Once again I am writing about a terrible tragedy. Fifteen dead children. Fifteen lives ended prematurely and violently. An entire community that will not recover for generations. An entire nation searching for answers that aren’t really there. Acts of violence have always been a part of human nature and will continue unless we become some sci-fi world with better living through chemistry and genetic manipulation. Sure there are general reasons the experts will point to such as alienation, access to guns, too much exposure to violence, a society whose leaders lack values, and families who are disconnected from community. But the reality is that the great majority of teenagers are growing up in this environment and not killing anyone. That doesn’t mean we should ignore steps to reduce the negative influences on their lives and ours. It does mean that no matter what we do, there will always be tragedies. We simply do not have that much control over another person’s life. That is a frightening reality for most parents to accept.
But this doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t be doing things that make it more likely that their children would turn out okay. Inside each home there are parents asking if their son or daughter could be in trouble and the parents might not know it. Or, even scarier, there are parents who see their children struggling and feel powerless to help. What do we know that will help? Well the research points to the same issue nearly every time: children who have stronger relationships with their parents are less likely to end up in SERIOUS trouble. My emphasis on “serious” is because too often parents are upset about issues that are not life threatening or life-determining. Clean rooms, grades and homework, being disorganized, being impulsive and screwing up, foul language, a few extra holes in an ear, some grungy friends, some broken curfews, or the protective or manipulative “lies” that children use to try to get away with things – all normal adolescent behaviors that do not alone signify a child “going down the tubes.”
Adolescence is a time for many teens to experience disconnection and disorientation, to become confused and uncertain about their values or about their capacity for success. It is a time to be scared about changing bodies and changing friends and experiencing failures when success may have usually come easily. It is a time to defy and distrust authority. It is a time, especially in with the phenomenon of the Internet, when teens’ worlds expand exponentially and it is quite a challenge for them to digest and manage all to which they are exposed.
Parents often respond to this by waging battles for control. While it is essential to have some unequivocal rules that involve health and safety and to seek help from others if there are signs of more serious trouble (e.g., depression, explosive outbursts, eating disorders, substance abuse, marked change in personality), it is particularly important to focus less on content and more on process. What does this mean? Simply, that nothing is a substitute for maintaining the connection between you and your teenager. Time must be found for one-to-one interactions. Parents must be ready to give their attention when a teenager is suddenly ready to talk. Parents need to spend some time inside the world of their teenager and try to do so without being too judgmental. Do errands and chores together. Find an activity that can be shared. Take a teenage child out to dinner occasionally. A parent whose work involves travel can bring along a teenage child and turn it into a significantly valuable time together. Know each other!
Remember that you most likely did some things wrong along the way. It can be helpful to share that. Why should your child be open with you if there is not some reciprocity? That includes sharing some of your current anxieties or mistakes. We all mess up. We all have our vulnerabilities. We all seek safety and security. In that way, you and your teen have much in common. The key difference is that a teen’s life has few real choices and does not have a valued place in our society. We ask them to be responsible but there is little immediate reinforcement for that except to keep the adults from being angry and disappointed with them. Believe in your child, even when he or she is struggling, or simply not meeting your expectations.
For some parents, there is the harsh reality that, despite doing a good job, their child is having significant problems, and the parents are being shut out while nothing seems to be helping. This is definitely painful and scary. Even with professional help and support from school staff, some child will fall into a “black hole”, influenced by biology, peers, and social forces. This underscores another reality about the tragedies that have been taking place. All the perpetrators have been male. Our society gives out powerful messages that are absorbed by our children. What girls hear and respond to leads them to turn against themselves, especially in the form of eating disorders (and a skyrocketing rate of smoking). What boys hear and respond to leads them to turn against others, in acts of verbal and physical abuse. In the face of all this, parents are worried, possibly more than ever, about the health and success of their children.
But I must return to my primary message of urging parents to have a more optimistic outlook and to not let their anxiety sabotage what is most important, the relationship each parent has with each child. A friend and colleague, Bob Brooks, often speaks about the resiliency of children and what contributes to it. The research clearly indicates that the presence of a “charismatic adult” is one of the primary predictors of turning out okay. So often I read the stories of successful adults who grew up under terrible circumstances and there is always reference to a parent, relative, teacher, or coach who believed in them and provided guidance and an available ear when needed. Dr. Brooks often ends his presentations by challenging parents to be that charismatic adult in the lives of their children. It is no guarantee that everything will turn out all right. Nothing can do that. But it does make it much more likely that you will end up with an adult child who is not only doing well but is also your friend.