The Fine Art of Raising Teenagers

I’ll never forget trying to console a sobbing man as we sat together in a hospital waiting room. His son, one of my students, had taken a drug overdose because of a disagreement they’d had over the boy’s car: the father didn’t like the car and had forced him to sell it—even though the boy had bought it with his own money. Now, waiting for his son’s recovery, the man was suffering guilt and remorse because he held himself responsible for everything.

That father learned a hard lesson the hard way. The son certainly chose a course filled with potential sadness for himself and his family. But the father realized that he hadn’t been fair, that he hadn’t given his son his full attention or been sensitive to his feelings.

Adolescence is a challenging yet crucial period that both parents and youths often struggle to understand. For the adolescent, much is happening all at once. Physically, he experiences many changes. Psychologically, he embarks on the challenge of becoming independent and establishing an individual identity. Socially and emotionally, he begins to move away from family and parental ties to form close relationships with others. He begins to learn of his capabilities and limitations and to utilize this knowledge in caring for himself. Gradually he relinquishes his dependency on his parents.

Along with trying to solve the identity problems of “Who am I?” “What can I do?” and “What are my goals?” the adolescent has the challenge of learning to establish close relationships with others. In the early years, children are socialized toward peers of the same sex. But during adolescence, young men and women socialize more with each other so that they can establish healthy relationships with the opposite sex. Ideally this is a gradual process so that they can learn to control their new emotions and feelings. This is one of the reasons the Church encourages teenagers to wait until they are sixteen years old to date. By that time they are usually better able to live with and manage their emotions and urges.

The central obstacle in the “letting go” process between parents and teens is the issue of control: establishing what the rules or limits are and who gets to set them. The adolescent wants more and more control over his life—more freedom to decide for himself. Parents, on the other hand, find it difficult to know where to draw the line between allowing him this freedom and imposing demands in the name of responsible parenting.

As a result, the teenager may see his parents’ help as interference, their genuine concern as babying, and their advice as bossing. And parents may find themselves puzzled about how to help when their help is resented, and how to guide when their guidance is rejected. Thus, when the adolescent rebels or deviates from the expected behavior in some way, parents usually try to increase their control in an effort to bring them back in line. But such control tends to cause further deviation rather than improving the situation. By arbitrarily imposing more control, parents may innocently cause—or at least encourage—the very behavior they don’t want. And the result is a power struggle over who is going to control whom.

A common clue to this kind of struggle is extreme behavior—the adolescent deliberately disobeys or attempts to hurt or publicly embarrass his parents as a way of asserting his independence. For example, a teenager who deliberately grows his hair long or uses drugs in the face of parental displeasure might not only be seeking peer acceptance, but also may be saying to the world that he is in control of his life and is making his own decisions.

At this point, many parents tend to do the very worst thing: they overreact. First, they try getting tough; then they shift to kindness and reason; and finally they may even ridicule and punish. By then the power struggle is well underway.

Another trap parents and teens often fall into is accusing, blaming, and taking offense. All of us make mistakes, but if we are constantly criticized or ridiculed, it becomes easy to begin looking at our failures not as simple mistakes but as occasions to be accused. And so we learn to defend ourselves, and we try to preserve self-esteem by inventing excuses that make it look like we aren’t to blame for our unhappiness—like we are being victimized by others or by circumstances. By taking offense or becoming emotional, we avoid taking responsibility for our mistakes.

If we take offense, strike out, ridicule, or blame our children, they will likely respond in kind. This leads to a predictable pattern of accuse-accuse and blame-blame. We are courting disaster when we accuse or belittle them for their weaknesses or mistakes, their awkwardness, their seemingly irresponsible behavior, or their feelings and opinions.

But what should parents do? I’m convinced that experiencing a change of heart toward our teens is as important as learning techniques and skills.

Traditionally human behavior has been explained in terms of cause and effect: behavior is caused by influences outside of ourselves or by biological or psychological variables. But the gospel teaches us a different standard: even though our environment does have a powerful influence on us, we are still free to choose whether or not we will allow external forces to control our behavior. Our behavior is not so much a product of what happens to us as it is how we perceive or interpret what happens.

For example, the moment we accept responsibility for what is happening rather than blaming our adolescents or our circumstances, things change. We realize that by controlling our responses and by perceiving others compassionately as the gospel teaches, we can influence for good the responses of our teens and create a better world for ourselves and them.

Be compassionate. To relate well to our teenagers we must rid our hearts of any animosity toward them, realizing that it is a product of our own offense-taking and not of their behavior. We must replace animosity with feelings of compassion.

This doesn’t mean we indulge them or give in to their every whim. True compassion, on the contrary, demands whatever love requires, be it firmness or forgiveness. But when we are perceiving compassionately, our hearts are filled with empathy rather than enmity, and we find it easier to avoid taking offense or allowing ourselves to be provoked.

I recall an interesting situation in a family I was working with. The teenage son and his mother were driving down the freeway, and he was exceeding the speed limit. She said to him, “I become anxious when we drive this fast. Could you please slow down a little?”

He immediately took offense, swerved over to the side of the freeway, slammed on the brakes, and said, “If you don’t like the way I drive, you drive!”

Rather than taking offense, becoming provoked, and striking back, the mother chose to view her son compassionately. She was aware that he was having a rough time: he wasn’t enjoying his job, his girlfriend was talking of breaking things off with him, and he was probably going to be temporarily suspended from school. She simply said, “Son, I think this must be a very difficult time for you. It’s my guess that your response just now was as much a result of your anxiety over other things as it was to what I said to you. What do you think?”

That sudden dose of empathy rather than the response he was expecting softened his heart towards her, and he began to confide in her. Her perceptions were accurate, and he was sorry for the way he had acted. Then the two of them sat there in the car and had a very meaningful discussion about how he was feeling and what he might do about his situation. It was a beautiful illustration of what the Lord was trying to tell us about turning the other cheek in order to improve a situation rather than make it worse.

Some would want to say the mother had maintained her self-control in order to handle her son effectively, but strict self-control is not the ultimate key to having peace and maintaining relationships. If we are perceiving compassionately and unaccusingly we won’t have to take thought about exercising self-control. We will automatically demonstrate self-control because our hearts will be right and we will be kind—“… for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.” (Luke 6:45.)

The compassionate viewpoint is characterized by empathy and true charity. It is a gift we should pray for “with all the energy of heart.” (Moro. 7:48.) Charity and compassion allow us to see negative adolescent behavior for what it is—merely part of a stage in their development which will pass with time. It allows us to see that a certain amount of adolescent resistance is natural, an expected byproduct of learning and growing. I’m not suggesting that a lot of rebellious, acting-out behavior is necessary, or that parents should passively tolerate it—just that compassion puts the behavior into its proper perspective.

Be understanding. Along with compassion, we also need understanding, which comes from being informed. We need to understand that adolescence is characterized by emotional shifts due to biological changes. With that in mind, we are less likely to overreact to their moods, which range from hysteria at a basketball game to total depression right afterwards because a “special someone” didn’t greet them. Such emotional swings are to be expected.

There is no way to protect our children from all of the hurts of emerging adulthood—nor should we. The best thing we can do is be tolerant and long-suffering, as the scriptures suggest over and over, and not take their moods personally or try to make everything easy for them. One reason adolescents listen to a lot of music at their age is that it expresses for them feelings which they often can’t understand or identify themselves.

Another thing parents need to understand is that adolescents sometimes tend to withhold information from those in authority as a means of self protection. They sense that the more we know about how they feel, the more influence we can have over them. For example, the more we know how strongly they feel about wanting to drive, the more we may be tempted to use driving privileges to manipulate them into doing what we want. Parents need to understand their teenager’s reluctance to talk, and be reassured that the reason is not lack of love and esteem.

Express unconditional love. No behavior technique can take the place of communicating our unconditional love to our children. Conditional love tells them they are loved only if and when they do certain things that please us. But unconditional love means we love them as they are, with no strings attached.

I know of a situation in which two LDS boys became addicted to drugs and decided to leave home to be on their own. The parents of one said, “If you move out, don’t ever come back until you quit your filthy habit.”

The other boy’s parents said: “You may move out if you wish, but you may return at any time. We love you and there’s nothing you can do to destroy that love. Remember, you’ll always be welcome in our home.”

Even though it is important to know that it doesn’t always end up this way, it is good to know that in this instance the latter boy ended up going on a mission because of the influence of his parents’ unconditional love. Maintaining their relationship with him was more important to them than proving that they had control over him.

Give honest feedback. In addition to being compassionate and understanding and communicating unconditional love, parents need to kindly express their honest opinions so that their children clearly understand the values and standards they expect. But, again, they must do so in a manner that is unaccusing and that allows teenagers to retain their self-respect. Trying to motivate them by accusing only encourages further deviation and makes them feel they must continue the unwanted behavior to save face.

Try statements such as: “I really want you to serve a mission, and so does the Lord. But the decision is up to you. I will love you just the same no matter what you do.” This approach gives the adolescent the firm guidance he needs, but also allows him room to make his own choices.

Let them express themselves. Adolescents are struggling to move from being externally controlled to being self-directed. As we help them identify what they want to do or want us to do, they learn to take responsibility for their actions and don’t simply react against “shoulds” and “oughts.” Questions like “What have you thought about,” “What do you feel about,” “I’m really interested in hearing what you think about,” “Tell me how you want me to act,” and “How do you want to handle that” help them feel like they share in the control and, at the same time, help them learn to make responsible decisions.

Give legitimate praise. Because adolescents sometimes feel awkward or rejected or confused, they suffer from what might be termed “approval anxiety.” Teenagers, like younger children, need all of the support and legitimate praise we can give them. They may act like they don’t need approval or affection from us because sometimes they might feel we are using those things to control them. But they will accept our affection if the total relationship is good.

It is important to be sensitive in our praise of the teenager. Praise can imply judgment of personality and character if it isn’t genuine and couched in descriptive terms. For example, if your daughter cleans the kitchen well, you might say, “Thank you very much for cleaning the kitchen. It really made my day.” That is honest praise which describes what was done. Praise which evaluates personality or character and may make untrue generalizations might sound like, “You’re such a wonderful daughter. You’re always so thoughtful. How would I ever get along without you?”

Encourage appropriately. Besides learning to praise properly, we need to learn how to remind and encourage without offending. If an adolescent repeatedly forgets or simply fails to follow through on his responsibilities—such as self care, household chores, or appointments—it is difficult not to feel some sense of personal failure. But if these negative feelings find expression in our tone of voice or manner of speaking, the adolescent may take offense, see it as an indication of personal failure, and respond with guilt, resentment, and self-condemnation. Therefore, we must be willing to remind our children before and after the time things are required, and to do so with considerateness and courtesy. This process may seem endless and unrewarding to us, but it is normal and necessary to some degree. We can do it effectively only when we perceive our adolescents realistically and compassionately. Little wonder the scriptures mention patience and long-suffering so frequently!

Take time to talk. It can be very meaningful to your adolescent to give him your time and attention without his having to ask for it. At such times you may want to share with him what you experienced when you were at his stage of life, what is happening to you in the present, how you are feeling, or what you like and don’t like.

Unfortunately we tend to interact less and less with our children as they get older. Just the opposite should be the case. Adolescents thrive on self-disclosure by their parents as long as it doesn’t degenerate into moralizing about the good old days or telling them how they should feel.

This is also the most important time to talk about physical development and to disclose your own concerns about the moral code as you grew up. If you don’t teach your children, the world will. We must teach them to have healthy attitudes toward their sexuality so that they aren’t led into the carnality the world is promoting.

If the experiences an adolescent has had with his parents throughout his life have been good, his adolescent development and behavior will generally be less stormy and troubled. If his changes in mood or behavior are met with understanding and with a generally approving regard for his achievements, he will tend to identify with his parents’ attitudes toward peers, social problems, religion, family, people in authority, and the law.

Be united as parents. Relating well to teenagers requires a loving unity between parents so that they can arrive at agreement about their children and support each other, instead of undermining each other’s efforts. If the parents do not agree with each other, dealing with adolescent development can become a real crisis in the family and can make unresolved differences between parents worse. On the other hand, unity between parents can encourage unity with children.

Appreciate adolescence. I think we sometimes miss the boat when it comes to appreciating adolescents. As a seminary and institute teacher I have spent a good share of my life surrounded by teenagers, and it has been a rich and rewarding experience for me. I cherish the hundreds of choice, conscientious, and loving young people I’ve had the privilege of teaching. They have loved me almost like my own family, and I have felt the same about them.

Your children’s adolescence is a time when you can begin to have meaningful adult conversations with them, when they can begin to do adult things, develop a fun sense of humor, and begin to give back to you some of the things you have spent your life giving to them. If you will let them, they can bring new life into the family because they crave expanded awareness and enjoy doing fun and different and exciting things. They love it when parents reach out to them to do things, take them places, and teach them of life and of work and of love.

I believe that we must look beyond the moments of defensive defiance, the sullenness of loneliness, the awkwardness, the outspokenness with which adolescents sometimes try to cover up their fears and insecurities—and look upon their hearts. I often ponder how much the Lord must love and appreciate them in this period of their lives. I hope we always will, too.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “The Fine Art of Raising Teenagers” individually or as a family, you may wish to discuss some of the following questions during a gospel study period:

1. Why is independence so important for teenagers? Why are parental control and guidance so important for parents?

2. The article says that parents and teens often fall into the trap of accusing, blaming, and taking offense. How can we avoid that trap?

3. Do you agree with the article that a change of heart—being compassionate and understanding, expressing unconditional love, etc.—is an important key to improving parent / teen relationships? What specific kinds of things would foster a change of heart in both parents and teens in your family?

4. Why is giving teens—or anyone—a chance to express their feelings and opinions important? Do you have specific times—like family councils, family home evenings, personal interviews, periods of being together—when such input from each other is encouraged and accepted?

5. The article mentions that taking time with each other and enjoying adolescence is an important key. What kinds of activities do you enjoy sharing with each other? Could you make some plans and schedule time now to be together during the coming month?

[illustration, photos] Art and Photography by Robert Barrett, Dennis Millard, and Jon Lockwood

C. Richard Chidester, a teacher at the Institute of Religion, University of Utah, and a marriage and family counselor, is the father of seven children. He serves on the Instructional Development Committee of the Church.