By John Townsend, Ph.D.
One of the most important goals of any parent is to launch their adolescent into the adult world with a healthy sense of power. I define “power” as the capacity to change one’s environment. Here are examples of helpful power:
- Setting healthy goals and following up on them to completion.
- Choosing the right sorts of people to hang out with.
- Influencing and helping others in positive ways.
- Saying “no” to drugs.
- Using time, talents and energy to create a great life.
- Resisting the influence of toxic people.
- Confronting others in healthy ways when necessary.
Rather than letting the environment shuffle your adolescent around, let her take charge of what is happening. Sometimes parents see the impulsive or aggressive teen as the one who has power rather than the more reserved child. Actually, it can be the reverse. The impulsive adolescent actually has little power over her drives or emotions – she is a slave to her impulses and needs to develop the power to resist them. The more reserved child can be covert and sneaky, doing end runs around her parent to get what she wants.
Look at power as something that is good, that can change things for the good, for your teen. Here are some tips:
Give them safety and acceptance. To develop the power to create, influence, follow through or confront, teens need to know they have a safe place to go. Love and acceptance provide the strength to take the initiative or risk. Your adolescent needs to know she is “OK” in your book, win or lose, success or failure. She needs to hear “I love you” regularly, even if she rolls her eyes at you. A part of her deep inside really needs to hear that!
Have consistent and reasonable house rules. Power comes from the security of knowing that structures in the family provide a fairly predictable environment. That means set meals, chores, homework and family times. It also means that chaos does not reign in your house. While teens gripe about not having enough freedom, the research says they do not thrive when there are no rules. My book Boundaries for Teens describes this issue in depth.
Accept challenges. To be a person with power, you have to push against others at times, disagreeing and speaking your mind. When your teen is shamed or punished for disagreeing, she learns quickly to go “underground” and keep her true feelings and power to herself. Great parents welcome challenges from their adolescents as long as they are conveyed with respect. You are the first person your child will push against, and you have to be prepared to be loving but firm. Once she learns, “I disagreed with my parents, and the world didn’t end,” she’ll learn to speak up. This is the beginning of power.
Encourage reasonable risks. Often, teens are more into apathy than taking risks. It’s much safer. Sports, art, scholarships, leadership and service are all “lame and stupid.” That is not the sentiment of a superior person but of one who is frightened and powerless. In every way you can, encourage your teen to find her passion and to pursue it regardless of roadblocks. Be the parent who comforts her if she doesn’t make the team but then encourages her to try something new. Of course, “reasonable” means helping your teen evaluate risks that might be unrealistic versus those that are a stretch but possible. My parents never told me I could play NBA ball, and that was a good thing!
Talk to them about the benefits afterward. Neuroscience teaches us that experiencing or discussing something causes it to stick with us much longer than if we don’t. So after your teen does something that shows her power, ask her, “What did you gain from this? How are you better off now? How can I help you on to the next step?” Help her to see that she benefited from an experience (happier, better friends, fewer problems, more success, etc.) and encourage her to continue on the path.
We need healthy, happy, powerful teens in this world! Take care.