The 3 Deadly Sins Comitted by Parents of Teenagers

Being a parent is not easy.  It is a huge responsibility that requires significant skill and wisdom, and kids come with no training or resources provided. Then when you finally get it worked out for children they go and hit puberty and turn into adolescents.

Lately I have been doing some research into best practices for parenting teenagers. As I was thinking about what prevents some people from being able to do what is best for their teenage kids I noticed 3 themes kept coming up.

I called these three things the 3 deadly sins of parenting.

A dramatic title, but one that seeks to present the profound effect the emotional baggage parents carry can have on their ability to do what is best for teenager.

The three issues of Denial, Fear & Guilt are present in all people, including parents. Feeling fearful or guilty as parents comes with the territory at times. It is when these emotions dictate parenting behviour in an unchecked manner that they become problematic.

Denial

From the moment we hold our new born child, those of us who are parents are inherently biased about their offspring.  Even though they often have squashed heads, colourless eyes, and no discernible personality, we are convinced our baby is beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful ever. Of course no one ever suggests otherwise because we have all learnt to tell every parent that their new bundle of joy is beautiful – no matter what we may really think.

Overly optimistic infatuation with a new born baby is a normal and healthy part of life. However such unrealistic optimism is far from healthy for parents of teenage children.

Most parents learn that their child is not perfect around the age of 2 or 3, when their beautiful baby discovers the dual powers of the word “no” and a strategically conducted tantrum.

Yet there are still some parents who maintain an idealised view of their child throughout their childhood and into adolescence.  This idealism can have serious negative consequences for their teenager

Parents who believe that their teenage child is responsible and mature enough to avoid making stupid decisions are in denial about what adolescence really is.  Sure some teens are more responsible and mature than others, but that doesn’t mean they will always make wise and responsible choices.  It is a fact that all teenagers start adolescence as children, and none become adults instantly.

Overly optimistic opinions of teenagers results in parents failing to operate in an appropriately protective fashion. By choosing to believe their teen will be alright parents can leave a young person mentally ill-equipped and vulnerable to destructive choices.

Parents in denial don’t think they need to talk to their kids about sex and exercising appropriate control over their bodies and emotions. In this way they fail their children.  Research tells us that nearly 30% of teenagers have not discussed sex with their parents.

Parents in denial don’t take the effort to know where their child is, what they are doing, and who they are doing it with. Parents who assume their child will not get up to dangerous or risky activities fail their child by not establishing and enforcing clear boundaries or being attentive to their teenager’s whereabouts.

Parents who are in denial don’t talk to their teenage children about citizenship and respect.  While I don’t have statistical proof I am willing to wager the number of teens who engage in socially vindictive or bullying behaviour would far outweigh the number of parents who think their child is capable of such things.

Fear

At the opposite end of the continuum from denial, is fear.

While some parents fail to acknowledge that their child will ever make dumb choices, other parents seem to assume that their child is always in danger or up to no good.  Convinced that the teenage years are all about rebellion and experimenting with sex and drugs, fearful parents tend to react in one of two ways.  They are either over protective or paranoid, and sometimes they are both.

Overly protective parents are those who refuse to let their child grow up and encounter the challenges of the world by themselves. Driven by the desire to protect their child from being hurt, or making a mistake, or falling under the influence of the wrong sort of people, overly protective parents place excessive restrictions on their teenagers.

As teenagers get closer to being adults they require the opportunity to take more personal responsibility. When parents set the same limits for a 16 year old that are similar to when they were 12, they are failing to let their child grow up. Overly restrictive and controlling parents have been shown to produce young adults who engage in high risk and anti-social behaviour.

Paranoid parents are those who are so convinced that their teen is in some sort of trouble that they will violate their child’s privacy in an attempt to confirm their own paranoia. Paranoid parents read their teen’s private journal, goes through their bedroom looking for hidden documents or objects, listen in on their phone calls, and even sometimes follow them when they go out.

Trust is a precious gift. Once you have it you should protect and cherish it.  Once you loose or violate your teenager’s trust it can take a long time to win it back. Parents who sneak and snoop around their teenager’s personal effects can cause much more harm then they prevent by violating the bond of trust between parent and child.

There are certain occasions when intervening requires a violation of a young person’s freedoms or privacy, but this should only be a last resort once all other avenues of upfront communication have been exhausted.

We learn from our mistakes. Parents by all means should try to help teenagers minimize the severity or their failures by providing guidance and supervision.  But overbearing and intrusive parental behaviour does not equip teens to deal with the challenges of life, but rather damages their resilience and harms the relationship between parent and child.

Guilt

In the business of modern life it is common for both parents in the house to work full time.  When there is only one parent in the house it is very likely that all parents in the house work full time. This has in many cases given rise to parents feeling guilty about the lack of time they have to dedicate to their kids.

When parents feel guilty about not providing in some way for their kids they can try to compensate, or more correctly over compensate, for their feelings of inadequacy. These compensatory behaviours can take various forms, but usually involve indulging or pandering to teens in some way.

Parents who are motivated by guilt often fail to set or enforce reasonable boundaries or expectations for the adolescent children.  The lack of clear boundaries and expectations can cause teenagers to feel insecure. Ironically some teens also interpret indulgent parenting as a lack of parental concern – exactly what the parent is motivated to try and avoid. These feelings of insecurity or unimportance can manifest in teenagers as high risk and antisocial behaviour.

Another manifestation of parental guilt is over involved parents who try to assuage their feelings of inadequacy by being involved in even the most minute details of their child’s life. They can be prone to get overly involved in their child’s schooling to annoyance of many teachers. Or similarly they are overly involved and interfere in their teen’s personal life. In both cases they prevent their child from solving their own problems and establishing their own identity.

Guilty parents are scared to let their teens fail because they incorrectly attribute their child’s failure to their own failure as parents. Teens who aren’t allowed to fail are teens who aren’t allowed to learn.

Teens need parents who are focused on doing what is best for their development in the long term.  Parents who feel guilty confuse long-term benefit for their kids with short term feelings of satisfaction for themselves. In doing so they fail their kids.

Image by Darwin Bell

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