My friend, a mother to two teens, lamented, “It’s so much easier when they were small.” So true. Because when they were small, they obey. They still think you are in control at all times. They still think you’re always right. Because they still need your approval and goodwill.
Teenagers are a different kettle of fish altogether. They have learned enough of the world to know that parents are not all-powerful, not always right and that there are other options. Like my empowered teen, for example. She has enough money in her bank accounts – saved up from birthday money, short stint as a child model, starring in a Disney movie – to know that she can fund her own life at university.
“There are places you can apply to for hardship funds, bursaries and loans,” she said knowledgeably. “But don’t worry, Momdad, I love you both too much to cut loose from you even though I will be supporting myself financially from next year.”
But joking aside, the great 20th-century psychologist Erik Erikson, postulated that in order to lead a meaningful life, humans must master a certain value or skill at each stage of their development: the emotional development (and hence, needs) of a child changes as they grow.
Yes, we parents have to change how we parent our children as they grow, to meet their changing emotional needs.
Young child needs security and stability, love and warmth. They need reassurance that Mummy and Daddy (even unkind ones) are always there, no matter how awful home life is. A parent threatening to leave is devastating for a young child – it feels like life will end – though an older child could often rationalise adult decisions and make the best of a bad situation. Young children do not know how.
This is when the foundations of love and family are laid down, and people learn most about closes relationships in their early years: about their needs being met (or not), the sense of adequacy (whether one is good enough or not) and secure attachments. What they learn in these early years become their adult norm, because primary caregivers are the major force of influence on young, developing psyches. Young children believe everything they are shown.
Thus, show them a kind, beautiful world. I strongly believe in a safe, stable home (physically and emotionally). I believe that structure and rules give them the stability too. Words you use matter a great deal as well. None of the “If you don’t behave, I won’t love you anymore” line that I have heard parents use all too often to threaten/blackmail their children into behaving. What does that teach children about love? That is is conditional and never secure. This sows the seeds of insecure attachments in later life.
Teach children that love is safe and kind instead, that it is evergreen and always there waiting for homecoming, so that they can go out there in the world bravely and be full of light, cheer and joy.
According to Erikson, in adolescence, creating a sense of identity is the key developmental challenge. If parents are too controlling, the child will not have the space to grow to be their own person. They will not be able to fly high (or at all), trapped by parental expectations and demands. I have always believed, let go of your expectations, and your child will surprise you.
This was our little girl who couldn’t read for the longest time, who wanted to be a singer and own lots of pets, who grew into a teenager on academic scholarship and a footballer who plays football and basketball internationally. Never in our wildest dreams would we have dreamt that.
In this stage, the primary goal is to forge intimate bonds with others. I have a friend, who comes from a religious and traditional family, whose parents have been very supportive of her friendships with girls and boys when she was growing up. She had a stay-at-home mum who knew her friends, who allowed her freedom within reason. Her first boyfriend was awarded a special drivers’ license by her father to allow him to drive her home. Today, she is a loving, confident wife and mother, thanks in large part, to her parents who supported her normal, healthy emotional growth.
Our little girl is now seventeen! And for the past three years, she has been dating the same boy. Over those three years, our families have grown close organically – we see each other every week at church, we chat, we monitor these two young people closely, we stay close. In fact, G often tells her boyfriend’s mother about issues before she raises them with me, because she is all too aware of my hot temper. Of course we would love for them to end up together, happily ever after, but who knows what the future holds. What is key is that this all-important first love is a positive experience for them both, and with our support, it is turning out to be so (thanks be to God). It is this first deep relationship that defines their future ones.
And when people ask us, “How do you feel when you see your precious daughter with a boy?” Our answer is, she has chosen well, for she has chosen a boy who respects her and treats her with great tenderness. Thus, we support this relationship, and her emotional growth, as she grows so beautifully from our little goblin to a strong young woman ready to take on the world, a happy Human Bean who has a thousand bright suns blazing in her.