Your parenting choices now determine how your kid will turn out in the teen years ahead.
You've heard it a million times — parents of older children dishing out the warning to parents of young kids, "Just wait until they're teens!!"
New parents look ahead with foreboding at what’s to come. Being warned that you "don’t want to go there" when there is nowhere else to go but there is a hard pill to swallow.
The trajectory of human development does not, after all, offer an 'opt out' or 'hold here' option at any given stage. We can't say, "I’ll take infancy and their adulthood, but skip the pesky toddler years and adolescence."
So, what then is a parent to do? Our adorable kids will turn into teenagers at some point.
Are teens-as-nightmares an inevitability? Or are horrific teens simply a by product of the parenting they receive (meaning how we raise our young children now shapes the teen they'll become)?
Teenagers, of course, have a reputation for being: unpredictable, impossible, irresponsible, moody, disrespectful, dramatic, entitled, and just plane difficult to be around.
Is this something that as parents we must grin-and-bare? Or, as experts like Julie Lythcott-Haims suggest: Is it possible that the contemporary culture of parenting (where irresponsible and disrespectful behavior, as well as coddling and helicopter parenting, are the norm) has something to do with our experience of "adolescence-as-nightmare?"
Adolescence in America is different from adolescence in other parts of the world.
Children in many other cultures take on large amounts of responsibility by the age of 14, or even much earlier.
In America, on the other hand, a significant portion of teenagers, and even young adults, still rely heavily on their parents for their basic needs. American teens are generally less independent than their same-age peers who are growing up in cultures where high expectations are present from early childhood.
According to Laurence Steinberg, author of Age of Opportunity, "American teens are miserable … They fare poorly in almost every measure compared to teens in other developed countries, even though the biological and neurological processes of development in adolescence are the same the world over."
While research suggests that the human brain develops according to certain patterns — culture, environment, and how we parent all impact the onset of when certain phases of development occur.
For example, young adults growing up in cultures that emphasize interdependence and interconnectedness tend to develop a capacity to imagine things from another person's perspective at an earlier age than their same age peers who grow up in cultures that emphasizes independence and focus on the individual.
If we want cooperative, thoughtful, and engaged teens, maybe we need to get busy implementing parenting practices during the early years that supports them to developing these very characteristics.
So, if you want to avoid a "terrible teen," here are five things you must teach your younger child NOW:
Teaching children to take on increasing amounts of age-appropriate responsibility pays off later in life. When children take on a role in contributing to the family, they tend to have higher self-esteem and are less likely to act out during adolescence.
In Montessori preschools, for example, children are taught to engage in "exercises of practical life" which foster a sense of competence, autonomy, independence and being part of a community. Children learn from an early age that their actions are important, valued, and that working together and contributing to the greater good is expected of everyone.
So, if we want our children at age 16 to consistently help around the house, then we need to set the stage early. Most 3-year-olds can help set the table, clean up their toys, or put their clothes in the hamper.
Many parents feel it's just easier to do the task themselves, rather than rely on their children who are slow and/or easily distracted. But if what we teach our children now impacts who they are in five to 10 years, clearly it's worth the extra time (and patience) needed to let them muddle through until they improve at completing the task.
2. How to express difficult emotions respectfully
Today’s parenting culture encourages children to express their feelings. Teaching children how to behave and communicate respectfully is an important skill. And it is absolutely one children are capable of learning early on. If we consistently teach this lesson and reinforce it frequently, it becomes part of the fabric of who our children are.
It's also imperative that we, the adults, model the respectful communication of difficult emotions, including our own frustration and anger.
Offering children alternative ways to express their frustration, (for example: "I feel really angry when I don’t get to go to the park when I want to," versus, "I hate you, you are the worst mommy ever!") is a concrete way we can help them develop effective AND respectful communication skills.
Teaching children to "use their words" rather than expressing their frustration through behavior is important.
It's our job to help them to understand that everyone has a right to have their needs considered, and that frustration is an experience we all must learn to live with. Teaching this lesson early can help reduce the amount of hours spent arguing when children believe that only their needs matter, and/or their needs should take priority over everyone else’s.
3. Stress management and frustration tolerance
The limbic system, sometimes referred to as "the emotional brain," is the part of our brain that is responsible for emotion regulation. When we feel ourselves in danger, whether physical or emotional, the limbic system activates, preparing us to fight or flee.
The limbic system is responsible, in large part, for the survival of our species. That said — not being allowed to attend a birthday party is not the same "threat" level as being attacked by a tiger (even though, initially, the same fight or flight primal response gets triggered). As such, learning to regulate emotions, maintain perspective, and calm ourselves down are important skills that help children (and adults) feel more in control.
Emotion regulation also helps us gain greater access to our thinking brain. The thinking brain generally shuts down when the emotional brain is highly activated. So teaching young children how to self-sooth and how to identify signs of stress are important.
Even a 4-year-olds can learn to pay attention to the physical signals of stress by teaching them to pay attention to their breath, to take some quite time, and to engage in a "dialing-down-activity" when they are feeling hyped up.
4. The value of hard work and patience
In today’s instant gratification culture, hard work is not always recognized as something of value, yet it is essential for success in adulthood. The ability to apply steady effort toward completing a task (whether the task is "fun" or not) is a vital requirement for most modern workplaces. By disciplining ourselves to follow through, we learn that hard work can lead to mastery and that mastery is deeply satisfying. Our kids gain confidence as they push through resistance and face challenges.
In the famous Marshmallow Experiment, young children were offered the choice of one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows later. Children able to delay their gratification and tolerate the frustration were more successful later in life than their immediate-gratification-seeking counterparts.
5. That you'll always be there for them
True, this isn't a "skill," per se. But a strong relationship with your child sets the foundation for them feeling safe to lean into learning the skills outlined above ... and for them to remain connected to you as they explore alternative identities during adolescence later on.
According to the research of Alan Booth, parents have a significant impact on the developing brain of their children. In evaluating the differences between adolescents who had a close relationship to their parents and those who did not, Booth found that adolescents who are prone to high-risk behavior are significantly less likely to engage in it if they have a strong relationship with their parents.
How challenging your child's teenage years are depends largely upon whether you support then in mastering core life skills earlier in life.
Teaching them the importance of hard work, patience, respectful communication, emotion regulation, and contributing to the greater good, will likely result in teens who are more responsible, have higher self-esteem, and engage in less self-destructive behavior.
If we don’t want our children to become self-centered, entitled, risk-seeking ne’er-do-wells ... than we better get busy parenting them well now.
Ten years from now, when you run into one of those parents who dished out the warning "just wait until they are teens," you can smile and say, "I have no idea what you were talking about."