In our society today, there is much to be said about parenting children. Parenthood is a battle all its one, a juggling act from one moment to the next, and fraught with sacrifices in order to protect and meet the needs of our children. However, what happens when our children come to those tween, teenage, and young adult years where their choices lead down dangerous paths? How are we to cope with the decisions our children make, and how are we able to cope with those decisions that our children make? Briefly, let us explore some thoughts on ways parents are able to understand that our children have a will of their own and we must honor and respect that will - even if they walk down those harmful paths.
Human volition is an alienable right
We all have our own human volition - or moral agency. Because of this alienable right, we have the power to choose whether we want to lead productive lives or to be brought down into misery and woe. This is a fundamental right of life. As parents, our endeavor is to help facilitate and encourage our children to understand, learn, and apply proper ways to make appropriate decisions. We teach them from the time they are little the difference between what is right and proper as opposed to what is inappropriate and unacceptable. We, hopefully, should be teaching our children how to respect other adults, to learn how make simple decisions. For example, working with a three year old, we are teaching her how to pick up her toys before she gets out and plays with other toys. By doing this, we are teaching her to take care of her things, pick up after herself, and make it easier not to create a huge mess. It is, however, a work in progress.
As our children mature, they begin to exert a sense of "independence" from us. We have provided them the tools and the skills to manage their lives, however, we are not able to control everything that they decide to engage in. Despite this fundamental truth, many parents and those who are not parents, harp on the issue and platform that if a child makes ill choices, the blame comes right to the front doorstep of the parents. Where are the parents in this, how come they didn't teach their kids proper manners? Parents must not have taught them anything? Many such comments are constantly published in various message boards, shared through social media, and the like. The reality is, no one can control a child's volition in the same manner that no one can control our own volition in how we decide to live our lives.
Surrendering and letting go
The most difficult thing parents can do is surrender and let go. Surrender does not mean that we give up on our children, nor that we come to a point and say we have failed. Surrender means that we acknowledge there are certain limitations and circumstances that are not within our ability to control. In fact, the harder we attempt to exert any control over our children and their lives, the more resistant and rebellious they become against our attempt to reason within them. Along with this, we must be willing to let go in order for them to find their own path and their own way. This does not mean that we allow them to find their bottom. The reasoning behind this is because of the developmental aspect of the teenager's brain. Meaning, the part of our brain that houses the decision making is the prefrontal cortex. During the tweens, teens, and young adults, the prefrontal cortex is still developing.
This brain region gives an individual the capacity to exercise “good judgment” when presented with difficult life situations. Brain research indicating that brain development is not complete until near the age of 25, refers specifically to the development of the prefrontal cortex.
MRI studies of the brain show that developmental processes tend to occur in the brain in a back to front pattern, explaining why the prefrontal cortex develops last. These studies have also found that teens have less white matter (myelin) in the frontal lobes of their brains when compared to adults, but this amount increases as the teen ages. With more myelin comes the growth of important brain connections, allowing for better flow of information between brain regions.
Understanding how the teenage brain develops provides the nature and behaviors associated with many decision making processes tweens, teens and young adults go through. Because the prefrontal cortex is still "under development", our children will engage in what we most likely will call risky behavior. This attitude toward risky behavior is explained through modern research and understanding of how the teenage brain works and operates.
Allow failure and pain have its place
While we do not ever want to see our children falter, stumble and in pain - the reality is that we must allow them the opportunities to fail and regain their composure. This includes taking a step back and allowing our children learn from their own mistakes. This idea comes from a simple observation of one parent who took her children to a park:
It is not my job — and it is certainly not yours — to prevent my children from feeling frustration, fear, or discomfort. If I do, I have robbed them of the opportunity to learn that those things are not the end of the world, and can be overcome or used to their advantage.
If they get stuck, it is not my job to save them immediately. If I do, I have robbed them of the opportunity to learn to calm themselves, assess their situation, and try to problem solve their own way out of it.
It is not my job to keep them from falling. If I do, I have robbed them of the opportunity to learn that falling is possible but worth the risk, and that they can, in fact, get up again.
I don't want my daughters to learn that they can't overcome obstacles without help. I don't want them to learn that they can reach great heights without effort. I don't want them to learn that they are entitled to the reward without having to push through whatever it is that's holding them back and *earn* it.
Because — and this might come as a surprise to you — none of those things are true. And if I let them think for one moment that they are, I have failed them as a mother.
This mother continues to share some additional insights as to why this is important:
I want my girls to know the exhilaration of overcoming fear and doubt and achieving a hard-won success.
I want them to believe in their own abilities and be confident and determined in their actions.
I want them to accept their limitations until they can figure out a way past them on their own significant power.
I want them to feel capable of making their own decisions, developing their own skills, taking their own risks, and coping with their own feelings.
I want them to climb that ladder without any help, however well-intentioned, from you.
Because they can. I know it. And if I give them a little space, they will soon know it, too.
Allowing failure and pain to work in the lives of our children, especially during the more formidable years of adolescence, we are allowing our children to discover for themselves who they are and what they are capable of. We, as parents, are allowing them the ability to make their own choices and endure the consequence of those choices. Preventing them to exert their own volition to choose their life, even if it means they must travel those dark roads and paths as a result, we are allowing them the ability to choose for themselves how to live their lives.
Become an advocate and compassionate parent - no matter what
The last thing any parents would want to do is surrender and let go of their children, especially when our children place themselves on dangerous paths. The only thing that parents are able and capable of doing is to become an advocate for our children when they do come face to face with the consequences of their actions. This does not mean we become critical and condescending. It means we must come to a place where we are compassionate toward them, forgiving and genuinely loving for who they are despite the situation they may find themselves in. We may not be able to protect them from the consequences of their ill-choices, however, we can advocate for services that will help facilitate them to come back to a more productive and healthy pathway toward a better life.
Forgiveness is also a role parents will find themselves in at various stages of a child's growth and maturation. Showing forgiveness will also help them understand and know that we accept them for who they are and who they are becoming. This also gives them the idea that because we are forgiving them, they too learn how to forgive others. We module the appropriate behaviors that we would like our children to instill in their own lives.
In a Psychology today article, Ugo Uche shares this thought:
Accept your teen, for his or her strengths and flaws. So if your teen has gone for an extended period of time without speaking to you, it is important that you forgive him or her. As parents, when we role model for our children unconditional love, we are teaching them how to treat and regard us. It is important to note that forgiveness does not go hand in hand with the absence of consequences. Forgiving your teen does not mean that he or she gets away with engaging in detrimental behaviors. Forgiving your teen means that no matter how hurt you are by his or her decision to hold a grudge against you, you will continue to be emotionally engaged in their lives.
Granted, the article is about dealing with a teen that has gone without speaking to you for extended amounts of time, the principle of forgiveness remains the same. Despite their behavior, forgiveness is not excusing the behavior at all, it is merely acknowledge our own weaknesses and failings and allows us to forgive them for the damage and hurt that their behavior has brought about in our family and our own lives.
Finally, it is not your fault so don't take the blame
It is unfortunate that we live in a society where there is instant knee-jerk emotive responses to situations. The anonymity of the internet and social media has produced some vitriolic statements against parents who have adolescents that stray down forbidden and unwanted paths of lives. Such comments toward the parenting style, or even the parents themselves are harsh reminders that keep us wondering if we are truly at fault and failures.
Knowing that as our children grow and mature, they are going to make decisions that will either improve their lives and lead them down healthy or successful roads; or, they will make decisions that will take them down paths where there are all sorts of consequences that may or may not destroy them. Because of this, we should not shoulder the blame, nor perceive ourselves as failures. Despite what others may say in condemning and critical tones. In fact, many parents that want to cast judgments upon the situation have no idea what is going on. They just feel the need to respond from their own biased perceptions that may not have any relevant truth based reasons. It does not mean it is true.
In addition to this, we must remember that it is about resiliency and not justice:
The reality is that as parents and educators, we should spend more time teaching our children about overcoming adversity, primarily through the development of emotional resiliency versus the illusions of guaranteed justice. Most of the time when I work with a young person who believes that he or she is being treated unfairly—they usually are—it's not so much that the unfair treatment is the worst thing that could happen to them, it's more of the fact that they have come to believe that they shouldn't be treated unfairly. Once they come to realize that the experience is something they can handle, they actually do a great job in suggesting sound solutions in response to what they are going through.
As parents, we know our children. We love them and want what is best for them. This includes getting out of their way and allowing them to explore and discover who they are. This also includes allowing them to fail and the ability to learn how to cope with and pick themselves back up. We should always protect them, we should always encourage them, and we should always teach them how to manage their lives; however, we also should give them the liberty and freedom to choose for themselves how they are going to go about living their lives. The only time we must intervene is when we know of a surety that their health and life is at stake - and even then, we cannot be there to prevent certain circumstances to unfold.
Controlling our adolescent is like controlling a tornado and limiting the behaviors of a tornado.