14-21 Years: It’s all about me and getting ready to fly the nest.

The overall task is emancipation.  That is to learn to make it, on their own.  To learn how to fly out of the nest.   The challenge is several fold.  First, they won’t listen to parents.  Second, they want to do it themselves.  Third, they think they know what to do and that it just magically happens. 

The teenager’s task is to find and develop a sense of themselves, who they are and what they like.  This is a stage of exploration, trying on different personalities, trying different activities in attempt to find out who they are.  It is an adventure of discovering who they are. They are beginning to have the capacity for self-reflection, to ponder about who they are and their situation.  The search of who they are occurs externally and internally.  Of course, most of us know more about the external search of trying different things, going different places and putting on different mask, i.e., trying on different personalities.

The internal exploration takes the form of questions. The questions of why am I here, why do I care, who am I, how do I feel, how does this make sense, what is this mean and so on.  Notice that all these questions around the “I or Me”.  Characteristics of this stage are noted by narcissism.  It’s all about me and what I want and what I want to do. It’s about teenage angst which is what is the meaning of all this. “This is senseless, I don’t care, and what does this mean?” Remember introspection is the process of winter.  This is their first experience of winter, it is a rite of passage.  It is leaving childhood and becoming an adult.  It is the first time of searching and discovering who they are.

Another characteristic is the sense of time, is only “NOW”.  They often forget about the past and yet can readily envision the future. Though the issue is, they can imagine the future but make the mistake of, just because they can imagine it; it is real.  Adults see this as “magical thinking”.  Teens may experience this as frustration because they don't yet have the process and skills of turning their imagination into reality.  But this is the stage when they begin to have the ability and capacity to set goals, make plans and execute so that their imagination can become reality.

As adults we tend to view this stage is a bit of a hot mess, an adventure in drama and hang on by the seat of your pants.  “By the grace of God” we will all survive.  So let us try to tease some of this hot mess apart. First, from the physiological standpoint, they are going through a dramatic physical change that involves hormones.   Hormones wax and wane, ebb and flow in a sense they are gaining a new body.  They are no longer a child but yet not an adult.  Perhaps one of the best ways to deal with these physical changes is to ensure that they have good physical exercise, eat well and sleeps. This helps to develop and modulate this hot mess. The first thing to focus on is good physical exercise. Exercise does a number of things.  First, is to help burn off some of that energy.  It also helps to deal with the various fluctuating hormones, smoothing out their emotions of euphoria, frustration, anger, aggression and a HOST of new feelings.  Physical exercise also helps to deal with eating/metabolizing and sleeping.

Next, is eating well since they are going through a dramatic physical change and hopefully keeping busy, they need good fuel and good building blocks. Thus, good nutrition is going to help them have the experience of physical health.  Hopefully, if they experience good physical health they will recognize when they are not feeling well, not eating well, not getting enough exercise and this will motivate them to establish a healthy routine of exercise, eating and sleeping.

Lastly, is sleep.  Frequently teens have a shift in their sleeping patterns called the circadian rhythm. It is where their energy level and sleep cycle tends to shift to a later time during the day.  Teens that are active in keeping busy and getting good exercise will generally want to sleep a lot...until late in the morning.  Sleep is important during this growth spurt. The problem is that the circadian rhythm being shifted later in the day often is not in-sync with the rest of the world.  The youth often like to sleep until noon, have their peak energy flow during the evening and they are not ready to sleep before 2-4 am, early morning.  So, in the evening as the rest the world is winding down, they are just beginning to hit their peak energy.  It’s party time. And if there’s no respectable activities to engage in, it’s time to wander and adventure the streets, between the sheets and see what shenanigans they can get away with.

The other significant factor in play is the lack of executive functioning that is commonly associated with the frontal lobe of the brain. The frontal lobe and the executive functioning are just beginning to develop and is correlated with the whole idea that the youth can begin to self-reflect.  This aspect of frontal lobe development is the ability to begin to understand the processes and logistics of how to get something done.  As adults, we often forget that this is a whole new experience, for them it is the power of being logical.  Our teen suddenly becomes frustratingly logical and is more than willing to argue some minutia while failing to see the larger picture.

This is the stage where teens can begin to introspect and think about themselves think about their life think about meaning and why they are here, i.e., teenage angst. In a sense the teenage angst is perhaps the search for their acorn.  Relative to James Hellman’s "acorn theory," the youth is trying to find their acorn that is buried deep inside themselves. This is the time when the youth starts to wonder about why they are here, what their passion and what do they want to do.  This process is an introspective endeavor.   The youth needs some guidance about finding their acorn, the opportunity and permission to find their acorn.  Hopefully, parents can recognize this developmental event and give some guidance, allow them some space to find opportunities and give permission for this existential adventure to occur.  Culturally it’s noted in various forms of “rites of passage,” stage between childhood and adulthood.  Rite of passage involves an adventure into the unknown, a challenge and a discovery.  In a sense it’s the first occurrence of the death and rebirth process of the winter time. So parents if we can encourage them to find reasonable opportunities for this self adventure. Perhaps in the forms of going on a road trip, backpacking in the wilderness, traveling in a foreign country with a group; some opportunity for them to be alone find themselves.  However this can also take the form of writing, some artistic or music endeavor. This adventure might also happen while wandering the streets late at night.  The point is they need space and the opportunity for this process of finding their acorn/self.

Parents

So how can parents be helpful during this hot mess when their child will not listen, is full of themselves, is going through a lot of physiological changes, with frequent episodes of drama and does not yet have a full functioning frontal lobe.  At this stage, parents often feel that they have lost any influence or control.  Their teen is out of control, that they will not listen nor do anything.  However, not all is lost, but it involves a change of strategy. 

Despite popular belief, parents do have a fair amount of influence in this hot mess. The approach continues to be the same but the tactic is distinctly different.  Obviously the youth is beyond listening to any reasonable advice or direction.  So do not even try...save yourself the argument…you will lose.

So what can a parent do?  It is about leveraging their drive for emancipation, their passions and their lack of knowledge.  Leverage what?  The basic strategy is to “yield and play dumb.”  Tell them that you don’t know.  Tell them they are smart, that it is their life, and they will figure out what is best for themselves.  Tell them that you believe in them.  Tell them that they are choosing the lessons that are valuable for their path in life. Tell them that you love them.   Beyond that, you merely ask them questions, have an empathetic ear and reassure them that they will do fine…nothing more and nothing less.  Doing more and you will be doing it for them, you will be robbing them of the opportunity to learn for themselves, to claim and walk on their own path.  Doing less, and they will not recognize the opportunities and lessons. 

First, you need to determine what are your expectations and bottom line.  Clearly and succinctly communicate these expectations and the bottom line.  Remember kids…well everybody likes structure and predictability.  They like to know the ballpark they are playing in…is it soccer, baseball, tennis, basketball or water polo.  So think about what are your parental expectations, the bottom line…and be mindful, i.e., choose your battles wisely…what hill do you want to die on?  Be clear and consistent…nobody likes the rules of the game to change.   Be clear…on what your expectations, what the bottom line is and what the consequences are.  And be consistent.  Consistency helps the teen learn that there are rules and thus they can predict or anticipate results...thus learn.  Such as, with my middle son…“If you are smart enough to get in to jail, you are smart enough to get out.  If you need to call someone, call your friends who helped to you get in the jail.”

Secondly, the tactic is to merely ask good questions….but don’t expect or demand reasonable, well thought out answers.  It’s not going to happen and it is not the purpose.  The purpose of asking good questions is several-fold.

Good questions imply that you believe they are capable; that they have permission to seek opportunities to learn and to find the answers for themselves.  The underlying message to them is, that you belief in them, that you trust them to find their own path.  Good questions also help develop that frontal lobe executive functioning. In a sense, a parent is the child’s frontal lobe by proxy.  However, now by asking your teen good questions you are training and imparting the skill of asking themselves good questions, i.e., developing their own executive functioning.  Remember that good questions, lead to good answers...so question wisely and don't waste the opportunity with insignificant questions.  Hopefully, in the earlier stage you started some of this by them questions about some of their peers’ interactions. Why they thought their peer behaved in a certain manner or made a certain decision and etc. 

In this developmental stage, you are helping them to learn to think for themselves. They are to learn the skills of observation, analysis, synthesis, strategy, implementation and execution. For example, some useful responses/questions might be:

Do you have money, where are you going, with whom and when will you be back?

“Honey, geez I don’t know.  What do you think?

Humm, that is interesting, what do you think you want to do? 

What are your feelings about _____?

How are you going to make that work?

What do you anticipate will happen?

What did you learn from this experience?

I’m not saying yes and I’m not saying no, I’m asking what is your plan?

You are a smart kid, I believe you will figure it out.

I’m always here to listen.

The delivery of asking questions and dealing with the drama episodes need to be done in a calm and non-reactive but empathetic manner.  Your teen knows your hot buttons; they will be oppositional and want to argue for argument sake.  At times, they might feel anxious, fearful or perhaps overwhelmed and need re-assurance.  Or maybe they are testing your limits, but are really wanting to know that you are steadfast and stubbornly consistent…which despite their feelings of frustration…they find your response reassuring.  As in the past, realize that you are the constant in their rapidly changing world.  That you are their emotional and psychological refuge in during this time of big changes in their life.     

There will be times of near disaster or even tragedy .  For example, all three of my kids wanted to drive and at some point, they were involved in accidents that resulted in a totaled the car.  For all of them, driving was about learning opportunities.  Learning about how to drive, the expenses of a car, how to do maintenance.  They learned what happens in an accident, the insurance process or when they got a speeding ticket and how to deal with these events in a responsible manner.  Another time my son’s close friend died in a drug overdose and as result he gained a deeper understanding of the tragedy of drug abuse and the impact on friends and family.  As a parent, it is important to recognize that you are merely coaching them and these are opportunities for lessons or a practice for them.

Initially teenagers are self-absorbed or a bit narcissistic; they can primarily only see themselves, their needs and their wants…the world is them.  Eventually they are able to recognize that they are not the center of the universe and will learn that there is a big wonderful world in which to learn to navigate and follow their passions and subsequent path.  For teens, the world is to explore and find out who they are. 

The future…is initially “now” but then extends, from impulsive “now” to making plans and executing their plan.  Their personal efficacy is initially magical because they can imagine and this imagination is mistaken for reality.  It is the process of moving from the immediate “right-in-front-of-their-nose” and magical thinking to activating executive functioning.  It is the applying and executing of these skills that they become responsible for following their passions and attaining their goals.

During the teen years, there is a lot that goes on.  They get a sense of them self, of their existential existence, discovering their passion and developing the executive thinking or functioning skills.  Your teenager has to deal with peer pressures and distractions of contemporary culture.  This includes the media, dating, intimate relationships and the allure of drugs and alcohol.  This is no small challenge and is quite the task.  It is the beginning of the emancipation of your child, out of the nest and learning to fly.

Over the 7 years, it is a progression of earning their independence by becoming progressively more responsible.  It’s a matter of measured opportunities for them to demonstrate their responsibility and to show off host of critical thinking skills, of implementation and execution of those skills.  Make sure that you acknowledge their accomplishments.

Discipline at this stage takes the form of self-discipline.  It is the ability to self-organize and commit to oneself and their goal.  It involves planning, impulse control, delayed gratification and higher ordered thinking.  It is about getting the frontal lobe; executive functioning to begin operating.

Remember my daughter, the ski bum.  At age 17, during her senior year of high school, she skied over 100 days, was a ski instructor, worked part time at a yogurt shop and did her senior project training with the ski patrol.  She was skiing big mountain backcountry that most folks only dream of.  As a parent, it was not something I would have chosen for her and there were times of high anxiety for her well-being.  However, it was her passion, her responsibility and her accomplishment.  At age 20, she became an operations manager at a small custom retail storefront and on-line business.  She is often responsible for daily operations, data management of inventory, orders, shipping, payroll, web management and customer service.  Now at 21 years old, she continues at the shop, is going to community college working toward a nursing degree, volunteers at mountain ski events, affords her own apartment, car, activities of skiing and downhill mountain biking and is going to Hawaii during spring break.  I am a proud parent and in awe of her determination and accomplishments.

The goal of this stage is to have a young person that has self-respect, self-worth, is confident and competent.  They will know what it takes to do their passions and accomplish their goals.  The path is about finding themselves, their passions; not only working hard, but also learning to work smart, taking responsibility for making their opportunities and learning from them.  In the garden metaphor, this is the fruition or the fall harvest of your parenting efforts from birth to 21 years of age.  The next 7 years, ages 21-28 is for your young adult to state and make a claim of and for their self…they are emancipated.

Addendum:  Remember the car ride time?  Now they are driving you around on some errands, or perhaps going to a baseball game or something.  It is the perfect time to have one of “those parental discussions” of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

You know, I don’t think you are sexually active.

Dad!

I know but I’m just being your dad…just hear me out….Yea, I don’t think you are having sex yet, but in the near future you will have plenty of opportunities, if you want and that is for you to decide.  However, it is a matter of respecting yourself, the other person and being safe.  And, being safe is a health issue.  I don’t want to see you get yourself in a tough situation and have to make REALLY hard decisions.

Dad…I’m not going to get pregnant.

I know but things happen.  You know you can go see the doctor anytime if you want.

Dad!

Ok, I’m done…just know I love ya.

In a sense, you are giving them permission to step-up and be responsible.  Put the issue right out there, clearly note your concern and cue them to take responsibility for themselves. The underlying message is that you trust them, believe in them and you are there for them. 

These parental discussions are never comfortable…and even more uncomfortable for your teenager.  The trick is to BE CALM, just lay the issue out there but do not be accusatory.  You are their parent who is merely concerned for their health and well-being.  You don’t want to see them to struggle in a potentially difficult situation.  It might be a good time to reveal to similar challenges and struggles that have occurred in your life.

Again, be calm, do not be baited into an argument and know when to stop.  That is stop on a high point of that you are just being a parent that is concerned and doesn’t want to see them get in a tough situation and have to make really hard decisions.  Then move on to more comfortable subject.  Rest assured that your teenager heard the message; you don’t need to preach or hammer on it.  You might be surprised how quickly your teenager will take the opportunity to be responsible. 

They just need a little nudge and if they need more than that, then it’s the school of natural consequences that they have chosen to take lessons from.  And your supportive response is…”I am sure that you will figure it out, this must be something that you need to learn, I’m always here for you.”

Peace, Love and Light!

Tim