I like to swim with my family and friends. I love to play in the deep end of the pool knowing that when I tire I can just swim to the edge of the pool and hold on. After a moment of rest, I push off the wall and play safely in the deep water again.
Lisa Damour offers this as a metaphor for one aspect of parenting teens in her book Untangled. When it comes to parenting an adolescent, she notes, our teens are the swimmers and we are the wall of refuge they hold on to when they become tired. Our teen plays in the deep waters beyond our home, wandering into the deep waters of the adult world and all its complications. By doing so, they assert and practice their independence. They smile and laugh with their friends who are playing in the same deep waters. They test the waters that we have worked so hard to protect them from as they grew up. They look like they are having fun, but they eventually get overwhelmed, hurt, or frightened (we all do when swimming in deep waters). When they do, they swim back to us (the edge of the pool) and find their refuge and rest. They hold on to feel loved and protected, safe and secure. Then, when they feel rested and safe, our teens push away from us and back into the deep with their friends. They may push off with a “snarky” comment, a hurtful argument, a nonchalant “I-don’t-need-you-attitude,” or, worse, the “you-are-so-lame” look. While we nurse the pain of their kick-off from the comfort of our side, they return smiling to their friends.
If you are like me, you have felt the pain of being the edge of the pool for your teen swimmer. It feels like rejection…and it hurts. But nursing that pain just gets in the way of them seeking comfort from us in the future. So, how can we limit the pain of the “push off”?
- Anticipate the push off. Know that it is going to happen. When your teen comes to you, enjoy the time together.
- Set boundaries on rude behavior. Expect politeness and respect. You may even need to tell your teen that their behavior is hurtful.
- Do not let your hurt turn to resentment and hinder the secure base your teen finds in you. Do not let the fear of hurt interfere with your ability to remain available. Stand strong. Your teen will continue to return to you in times of need. They need your comfort, your love, your availability.
- Gather your village. Parents need a supportive village when raising a teen. Invite other teen parents into your life. Find some mentors who have already raised teens as well. Build a supportive relationship with your spouse. These relationships will support you and serve to bolster your strength to respond to your teen’s growing independence with wisdom and grace.
Parenting a teen is stressful. As parents, we have our own deep waters to navigate while raising a teen. We worry. We hurt. We experience fear…just like our teens. But, these four steps can help you provide a loving, safe environment that will allow your teen to grow and become a strong adult. They will also help you navigate the deep waters of nurturing the mature adult you want your teen to become.