For parents, an accepted truth is that one can only truly control what goes on at home. It is difficult, if not impossible, to mitigate what goes out beyond that front door. In these days of unprecedented times, it’s hard to even imagine what they are stepping out into. We can all agree that it is, to be blunt, a hot mess. There’s good reason the meme with the “This is fine” dog sitting in the burning building has gone viral. Caregivers are under particular pressure in this as they are trying to raise healthy children despite it all. This is especially poignant when parenting kids in their adolescent and teenage years. As one generation has been taught through popular song lyrics, the hits keep coming and they don’t stop coming. These kids are walking out the door into a storm of uncertainty. The harm being done to them is another subject entirely, but the devastation is already evident. So then it naturally raises the question, what can parents, and even adults in general, do to help reduce this mental and emotional harm?
In moments of need, it is often what is most familiar that is often the default. For adolescents and teens, there’s the laying down hard rules to be followed, curfews adhere to, and the always the looming, but never predictable, “because I said so” moment. See above though, and remember what these are different times. Yes, each generation of parents say this, but these days are objectively overwhelming and unrelenting.
From a mental health therapy standpoint, utilizing current successes and available resources is best practice. Deemed a strength-based approach this essentially takes what already works and builds upon it. So in the difficult years of parenting teens taking stock of what was helpful with little ones can be guide. Sort of a stick to the basis despite challenges such as the mood swings of puberty and diabolical influence of TikTok. The Gentle Parenting approach has been recently celebrated as groundbreaking for toddlers and young children develop a positive, collaborative connection. It fosters a dynamic in which a child can feel heard and respected, with empathy and understanding at the core. Also, it means setting realistic boundaries for behavior and importantly, adhering to them on both ends. The limitations established are beneficial, as kids grow up feeling safe within those boundaries. This also means not changing and shifting these behavior and consequence expectations without warning or as a sudden punishment. Just as with younger children, the establishing of what behavior incurs what consequence, and sticking to it, provides the safe consistency kids developmentally thrive within. For example, if not home by a certain time, they need to know what will happen if they don’t, i.e. they can’t go out the next day. Then if they do home late, missing the mark on that behavior expectation, then both parties have to follow on the agreed consequence.
But here’s the rub, the parent needs to put in the gentle parenting effort. This means asking about what happened in a way that can be difficult when essentially being mad at them. Hear their story with an open mind. Listen to their perspective. Provide empathy. Take it as an opportunity to learn and grow together rather than letting emotions take over. Maybe they got into a fight with a friend and need help but were too embarrassed to mention it, because they made an assumption about how you would react. You already told them a hundred times to block that person but turns out they didn’t, then got caught up in drama with them which painful mess that made them late, but they weren’t going to tell you any of it because they didn’t want to disappoint you. In this instance though, the parent asks gently and patiently in order to get to that truth, instead of making snap reaction about them being late. This open, non-judgmental space can be a learning process for everyone, often creating newly authentic, real conversations. They are moments that become the foundation for mutual respect and shared empathy.
That said, let’s be real here. All this effort is exhausting, draining, and can be defeating, as a dozen tries could only yield a few successes. The lack of acknowledgment can certainly be defeating, and can take anything from a deep breath to a count backwards from ten to gain patience in those moments. Be sure to celebrate each of those conversations for the incredible work they require. It could even be they go beyond gentle parenting, to kids relaying these values to their own social relationships or even the caregiver reflecting these ideals to their own struggles with mental and emotional wellness. Maybe a new parenting truth is that being gentle can often be the most powerful influence.