, I have sent some children to preschool because I had a newborn and the older children needed to do something other than stay home and watch me nurse. I have also used the Montessori preschool in lieu of daycare when I was working outside the home. That said, I do not believe that we need to “prepare” our kids for school in any way. Kindergarten is designed to socialize children into a school routine: wait in line, ask for priviledges, nap on cue, share with friends. In my opinion, having a child in JK at the moment, they don’t do much else that you cannot do at home. In fact, when I visited the JK class in August, I had the twins (2) and Sarah (4) with me and it struck me that the toys and set-up was more age appropriate for the twins than for Sarah. I considered homeschooling her right there and then!

    So no matter how awesome the Montessori education is, when she goes to JK, it’s going to be all undone. Unless your school teaches cursive writing and phonetic reading, she will unlearn all those wonderful Montessori advantages to re-learn script writing and whole-word reading. And I’m not getting into the math stuff. As for learning to wait in line and pee on cue, is it really worth almost $1000 a month to prepare her for this?

    In a nutshell, you do preschool because it works for you at the time and it’s beneficial for you at the time. Don’t ascribe it any long term learning advantages or socialization benefits. That’s just the spin they like to give it. Know what I mean?

    Another issue with preschool (and I know this won’t be your case but it’s still good to be aware of it) is how it fosters early peer-orientation in children who come to it with attachment voids. This is important to understand especially if you buy the “preschool/daycare socializes kids” approach. When a child comes to preschool with attachment voids, they are more likely to fill those voids by relating to their peers (other preschoolers) than to the teacher. Unless you have a teacher who understand the importance of attachment and actively seeks out to be adult children attach to, children are more likely to attach to each other. We’re talking about more than friendships here, we’re talking about primary attachment. The problem with peer attachment at that young age is that the behaviors that are the product of peer attachment very much look like emancipation: they are less needy, they no longer put pressure on adults to spend time with them, to listen to them, to help them with their problems. And we are so impatient for our children to grow-up that we see these behavior as desirable and as a result of proper socialization. That peer-orientation also make kids more schoolable because they are less likely to suffer separation anxiety and disorientation when they are separated from their parents. Anxiety interferes with learning. As a result, we look to socialization as a good preparation for school because the peer-oriented child appears smarter, more confident and learns faster. The parent-oriented child is impaired by separation anxiety and will remain so until he can form a good attachment with the teacher. As the mother of shy children who remain strongly attached to their family as they grow-up and mature, I strongly believe that shyness is not a handicap, it is a powerful attachment force. In terms of preparing the children for school, I strongly believe that keeping them at home longer and nurturing a strong attachment is preparing them better for school and confident independence than early socialization.

    In a nutshell, I only pay for preschool if I have a logistical reason for it, if I — as the parent — need it. I do not believe that children who are in a loving and stable home environment need it.

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