Learning to Shift Your Parenting Style

Do you allow your teenager to make mistakes? Or do you protect him from that? Think about it — if you hadn’t learned from your own mistakes, how would you know what it means to make one? And if you prevent your teen from making mistakes, how else will he grow into maturity? By lecturing him? By rescuing him every time? Based on what I’ve learned from 30 years of working with troubled teens, that mode of parenting simply isn’t helpful to children in their teenage years.

As Children Enter Adolescence, Parents Need to Shift Gears — from Lecturing and Protecting to Mentoring and Coaching.

Perhaps you recall the Biosphere II experiment 20 or so years ago? Several scientists were sealed in a huge glass bio-dome in the Ari-zona desert to see if life could be sustained in a similar facility in outer space. There was one unexpected result from that experiment. As trees were grown in this seemingly “perfect” environment, with sun and water and good soil, they all eventually died. You see, as trees normally grow in nature, winds continuously bend them back and forth, making microscopic tears in their bark. The tree responds by filling the tiny breaks with protective sap that hardens and forms a sturdy outer core, making the tree trunk strong enough to stand upright. So, without the buffeting of wind in the protected dome of Biosphere II, the trees there simply flopped over and broke after reaching a certain height.

I hope the analogy to parenting is obvious. Are you overly protective of a teenager in your own “dome”? Can you see how that could become detrimental, or at the very least not be very helpful to them, when in a few short years they will take on life all on their own?

After years of being in protector mode, we need to get out of the way and allow our children to gradually bend in the winds of life a lit-tle more. Through that gentle buffeting they’ll gain strength and wisdom to stand upright and flourish in their later years. Without it, they will simply fall over at some point.

The shift also encompasses moving from telling and providing to listening and guiding. In other words, avoid fixing everything for the little darlings but be there for them to cry on your shoulder when they make a mistake. Encourage them to make as many of their own decisions as possible, as long as they aren’t life threatening.

The teenager may not get it quite right at first but eventually, through natural consequences, they will learn to make better decisions. Begin early, and keep working at it. This is an ongoing process, and one you should consider a critical stepping-stone to maturity.

Parents of teenagers who really understand the “shifting gears” principle become really good coaches and listeners. They allow their children to learn from small mistakes along life’s road to prepare them to handle bigger decisions later on. They remain in the game, enforcing the boundaries without wavering, but they avoid anger when boundaries are broken. They allow consequences to speak for themselves, for it is through consequences that we all learn. And they express true empathy and inspirational support during their teen’s struggles, even when they make really stupid mistakes.

If you have a teenager in your home, perhaps it is time to shift your style of parenting. While it is hard to step back and watch as inevitable mistakes are made, it is essential for parents to allow the buffeting winds of life to blow. And give your teen some credit. You’ll be surprised how quickly he or she will mature once the training wheels are taken off and it is up to them to either steer straight, or crash. Like the beam on a child’s face after his first unassisted bike ride, your teen will grow in confidence and self-esteem with each new decision he makes.

Give it a shot. Stop teaching and start training. You’ve done a great job giving your child input throughout the years. Now, start helping your daughter apply those truths to her life. That usually doesn’t happen in one conversation; it happens with many conversations. And start the process of helping your son become independent and take control of his life. It’s what HE wants. And you know it’s what YOU want. There’s a difference between teaching and training. Which one are you spending most of your time doing with your teen?

Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston is the founder and executive director of Heartlight Ministries, a residential counseling facility for adolescents in crisis. He is also a popular radio host and speaker and leads parenting seminars across the country. He and his wife, Jan, have served families and counseled youth for more than 40 years. They have two grown children and four grandchildren.

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