Even before our kids reach adolescence we are inundated with stories of how challenging their teenage years will be. The word “survive” is thrown around, as if these years might be our undoing. Rarely do our fellow parents or even the experts challenge this dogma.
Dr. Ken Ginsburg, a pediatrician in Adolescent Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, acknowledges that parenting comes with some bumps in the road but suggests that if we change the way we think about teens, we can change our experience of raising them.
He believes that parenting an adolescent can be a time of tremendous joy and increasing closeness. He co-founded the Center for Parent and Teen Communication which teaches parents how to guide their adolescents into adulthood and supports teens to manage stress and peer pressure and how to communicate effectively with peers and parents.
We recently sat down with Dr. Ginsburg and discussed the stage of parenthood that so many mistakenly dread and he shared with us some of the steps to being a better parent and improving your relationship with your teen.
Q&A About Parenting Teens with Dr. Ken Ginsburg
Q: We have lots of unflattering nicknames for parents and most of them revolve around mechanical equipment. There is the helicopter, the snow plow, the drone, the lawn mower parents. But you have taken a different approach to this and say we should aspire to be, in your words, “lighthouse” parents. What do you mean by that?
A: We want to be like a lighthouse for our kids, a stable force on the shoreline, that they can measure themselves against. We want to look down at the rocks and make sure that we do everything we can so that our kids don’t crash against them. But we want to look into the waves and trust in their capacity to ride them, and prepare them to do so.
A lighthouse parent prepares and doesn’t hover.
A parent who hovers, and you can call it whatever you want to, tries to prevent a child or teen from experiencing life themselves. And even though in any given minute, as a father, I might have loved to wrap my kids in bubble wrap, as parents we need to understand that when we prepare our kids for the future, that’s when we really protect them. When we hover, we leave them unprepared, because we won’t always be there. A lighthouse parent prepares and most importantly is a stable force on the shoreline and a role model for them to watch.
Q: You have said that our culture sometimes looks at parenting teens through a distorted lens. We think of this as an inherently unpleasant time and as a society approach it with some dread. Why is this wrong and how can we reframe this conversation?
A: One of the questions that teens ask themselves is, “Am I normal?” When they hear us talk about adolescents as if they are inherently a problem, they learn that “normal” is problem behavior. As a society when we convey the message that teens are difficult, we set very low and negative expectations of them. Young people live up, or down, to the expectations we set for them. So we must expect them to be their very best selves. But let’s be clear, I am not talking about grades, though effort would be nice. I am not talking about trophies for sports, but team participation is great.
What I am talking about is seeing a young person the way they deserve to be seen, for who they really are. That is the most protective force in a young person’s life. When they are out in the world navigating peer culture — which is telling them what they should look like and how they should behave — knowing that there is someone at home who really sees them in all of their goodness is highly protective.
I would love to be able to say just “believe the best and they will be the best.” And while without a doubt, that is the most important thing, there are concrete things we can do to help teens avoid negative behaviors.
We can teach teens how to navigate peer culture and manage this and other stressors they face. One way to do this is with a Teen Stress Management Plan. For a stress management plan to work it must provide young people with a wide range of healthy ways to cope with stress.
Q: One of the things that parents often struggle with is how much independence to give to kids and what to do when they have shown they cannot handle some of the freedoms or responsibilities they have been given?
A: This is where discipline comes in. And it is important to remember that the word discipline means to teach, not to punish. It is all in the reframing, in looking at this as an opportunity to guide our teens in a loving way.
Let’s use curfew as an example. Perhaps your teen is supposed to be home at 11:00 pm and they come in at 11:15 or later. Those are the worst 15 minutes of your life because you have imagined the worst. In that moment, what you want is to control your child, so you ground them for three weeks. But to that teen, being 15 minutes late and losing their independence for three weeks feels like they have been punished. It feels too drastic and maybe even unreasonable and they may not learn much from the experience.
So what can you do? What is an example of a non-punitive way we can use discipline to teach rather than punish?
Suppose your teen had handled their 10:00 pm curfew incredibly well and that is why you raised it to an 11:00 curfew. Instead of grounding them, you can pull them back to 10:00 where they had demonstrated responsibility and shown that they could follow your rules. Because then, the teen is in control of the outcome. And when a teen is in control of the outcome they have truly learned.
Whenever you are disciplining ask yourself, is my child going to learn from this situation? An Adolescent Responsibility Contract helps parents be very clear about their expectations and allows the young person to know what they need to do to continue to stretch their limits.
Q: You talk about the importance of interconnectedness in families, of closeness with our teens and then later adult children, but we also need to encourage their independence. On the face of it, this might seem like a contradiction. How do we do both of these things seemingly at once?
A: We want our children to be able to stand on their own but we also know that life is richer and better when we stand together as families and communities. But let’s be clear how we get there. You cannot look at a 14-year-old and and hover and hug them all the time and say “let’s be interdependent” because of course, they are going to push you away. It’s a natural part of their development to want to separate themselves from you. The way you get there is by honoring and celebrating their increasing independence. By letting them stand on their own and guiding them along the way. By supporting their growing independence and not installing control buttons.
And by not installing those buttons they learn to navigate the world around them on their own. Trial and error, even failure, is important in that learning process. We are there for them if they fail. We honor their needs while making sure they stay safe. We role model for them what it means to be a healthy adult. We let them make (most of) their own decisions, as long as they stay within the safe boundaries that we’ve established. We love them unconditionally. And when our children have grown and left our homes, they will know they always have a loving place to come back to.
Dr. Ken Ginsburg, Co-Founder and Director of Programs at the new Center for Parent and Teen Communication is an adolescent medicine specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.