This piece originally appeared in the March 2018 ‘Feminism’ issue of Fernie Fix Magazine.

Last month’s column advised this is not the time for parents to check out even if we feel burned out, because teen years are often when the wheels fall off the wagon. Teenagers are still assembling a picture of the universe and they need our support. How can you be close with your teen who is building their independence? I will explain some options using a lens of equality to give examples.

Kids this age sometimes look like they don’t want us, with their privacy and eye-rolling, so parenting teenagers is best accomplished as a guide-on-the-side. Let your teen take the wheel but be a smart and attentive passenger.

In the passenger seat while your teen drives their life, you can be connected through proximity and a sense of sharing the journey. Teenagers need us close by and they need to feel like they are in control. This can simply look like hanging around, but I think of it as ‘on-call parenting’; your daughter or son might not seem to care if you’re in the house, but your presence will have a guiding and regulating effect that is exactly the task at hand in this phase of parenting.

The important things in their lives can be the toughest for us to be open about. Peer pressure, sex, drinking, bullying – teenagers are thinking about all of it. Some are even facing the realities of addiction, abuse, or death in their families. Teen minds are flexible and ready to grapple with the world around them as they figure out their place in it. If you can model integrity in your life choices it will give your teen courage as they navigate their own.

Be available to listen.

I remember one time my son exclaimed, “girls are so confusing!” As a female I might feel compelled to respond with, “no they aren’t!” or “boys can be confusing too,” but instead I asked, “You think so?” which led to him verbally unloading a bunch of tension he was carrying. As an interested ‘passenger’ I reflected his thoughts back to him like, “You’re trying hard to be a good friend,” or “relationships are a lot of work.” It’s not my job to fix anything. The number one protective factor for healthy teen development is the consistent presence of a caring adult.

Model life outside unconscious bias.

Don’t be afraid to confront stereotypes and call yourself out when necessary. Countless times I have asked myself, “would I talk to my son that way if he was my age?” As an adult I carry a lot of power, which is only problematic if it lies below my awareness. I realize that teens are often thought of as lazy or up to no good and I’m prepared to talk about these misconceptions.

Additionally, don’t be afraid to stretch yourself beyond gender norms. Some dads sing Taylor Swift karaoke with their teenage daughters. Some moms practice at the dirt jumps with the boys. Engaging with your child’s interests is a freeway to increased connection. Plus, some parts of our culture are framed around prejudice and power-imbalance; we can be the change we want for our kids.

Offer a thoughtful perspective.

I was at a male-dominated sports store where a teenager I’m close to was working. I commented how impressed I was with his knowledge and ease with the customers and he told me, “I know everyone who comes in here.” When two girls walked in I privately asked what their names were. He didn’t know. With a smile and a light tone of voice I said, “Oh – I guess you only know the names of the important customers.” He playfully poked my arm and replied, “Hey you said it, not me!” We both laughed. I used tools of appreciation, playfulness, and observation to connect with – and correct – a teenager I care about. These are some of the best tools we have.

Parenting expert Dr. Gordon Neufeld advises us to “connect before we correct.” If you lean too heavily on the ‘correct’ side of the equation your teenager will let you know with their anger, aloofness, or absence. Remember to let them drive, but stay awake during the ride.

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