What teens need most – Jenny Runkel

How to give your teen the thing they need the most.

Yes, it’s true. Teenagers make poor choices (like using drugs and alcohol) sometimes. It is usually a horrible experience for the whole family. And it can ruin so many chances at having a successful launching experience into adulthood. All of that is absolutely worthy of our attention, awareness, and response.

But whenever we as parents give in to our anxiety about that truth, we make poor choices too. We may pore through their things without asking or interrogate rather than talk to them. In doing so, we only motivate them to work even harder to hide from us. I’ve seen it happen over and over again in my practice, and I hear about it time and again at my conferences.

We do these things because at some level, we need our kids to behave a certain way in order for us to feel good about the job we’re doing as parents. But what kids need most is parents who don’t need them. They need parents whose emotional stability and maturity level has nothing to do with the choices their kids make. They need parents who can see the big picture and who aren’t dependent on their children for their own happiness or sense of peace.

Needing our kids to behave, or needing our kids not to misbehave, sends out three unmistakable messages:

1) I cannot emotionally handle it when you act as a free individual;

2) I am not in control of my own reactions, you are; and

3) In this scary world, you cannot trust me for leadership.

And when we send out these messages our kids usually find ways to do exactly what we need them to avoid, even as it makes life worse for them. Self-destructive behavior, especially from children, is never intended that way. It is always intended to send a counter-message to the messages above—“I’m the one that needs you, Mom/Dad, not the other way around.”

As difficult as this is to face, it is the truth. We are not responsible for our kids and their choices—they are. We can do everything “right” as parents, and do it all very calmly, and they can still make really bad decisions. The more we can embrace this, the better off we will all be. It does not give me an excuse for retreating to some laid-back, aloof position, hoping that everything turns out for the best. But it does  help me to be responsive instead of reactive.

And when you respond to your teen and his needs rather than react to your own fears, you create the type of relationship that is best for both of you. You create an environment where your teen can come to you for wisdom rather than rebuke.