When children reach their teen years, it becomes their parents’ responsibility to know when to let go and when to pull in the reins. Adolescence is typically a time for exploration, for testing boundaries and experimenting with self-expression. Some freedom is necessary, then, if kids of this age are to learn anything about themselves. Too much free rein, however, can set them adrift in a world that they aren’t yet equipped to deal with.
Total freedom can, ironically, translate to lack of caring in their minds. If we as parents don’t care when they come home or who they’re spending time with, can our children help but wonder whether we’re concerned about their welfare at all? They may question every ground rule that we lay down, and fight us every step of the way, but that doesn’t mean that they actually hope we’ll always give in. Oftentimes, their resistance is really a test designed to gauge how resolute we are. During this period when they are questioning themselves and their relationship with everything else in the world, this kind of testing can be their only means of trying to understand where they stand with us.
It can be a mistake, then, to always give them what they want, because either (a) they don’t really know what that is, or (b) what they really want is something a little different from what they’re telling us. A teenager may be thrilled, in the moment, to be staying out long passed curfew, but in the back of his or her mind there probably lurks this question: “Aren’t my parents worried about me?” Our best course of action, in these cases, would be to dole out a consequence for the transgression instead of playing the role of “understanding best friend” to our teens. They may make an outward show of being hurt and angry as a result, but inside they’ll probably feel a measure of relief.
It can be helpful to deal with the personal freedom issue by instituting a kind of sliding “trust scale”. When they’ve been observing our ground rules faithfully for a while, they can be rewarded with a later curfew on the weekends, for example. When they try to take advantage of our good natures and bend the rules, however, they slide backwards on our trust scales. A period of good behavior will then be required before they work themselves up to good standing and become eligible for benefits again.
It’s a rare individual, indeed, who passes through his or her teen years without any rocky times. Our job as parents is not to join our children in the storms of adolescence. Rather we should be like the shore – solid and predictable, never wavering. There will be times when we need to allow them freedom, even when it scares us. Otherwise they’ll have little opportunity to discover their own sense of identity. At other times we will need to hold firm to the rules no matter how they protest. Down the road, they may realize that this is what they really wanted from us, too.