Parenting Teens: Friends, Motivation, and Independence

We know our families have specific parenting questions. We are thrilled to share this guest blog with you, Parenting Teens: Friends, Motivation, and Independence, from Natalie Chubb, formerly of Powell Family Counseling. Natalie has worked with families, adults, adolescents, and children coping with challenges such as anxiety, depression, relationships, grief, parenting, and life transitions.

The challenges we face raising children into young adults in today’s society are not necessarily the same challenges our parents faced when raising us. And while an all-encompassing parenting book still eludes us, we can find comfort and camaraderie in knowing we are not alone in our struggle parenting teens.

In the results of a recent survey by At The Core, Beth Probst and company noticed there were similar threads of concern voiced by high school parents that might best be addressed by a mental health professional. We grouped the concerns into three categories-Social Issues, Motivation, and Independence. The following insights are based on what I hear from students in the clinical setting, input from their families, and some strategies that have found success.

Social Issues—Does my child have friends? Does he struggle to fit in? Is my daughter’s friend group a healthy fit? How does an adolescent find a new friend group?

All of our adolescents are struggling, in varying degrees, to find acceptance among peers. Challenges during the tween and teen years are normal, and important for how kids learn to define and differentiate themselves. The toughest part is that they are trying to do this at the same time they are desperately trying to “fit in”. These are two opposing goals occurring at the same time. Therefore, the quantity of friends our children have is significantly less important than the quality of their friendship(s).

Even when an adolescent has several groups of friends in her life, most confide in 1-3 close friends in times of need. Knowing whom to trust is a repeating theme I hear in counseling. As parents, we can help our kids define trust and then identify peers who demonstrate those characteristics regularly. I often ask clients to make a written list of what they expect to see in a friend. Putting it on paper helps them clarify and prioritize their thoughts and needs.

Anxiety from redistricting is another common struggle for many students. Changing buildings and leaving friends behind is unpleasant for most kids, and produces anxiety in students who take longer to identify and trust new people. Yes, parents, making friends through Instagram and Snapchat is real! Yet while social media helps kids stay connected, the truth is that most students develop close friendships with those they see on a regular basis. This means school is a primary source for finding and maintaining friendships.

A few recommendations for helping your student are:

  1. validate that their emotions and the challenges are real (even if you’re tired of hearing him/her complain)
  2. brainstorm a list of options for making new friends (no matter how crazy) so they see opportunity instead of feeling stuck
  3. let them know this isn’t the last time they will need to put themselves out there to meet new people (college, workplace) and that working through this situation will better prepare them for the next time.

I try to remind parents that even though our children carry our traits, it does not mean they are exact replicas of us. We need to keep in mind that our personalities fall on spectrums such as introversion/extraversion, openness to experiences, and agreeableness. A more reserved (or outgoing) adolescent who doesn’t socialize the way mom or dad did in high school, does not mean the adolescent doesn’t have friends (or that he’s necessarily a partier). An extravert parent may have difficulty understanding an introvert child, and vice versa, but we need to allow them to develop at their own pace and in their own style.

Parents should keep in mind that family time may decrease as friend time and time alone in the bedroom increase—this is normal. Warning signs: we want to be casually watching for signs that behaviors are heading toward sustained lower functioning for the individual adolescent; for example, a daughter who has always had a small yet satisfying friend group is now socially isolating herself or clings to a parent more than usual. If you’re seeing rapid or significant changes in your adolescent’s social sphere, it may be time to consider consulting a professional.

Motivation—How do we as parents help motivate our children, whether it be high school or college tasks or just life in general?

A part of the parenting process is helping “motivate” our children to behave in certain ways—5 minutes in timeout is designed to reduce the motivation to pull the cat’s tail and praising a child who studies for a spelling test and receives a good grade is designed to increase the motivation to study for the next test. But as we grow and mature, our “motivators” change.

Teens often thrive from pushing or testing boundaries. And though they still like praise, they’re more often likely to seek it from friends than parents. 3-day suspension may be a motivator for one teen to pass on skipping school, but may look like a motivator TO skip to another teen who dislikes school anyway.

In a recent conversation with a friend’s son, I specifically asked him about his motivation. He’d had some disciplinary struggles in high school. He explained that it wasn’t until midway through sophomore year in college that he (and his friends) realized their futures were up to them. His exact words, ”In high school I knew I had a safety net to fall back on. In college I realized it was all up to me. I’m the kind of person that has to learn by doing it myself.” And by “doing it”, he meant failing. Failing IS an option, and often a strong motivator.

Each person has to discover her personal motivators. I have numerous clients whose parents have concerns about their teen’s motivation level. Through discussions, I’ve found “lack of motivation” is the visible response for feelings of fear, being overwhelmed, burn out/over scheduled, perceived negative criticism (often due to mismatched communication styles), peer pressure…I could go on.

Referring back to the personality discussion above, parents may define success very differently than their child. Keeping in mind that there is more than one way to do life, we can have conversations with our teens with our active listening dial set to high and our speaker dial set on low. Learning the root cause of what we perceive to be lack of motivation is key to understanding how to help motivate our kids.

Independence—How do we teach our kids to be independent? What does too much or too little freedom look like? How do we help them find balance between family, friends, school, and extracurricular activities?

We parent differently based on the age of our children. There is no set formula for building independence in an adolescent, but extending it to them in increasing quantities is necessary. Here are a few of the challenges I hear from high school and college-aged students—dad called me 5 times at school because Life 360 said I was in a ditch, no one’s ever showed me how to…(fill in daily life task)… and I’m so afraid to do it on my own (in college), please don’t make me use a telephone, my mom usually answers when adults ask me a question, my parents made me rush a fraternity because they thought it would help me socially, in high school all my time was structured…now I don’t know how to manage my time, I have no interest in college so my mom thinks I’m unmotivated.

The more we make them do life while living at home, the better prepared they will be when they leave…but we can’t teach everything. Our job is to teach what we know in the short time we are allotted and then set them free My oldest went to college knowing how to change a tire and check her oil (thanks to her dad), while I neglected to show her how to do laundry and cook a meal. She learned laundry the hard way and has a roommate who’s taught her to do light cooking. But she left home knowing how to manage her time and advocate for herself—two important lessons in our household. Think about the most important skills and traits your kids need before leaving home for work or college and invest your parenting time there.

With skill and knowledge, come independence and freedom. Independence and freedom may present new challenges for adolescents in the form of life balance. Finding balance in life is a never-ending process. We teach it to our children by living it in our own lives. A common concern from young adult clients is, “I don’t know what to do when I have nothing to do.” They find it hard to relax and be content with not being “productive” for a hot minute. As Brene Brown points out in her book Daring Greatly, the opposite of scarcity is not abundance, it’s having or being “enough”.

Learning to successfully manage down time or boredom or being alone is equally important as learning to balance the busy days. I hear parents subscribe to the philosophy that keeping adolescents busy keeps them out of trouble. While that can be true, there will come a day when we are no longer responsible for keeping them busy. It may be wise to see how our teens handle unscheduled time before they head out into a world replete with free time and unhealthy distractions.

Truth is, most of us believe we’re doing parenting wrong more often than we’re doing it right. And maybe we are. The good news is that it’s always been this way and we continue to have and raise children into young adults. A few books I’ve found helpful about parenting teens, personally and professionally, are: Lisa Damour’’s books Untangled and Under Pressure, John Duffy’s book Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety, Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure, Cloud and Townsend’s Boundaries, and Michael Gurian’s Saving Our Sons.


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