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How do I keep tabs on my teenagers and young adult children?

This article is in response to the following question posed by Gigi: “What do I do when there are three teenage siblings all conspiring together (one HS freshman and two college freshmen)? They are never where they say they are going, or with who they said they are going to be with. They cover for each other. I don't know what is true and what isn't anymore. How do I explain this is not a power trip, and that is important for me to know where they are and who they are with?”

Dear Gigi and other Parent Readers,

Teenagers inevitably become beasts that are difficult to understand under the best of circumstances. As they progress through adolescence into emerging adulthood and become young adults, their brains begin to catch up with the growth their bodies have made effortlessly, and when we see they are maturing, we know we have done our jobs well.

It is the job of teenagers to test their parents, or so they think. At this time in their lives they are at a stage of development where they think they are invincible. They take unnecessary risks because they feel they are the “King of the World” (to borrow from Leonardo DeCaprio and Kate Winslet in the movie Titanic). In addition to the dangers they seem oblivious to, they are also developing their own identity as young adults. They challenge our authority because it bolsters their own feelings of worth and value when they can make decisions for themselves – the problem with this is that those decisions do not always have the same results that are intended, and sometimes people are hurt by those actions physically and/or emotionally.

As far as your three boys, they are definitely challenging you and your authority over them – especially the two in college. In their minds, since they are not under your roof, they don’t have to follow your rules (even if they are day students and come home at night). They are in a whole new world with endless options that feed their feelings of invincibility.

First of all, we -- as parents, need to try our hardest to remember not to take anything personally, even when it cuts us to our core. Our kids may say mean things that hurt and shock us. They may say those words intentionally, but once the words are out of their mouths they cannot be retracted, and the damage is done. As parents we can try to remember when we were that age, and how much we did NOT want our parents to be part of our lives. We did not want to answer to them, or let them know where we were because that would mean we were still under their thumb. We might also have lost face with friends who were “allowed" to be more independent than we were.

We need to try our best to keep things in perspective when hormones are making our sweet little children into gigantic monsters that we do not recognize or know. How can this nasty big person be the child I so love? It happens. The good news is that it will eventually pass. Some children take longer than others to pass through this stage, and life circumstances definitely affect their actions. For instance, kids from “broken homes” (which today is about 55% of all households), have different baggage to carry than those from families that are more functional. The majority of children living in single family households most often live with their mothers. Single moms make far less money over the course of their lifetimes than single fathers do, and studies show that divorced women make about 51% less money than their ex-husbands or paramours do (shocking, right?!). Kids are going to flex these muscles regardless of their family status but if you are a single-parent household, taking these statistics into consideration may help a little bit, especially if your kids are demonstrating the behaviors of not calling and checking in when they are with their friends. Sometimes they simply do not want to be associated with us, especially those who come from a “broken home” where money is tight; and, perhaps they have friends from more affluent households or from “whole” families with two parents in the home.

To be a young adult who has to call mom can be embarrassing, and may even affect their status among their peers. Remember how important it was to be cool at that age? I sure do. Maybe they feel they have to prove something by being defiant. Maybe they are anonymous to this new group of friends, since mom and dad are not in the picture every day, and they’re just spreading their wings of independence. Those suggestions do not make it any easier for us to digest this new person we have known since they were in our wombs, but when we can take a step back from any situation and take a breath – we may be able to look at things from another angle, or maybe even from their perspective when we can remember ourselves at that time in our lives.

When kids arrive at college they may feel they are on a level playing field for the first time in their lives. They can reinvent who they are and become whomever they want to be when they are there. Calling home and checking in is a reminder that they are not quite yet free of our strings because we are still paying the tab and expect respect and compliance.

We may need to adjust our expectations so that we do not push them away. The tighter we hold on, the harder they will fight. These are normal behaviors, but if you believe your child is engaging in dangerous behaviors, don’t stop here. Find help from a counselor in your community, at their school, or from a coach or trusted teacher/professor. You are not alone in this, even though it certainly feels like it at times.

We also need to remember that living in this era, 2014, the world is much different for young adults than it was even a decade ago. Yes, they have far more benefits as far as technology goes, but with that comes dangers that we never even dreamed of.

Studies show that the average age for young people to move out of their parents’ home and become independent is somewhere between 25 and 30 years old. With the increasing demands of higher education on youth for good jobs in lucrative or rewarding career paths, young people are not usually finished with college until they are about 25 years old. That is a difference of seven years for those of us who are Baby-Boomers and were out on our own as soon as we finished high school – if not sooner. We may feel like times were tougher on us, and in many ways they were, but we did not have to deal with issues connected with social media, cyber bullying, cyber-stalking, the abundance and accessibility of pornography, or the level of violence and sex on television – all of which put pressure on our kids to fit in. Unless we are very diligent, our young children will see bloody murders on television or in movies, hear words that we never dreamed of, and/or see explicit sexual behaviors and interactions that are plastered everywhere they turn. We never had to face the level of expectations and pressures that are normal for today’s youth.

Since we cannot be with our growing kids 24/7, and since they can tell us what we want to hear in order to do whatever they want to do anyway, it is our job to teach THEM to THINK for themselves. We want our teens to develop the skills to make it in the world, and these skills include being able to assess certain situations for potential danger, evaluate relationships, set boundaries, and be resourceful when in a bind.

Parents can challenge their teens to think things through and decide what's best for them. They may not always make the choice we hope for, but they must understand that their choices are THEIRS and the consequences will be THEIRS also.

We need to have fiercely honest conversations with our teenagers, and set boundaries and expectations that are clear. If they are going to a party where we know there will be alcohol and perhaps drugs, we need to help them think ahead by asking questions such as "What do you think the party will be like? Will there be any kids from the "rough crowd"? What will you do if some get drunk and start acting wild? What if you feel unsafe? What will you do?" Dropping them off, picking them up, letting them know that if they feel unsafe you can be there within a few minutes so they can “escape” uncomfortable situations, having a strict curfew, and implementing logical consequences when the curfew is broken, will reinforce those boundaries that are so important for our kids. These boundaries are something they will naturally balk against and complain about, but they act as a safety net, and if your child (young adult) feels unsafe they will know what to do about it because you have “rehearsed” with them their options. Knowing that you will come and get them the instant they call is what holds that net together, and will give your child the confidence to be independent in safe ways.

My colleagues and I hope this information is helpful, and invite our readers to comment, ask questions, and keep these valuable conversations going. Thank you for reading!

References

Burley-Allen, M. (1995). Listening: the forgotten skill (2nd ed). Hoboken, New Jersey. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Clinton, T., Clark, C., Straub, J. (2010). The quick reference guide to counseling teenagers. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, Baker Publishing Group.

Feldman, R.S. (2011). Development across the lifespan. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. Prentice Hall.

McWhirter, J.J., McWhirter, B.T., McWhirter, E.H., & McWhirter, R.J. (2013). At risk youth: A comprehensive response for counselors, teachers, psychologists, and human service professionals (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, Cengage Learning.

Petersen, J. (2007) Why don't we listen better? Communicating & connecting in relationships. Portland, OR. Petersen Publications.

Stewart, J. (2012). Bridges now walls: A book about interpersonal communication (11th ed.). New York, NY. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Consulting Colleagues:

Dr. Deborah Pinkston, Ph.D., Professional Counselor, Professor at Liberty University.

Liv Pertzoff, M.A., LISCW, Smith College. (Retired).