Teens

Your teen is no teacup. If you want to hold on, let go

Nov. 14, 2011 at 3:59 PM ET

Exposing small children to lots of environments isn’t terribly scary because we’re right beside them holding their hands, scanning the surroundings for any danger. But once they become teenagers — so reckless, so dopey, so sleepy — it’s much more challenging.

Last week, the mother of a 13-year-old boy told me that she enjoyed my book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, but hasn't been able to bring herself to read The Blessing of a B Minus. She said:

Lucas must get A’s.And he’s not much of a student so I help him with his homework for at least two hours every night. I have your book on my night table but I can’t open it. It’s the title. It makes me want to throw-up.

A teen we interviewed for TODAY said her mom’s top three fears are “me learning to drive, choking, and me being abducted. And somehow she ties everything into those three issues.”

Other teens complain that their parents demand that they text them at every turn. When you get to the party…when you leave the party…when you arrive home if I’m already asleep so if I wake up in the night I can check to see that you got home safely.

Some tell me they can’t win in communicating with their parents: If I don’t tell them stuff they seem sad, or betrayed or imagine the worst, but if I do they overreact and want to take over.

I’m starting to think that the most loving, intelligent parents wish their children would just skip adolescence entirely, that our world is just too dangerous and competitive to chance any risky moves. They pray that their child will go from pleasant, diligent third-grader to junior statesman with no experimentation or mistakes or the possibility of blemishes on the high school transcripts in between.  

But there’s more danger in this formula than in a robust, rocky adolescence because if they go off to college — land of beer pong, co-ed dorms and no one taking attendance in class, land where the only person in charge is the 19-year-old resident adviser in the dorm — without learning how to drive, both literally and metaphorically, there’s a greater chance they’ll end up being in a wreck.

College deans have nicknames for overprotected freshman who lack resilience, stick-to-itiveness and spirit. They call them “teacups.” And they call the incoming students who have been grinding away at their studies, extracurriculars and test prep throughout middle school and high school “crispies.” The fragile and the fried. Neither type is likely to flourish on their own.  Neither is properly prepared.

So how can parents ultimately let go? I’ve found inspiration in poetry. Here are a few lines to repeat to yourself when the temptation to rescue, protect, spy, pry, and prod becomes overwhelming.

Hitting the road:For parents with beginning teen drivers.

The best way out is through. (Robert Frost)

The sages teach that every parent has an obligation to teach their child how to swim. This means that where you see danger (think about the places he could go, the company he could keep, the things he could do in that car!) your child sees freedom and opportunity to study for the big history test at Olivia's house. 

The only way for your child to become an experienced driver is for your child to drive — a lot! In all different conditions! — even if you keep gasping and hitting the imaginary brake on the floor of the passenger seat. 

Please check in: For the text-addicted parent.

Teach us to care and not to care, teach us to sit still. (T.S. Eliot) 

If you need constant reassurance from your child, you project your own insecurity and make them nervous, too. You also invite them to lie, since unlike the days when parents actually answered a landline and you could ask to speak to your child, a text actually tells you nothing about your teen's actual coordinates.

So unplug! You'll set a good example and give your teen a chance to learn good navigation skills.

On prying , spying and cross-examining: For the parent who wants to be as close to their teen as they were to their cuddly, talkative, friendly young child.

Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky. (Ranier Maria Rilke)  

Beware suffocating your teen and be grateful that they spare you the details. The closer you get to anything, the more you see the flaws and the potential for peril. So step back and give your child space to grow.

Unless you want your daughter calling you from the salad bar in the college cafeteria  asking, “Do I like Russian dressing?” or e-mailing her papers for you to edit, you can think of the teen years as a launching pad, or an entertaining, three-ring circus, or a midnight sail underneath a starry sky.

Scary? For sure. But exciting, too.

Dr. Wendy Mogel is a clinical psychologist, parenting expert and the author of the New York Times bestselling parenting book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. Her new book, The Blessing of a B Minus, is about raising teenagers.

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