14-21 Years: It’s All About Me and Getting Ready to Fly The Nest.
What is this Hot Mess?
The overall task is emancipation. That is to learn to make it on their own. To learn how to fly out of the nest. The challenge is several fold. First, they won’t listen to parents. Second, they want to do it themselves. Third, they think they know what to do. And thus knowing is the same thing as it’s already done; it just magically happens.
The teenager’s task is to find and develop a sense of themselves, who they are and what they like. This is a stage of exploration, trying on different personalities, trying different activities to find out who they are. It is an adventure to discover who they are. They are beginning to have the capacity for self-reflection, to ponder about who they are and their situation. The search for who they are occurs externally and internally. Of course, most of us know more about the external search of trying different things, going different places and putting on different mask, i.e., trying on different personalities.
The internal exploration takes the form of questions. The questions of why am I here, why do I care, who am I, how do I feel, how does this make sense, what is this mean and so on? Notice that all these questions are around the “I or Me”. Narcissism notes characteristics of this stage. It’s all about me, what I want and what I want to do. It’s about teenage angst, which is what is the meaning of all this. “This is senseless. I don’t care, and what does this mean?” Remember introspection is the process of winter. This is their first experience of winter. It is a rite of passage. Leaving childhood and becoming an adult is what it is. It is the first time of searching and discovering who they are.
Another characteristic is the sense of time, is only “NOW”. They often forget about the past and yet can readily envision the future. Though the issue is, they can imagine the future but make the mistake of, just because they can imagine it; it is real. Adults see this as “magical thinking”. Teens may experience this as frustration because they don’t yet have the process and skills of turning their imagination into reality. But this is the stage when they have the ability and capacity but learn how to set goals, make plans and execute so that their imagination can become reality.
As adults, we view this stage is a bit of a hot mess, an adventure in drama and hang on by the seat of your pants. “By the grace of God” we will all survive. So let us try to tease some of this hot mess apart.
First, from the physiological standpoint, they are going through a dramatic physical change that involves hormones. Hormones wax and wane, ebb and flow; they are gaining a new body. They are no longer a child but yet not an adult. Perhaps one of the best ways to deal with these physical changes is to ensure that they have good physical exercise, eat well and sleep. This helps to develop and modulate this hot mess. The first thing to focus on is good physical exercise. Exercise does several things. First, is to help burn off some of that energy. It also helps to deal with the various fluctuating hormones, smoothing out their emotions of euphoria, frustration, anger, aggression and a HOST of new feelings. Physical exercise also helps to deal with eating/metabolizing and sleeping.
Next, is eating well since they are going through a dramatic physical change and hopefully keeping busy. They need excellent fuel for building blocks. Thus, good nutrition is going to help them have the experience of physical health. Hopefully, if they experience good physical health, they will recognize when they are not feeling well, not eating well, not getting enough exercise and this will motivate them to establish a healthy routine of exercise, eating and sleeping.
Pro Tip: It is well known and researched that families that eat together, stay together. In the previous 7 years you have a routine of eating together and made your home a welcoming kid hang out. During the teen years, this becomes more challenging with all of their activities, coming and going. But continue to try to at least have 1-2 meals a week together. These meals provide a brief opportunity in your family’s busy schedule to check in with how things are going, what the next week looks like and most importantly to laugh, support and enjoy each other and your teen’s friends they drag along home.
Examples: Numerous times, when the kids were teens, they would bring home their friends for dinner (we just fixed or had extra plate of food ready for unannounced guest that the kids would bring home). And their friends would comment; “what, wow, I never eat with my parents except for my birthday or a holiday. Or its so cool that your family actually sits down, shares a meal and laughs and talks.” Second is that this extends further. All three of my kids had times of both living with other families and having their friends live with us. It’s the notion that “it takes a village to raise a kid.” It’s a great opportunity for your teen to experience or have the opportunity to see how other family’s live. Last it’s a way to keep an eye on your kid’s peer group, but now in the sense of getting a glimpse of their activities, potential dating relationships, etc. Funny story, my daughter after a day of skiing brings brings home her crew of 5 or 6 ravished teens to gorge on spaghetti. Well there was a former boyfriend, a current one and a future one all sitting around the table with us laughing and sharing the adventures of the day… lol!
Last, is sleep. Frequently teens have a shift in their sleeping patterns called the circadian rhythm. It is where their energy level and sleep cycle shift to a later time during the day. Teens that are active in keeping busy and getting excellent exercise will want to sleep a lot… until late in the morning. Sleep is important during this growth spurt. The problem is that the circadian rhythm being shifted later in the day often is not in-sync with the rest of the world. The youth often like to sleep until noon, have their peak energy flow during the evening and they are not ready to sleep before 2-4 am, early morning. So, in the evening, as the rest of the world is winding down, they are just beginning to hit their peak energy. It’s party time. And if there’s no respectable activities to engage in, it’s time to wander and adventure the streets between the sheets and see what shenanigans they can get away with.
The other significant factor in play is the lack of executive functioning that is commonly associated with the frontal lobe of the brain. This aspect of frontal lobe development is the ability to understand the processes and logistics of how to get something done. As adults, we often forget that this is a whole new experience. For them, it is the power of being logical. Our teen suddenly becomes frustratingly logical and is more than willing to argue some minutia while failing to see the larger picture.
There is also the development for the capacity to self-reflect. This is the stage where teens can introspect. To think about themselves, their life, why they exist and their meaning and purpose, i.e., teenage angst. Perhaps teenage angst is the search for their acorn. Relative to James Hillman’s “acorn theory,” the youth is trying to discover their acorn buried deep inside themselves. The youth wonder about why they are here, what their passion is and what do they want to do. This process is an introspective endeavor. The youth need some guidance about finding their acorn, the opportunity and permission to find their acorn. Hopefully, parents can recognize this developmental event and give some guidance, allow them some space to find opportunities and give permission for this existential adventure to occur. Culturally, it’s noted in various forms of “rites of passage,” the stage between childhood and adulthood. Rite of passage involves an adventure into the unknown, a challenge and a discovery. It’s the first occurrence of the death and rebirth process of the wintertime. Parents, if we can encourage them to find reasonable opportunities for this self-adventure. Perhaps as going on a road trip, backpacking in the wilderness, traveling in a foreign country with a group; some opportunity for them to be alone find themselves. However, this can also take the form of writing, some artistic or music endeavor. This adventure might also happen while wandering the streets late at night. The point is, they need space and the opportunity for finding their acorn/self.
So how can parents be helpful during this hot mess when your child will not listen, is full of themselves, is going through a lot of physiological changes, with frequent episodes of drama and does not yet have a full functioning frontal lobe. At this stage, parents often feel that they have lost any influence or control. Their teen is out of control, that they will not listen nor do anything. However, not all is lost, but it involves a change of strategy.
Despite popular belief, parents have a fair amount of influence in this hot mess. The approach continues to be the same, but the tactic is distinctly different. Obviously, the youth is beyond listening to any reasonable advice or direction. So do not even try… save yourself the argument… you will lose.
What can a parent do? It is about leveraging their drive for emancipation, their passions and their lack of knowledge. Leverage what? The basic strategy is to “yield and play dumb.” Tell them you don’t know. That they are smart and will figure out what is best for themselves. Tell them you believe in them. Tell them they are choosing the lessons that are valuable for their path in life. Let them know you love them. Beyond that, you merely ask them questions, have an empathetic ear and reassure them they will do fine… nothing more and nothing less. Doing more and you will do it for them, robbing them of the opportunity to learn for themselves, to claim and walk on their own path. Doing less, and they will not recognize the opportunities and lessons.
First, you need to determine what are your expectations and bottom line. Clearly and succinctly communicate these expectations and the bottom line. Remember, kids… well everybody likes structure and predictability. But your teen is trying to figure out which ballpark they are playing in… is it soccer, baseball, tennis, basketball or water polo? Think about what are your parental expectations, bottom line and be mindful, i.e., choose your battles wisely… what hill do you want to die on? Be clear about your expectations, the consequences and be consistent… nobody likes the rules of the game to change. Consistency helps the teen learn that there are rules and thus they can predict or expect results… thus learn. For example, my dad told me this, and I told my middle son (in a very calm and matter-of-fact manner). “If you are smart enough to get in to jail, you are smart enough to get out. If you need to call someone, call your friends who helped to you get in the jail.”
It’s about the Questions:
Second, the tactic is to ask good questions. But don’t expect or demand reasonable, well thought out answers. It will not happen and it is not the purpose. The purpose of asking good questions is several-fold.
Good questions imply you believe they are capable; that they have permission to seek opportunities to learn and to find the answers for themselves. The underlying message to them is that you believe in them, that you trust them to find their own path. Good questions also help develop that frontal lobe executive functioning. A parent is the child’s frontal lobe by proxy. However, now by asking your teen good questions you are training and imparting the skill of asking themselves good questions, i.e., developing their own executive functioning. Remember that good questions lead to excellent answers… so question wisely and don’t waste the opportunity with insignificant questions. Hopefully, in the earlier stage you started some of this by asking them questions about their peers’ interactions. Why they thought their peer behaved in a certain manner or made a certain decision, etc.
In this developmental stage, you are helping them to learn to think for themselves. They are again revisiting and applying the skills of observation, analysis, synthesis, strategy, implementation and execution. Their passion or goal might be: I want to go to the movies, drive, buy a car, new bike, go to a sports camp, learn how to fly, etc.
For example, some useful responses/questions might be:
That sound’s great! What do you need to do?
Do you have money? Where are you going, with whom and when will you be back?
Honey, geez I don’t know. What do you think?
Humm, that is interesting, what do you think you want to do?
What are your feelings about _____?
How are you going to make that work?
What do you expect will happen?
What did you learn from this experience?
I’m not saying yes and I’m not saying no. I’m asking you, what is your plan to make it happen?
What is your work around, Plan B and contingency plan?
You are a smart kid. I believe you will figure it out.
I’m always here to listen.
The delivery of asking questions and dealing with the drama episodes needs to be done in a calm and non-reactive but empathetic manner. Remember that for the past 14 years you have provided or guided them along to find the answers. And now they are frustrated, they want to know, but you are only asking them questions. For them it’s like WTH, I need you; and all you are doing is playing dumb. They might feel anxious, fearful or perhaps overwhelmed and need re-assurance. And your reassurance is “hey you’re a smart kid, what do you think/feel you need…you will figure it out? Or maybe they are testing your limits, but are really wanting to know that you are steadfast and stubbornly consistent… which despite their feelings of frustration… they will eventually find your response reassuring. Your teen knows your hot buttons; they will be oppositional and want to argue for argument’s sake. As in the past, realize that you are the constant in their rapidly changing world. That you are their emotional and psychological refuge in during this time of big changes in their life.
There will be times of near disaster or even tragedy. For example, all three of my kids wanted to drive and at some point, they were involved in accidents that resulted in totaled cars. For all of them, driving was about learning opportunities. Learning about how to drive, the expenses of a car, how to do maintenance. And what happens in an accident, the insurance process or when they got a speeding ticket and how to deal with these events responsibly. Another time my son’s close friend died in a drug overdose and as a result he gained a deeper understanding of the tragedy of drug abuse and the impact on friends and family. As a parent, it is important to recognize that you are merely coaching them and these are opportunities for lessons or a practice session for them. Tackling the smaller opportunity they are practicing for the later bigger opportunities. They are gaining confidence, learning what it takes (commitment, persistence and responsibility).
Initially, teenagers are self-absorbed. They can primarily only see themselves, their needs and their wants… the world is them. Eventually, they can recognize that they are not the center of the universe and will learn that there is a big wonderful world in which to learn to navigate and follow their passions and subsequent path. For teens, the world is to explore and find out who they are.
The future is initially the magical “now.” But they need to learn it takes making plans and taking responsibility for executing their plan. Their efficacy is initially magical because they can imagine and initially this imagination is mistaken for reality. It is moving from the immediate “right-in-front-of-their-nose” and magical thinking to activating executive functioning. It is the applying and executing of these skills that they become responsible for following their passions and attaining their goals.
During the teen years, there is a lot that goes on. They get a sense of them self, of their existential existence of meaning and purpose, discovering their passion and developing the executive thinking or functioning skills and establishing a wellness routine Your teenager has to deal with peer pressures and distractions of contemporary culture. This includes the media, dating, intimate relationships and the allure of drugs and alcohol. This is no minor challenge. It is quite the task. It is the beginning of the emancipation of your child and learning to fly out of the nest.
Responsibility and Discipline:
Over the 7 years, it is a progression of earning their independence by becoming progressively more responsible. It’s a matter of measured opportunities for them to show their responsibility and to show off a host of critical thinking skills, of implementation and execution of those skills. Make sure that you acknowledge their accomplishments.
Discipline at this stage takes the form of self-discipline. The ability to commit to oneself and their goal is what it is. It involves planning, impulse control, delayed gratification and higher ordered thinking. It is about getting the frontal lobe; executive functioning to operate.
Remember my daughter, the ski bum? Two stories: When she was 15, she had not saved enough money to buy her season’s ski pass and asked for a loan. I reminded her of the agreement that we had made and that she had fulfilled. Noting that I could not and would not give her the money. She stomped off mad as a hornet and did not talk to me for a week. A week later she proudly stated that she got her season’s pass. “Wow, how did you do that? I got hired as a ski and snowboard instructor.” Congratulations, that’s great, you’re a smart kid, I knew you would figure something out.”
At age 17, during her senior year of high school, she skied over 100 days, was a ski instructor, worked part time at a yogurt shop and did her senior project training with the ski patrol. She was skiing big mountain backcountry that most folks only dream of. As a parent, it was not something I would have chosen for her and there were times of acute anxiety for her well-being. However, it was her passion, her responsibility and her accomplishment. At age 20, she became an operations manager of a small custom manufacturing and retail storefront and with on-line business. She was often responsible for daily operations, coordinating custom orders, data management, inventory, orders, shipping, payroll, web management and customer service. There were times, she was the boss while the owner was overseas traveling for a couple of months. At 21 years old, she continued at the shop, going to college working on a nursing degree, volunteers at mountain ski events, afforded her own apartment, car, activities of skiing and downhill mountain biking and going to Hawaii during spring break. I was a proud parent and in awe of her determination and accomplishments.
The goal of this stage is to have a young person who has self-respect, self-worth, is confident and competent. Learning and knowing what it takes to do their passions and accomplish their goals. The path is about finding themselves, their passions; not only working hard but also learning to work smart, taking responsibility for making their opportunities and learning from them. In the garden metaphor, this is the fruition or the fall harvest of your parenting efforts from birth to 21 years of age. The next 7 years, ages 21-28 is for your young adult to state and make a claim of and for their self… they are emancipated.
Addendum: Remember the car ride time? Now they are driving you around on some errands, or perhaps going to a baseball game or something. It is the perfect time to have one of “those parental discussions” of sex, drugs and rock and roll.
You know, I don’t think you are sexually active.
I know but I’m just being your dad… just hear me out. Yea, I don’t think you are having sex yet, but soon you will have plenty of opportunities, if you want and that is for you to decide. However, it is a matter of respecting yourself, the other person and being safe. And being safe is a health issue. I don’t want to see you get yourself in a tough situation and have to make REALLY hard decisions.
Dad… I will not get pregnant.
I know but things happen. You know you can go see the doctor anytime.
Ok, I’m done… just know I love ya.
Or: Son you know that young women often have a different view of sex?
For them, it’s not about getting your YaYa’s like for guys. It’s about the relationship, emotions and can be a social status thing with their friends. And about their family; mom and dad. The tradition is that a guy needs to introduce themselves to the parent’s before taking their daughter on a date. It’s a social contract thing. They want to know who is dating their daughter, that she will be safe and that you are honorable. If you are dating, just know it has the potential to be much more about relationship; with her friends, parents and siblings.
Also meet the parents, if it is a serious thing, it is important to meet and spend some time with the parents. The reason is that it gives a look at how you will be treated in the relationship. The simple fact is that a young person is a product of their environment and their parents are their role models for relationships.
One more thing. Remember back to the prior 7-year stage and making your home a kid hang out and them learning about social and emotional intelligence. Your emerging young adult will already know some of the social expectations. For example, my daughter upfront told her potential boyfriends that they would have to first come over for dinner, before they could go on a date. And my son just knew to step up and introduce himself to the parents, knowing that it would reduce anxiety for both the date, her parents and he would get a glimpse of their relationship.
Remember, you are giving your teens tips, skills and are giving them permission to step-up to be responsible. Put the issue right out there. Clearly note your concern and cue them to take responsibility for themselves. The underlying message is that you trust them, believe in them and you are there for them.
These parental discussions are never comfortable… and even more uncomfortable for your teenager. The trick is to BE CALM, just lay the issue out there but do not be accusatory. You are their parent who is merely concerned for their health and well-being. You don’t want to see them to struggle in a potentially difficult situation. It might be a good time to share similar challenges and struggles that have occurred in your life.
Again, be calm. Do not get baited into an argument and know when to stop. That is to stop on a high point of that you are just being a parent that is concerned and doesn’t want to see them get in a tough situation and have to make really hard decisions. Then move on to a more comfortable subject. Your teenager heard the message; you don’t need to preach or hammer on it. It might surprise you how quickly your teenager will step up and be responsible.
Know that some of this stuff your teen has just not experienced, just doesn’t know and is perhaps too afraid to bring up the subject. Thus, it is better to “inoculate” or educate them before, in order to help them know how to cope with the situation before it occurs. They just need a little nudge and if they need more than that, then it’s the school of natural consequences that they have taken lessons from. And your supportive response is… “I am sure that you will figure it out. This must be something that you need to learn. I’m always here for you.”
The teen years can be a hot mess of a lot of things going on. However, understanding what is happening, the dynamics and why; along with a strategy and a few tips can make this potentially overwhelming adventure very workable, fun and awe-inspiring.