Chapter 11 Parenting Teens and Young Adults

            Just when you think you have it all figured out and decide parenting isn’t so bad, your kids turn into teenagers.  Teenagers can be a real blessing and a joy, but sometimes it seems as if aliens have inhabited your child’s body.  He looks an awful lot like your little boy, but what is coming out of his mouth is nothing that your sweet little child would say to you.  Many people are scared and intimidated by teenagers.  They look so much older and mature than little children that adults often assume they are similar to adults.  Don’t let their outward appearance fool you.  Young teens are actually much more like little children than adults.  Their bodies have grown, but research has shown that the adult brain does not fully develop until the early to mid twenties.  That is not to say that you should treat your teens like little children.  Teenagers have unique wants, needs and problems that should be looked at in a whole new light.  But don’t forget everything you learned when parenting your young children.  Many of the same techniques will work with your teens.  Some may need some tweaking and some will need to be changed quite a bit.  But all that you have learned about child rearing and know about your child will help ease you into the teen years.

Reevaluate Rules and Guidelines

            Family rules and guidelines that were useful when your children were young may no longer be adequate as your children hit the teen years.  You should constantly be reevaluating and revamping your rules as needed.  However, when your children begin to leave childhood an entire overhaul of expectations may be necessary.  Your family should develop guidelines on ages that it is appropriate for children to begin to be more independent.  For instance, our children were allowed to go to the mall without a parent at 13 years old, participate in activities with boys and girls as a group at 14 and could date at the age of 16.  The age at which some activities were allowed depended on the activity, the circumstances and the maturity of the child involved. 

If your family develops clear guidelines then there are no arguments about when children can do what.  It also helps parents to make decisions on allowing an activity.  As parents it is difficult to watch our children grow away from us and mature.  Most parents have some feelings of dread of their children growing up and moving away.  Sometimes parents deal with these feelings by sabotaging their children’s attempts to grow away from their parents.  Often these attempts are not planned and many times they may not even be conscious attempts.  In our family we made a conscious attempt to help our children mature and move into adult life.  We required them to take on responsibilities for many things with adult guidance.  We also required them to learn skills that they would need such as driving a car, writing a check and organizing their time properly.  If your goal is to help your teen to mature into a responsible adult then all of these skills, and more, will be needed.

To become a responsible adult your teen also needs to be able to make some decisions on her own and to spend time away from the family.  Social activities are very important for teenagers.  These activities help teens learn social skills and to find their place in the world.  We live in a world with increasing dangers and pitfalls for young people, however their need for outside social experiences and autonomy is very real.  Help your child find safe and appropriate ways to detach from you and go out into the world.  Do know where your teen is at all times, but refrain from calling constantly to check on him or following him around.  Do check to be sure that activities that your teen is participating in are safe and wholesome, however refrain from saying no to an activity without a good reason.  Do make sure that activities are supervised by an adult, however refrain from hovering or acting like one of the kids if you are supervising.

Choices and Free Will

            All humans need to have choices in their life, and this is never more important than with teenagers.  One of the jobs of the teen years is to begin to separate from their parents.  Remember that your goal is to raise well adjusted adults, so when your teen rebels or begins to assert her independence it is really a good thing.  These are the first steps to becoming an independent adult.  Teens and young adults do need guidance and restrictions, however they also need to be able to make choices.

            One way to start to give your teen some choice in his life is to structure time schedules more loosely.  Instead of saying, “Your room must be clean right now,” tell your teen, “Your room must be clean before you go out with your friends, so when would be the best time for you to do it?”  Give your child a list of responsibilities and a time frame, and then trust her to complete them on time.  Make sure that consequences are built into the accomplishment of the tasks so that your child will be rewarded if the tasks are complete.  If your child can show you that he can be responsible then give him more freedom.  If your child fails to maintain their side of the bargain, pull back and give less freedom.  Make sure she understands the connection.

            Another way to give your child more control over his life is to listen to his suggestions and take them seriously.  If you have done a good job of raising your child he has learned many things by this time in his life.  If your teen has a new idea of how or when to do something you need to listen, and take it into consideration.  If you decided not to take the recommendation tell your teen the reasons.  Make sure he knows that you really did consider his idea and that you would appreciate that he continues to share it.

            You can also help your child feel more control over her life by releasing control over things that don’t matter.  Some parents want to continue to tell their children what to wear, what friends to have and what activities to participate in far into their teen years.  While it is important to continue to teach your child about proper and appropriate dress and behavior, it is also important to let your teen make their own choices as much as possible in these areas.  Pick your battles.  You may want to make sure that your daughter wears a really nice dress to aunt Bonnie’s wedding, however you may let her have more choices as to what to wear to school.  Let your child have safe rebellions.  Severe clothing and hair styles are one way that children signal to the world that they are separating from their parents.  If the styles do not violate your family ideals of modesty and safety, allow it when you can.  Do not take these rebellions personally.  Remember, this is a natural stage and the less you let it bother you the quicker it will blow over.

Personal Space and Sharing

            When our children are small we teach them to share.  Little children need little personal space and their understanding about personal belongings can be fleeting.  As children age their needs for personal property and space grow.  The need for kids to have their own personal space and property is greatest among teens.  Sometimes our family practices and expectations don’t grow with our children’s need for personal space and property.  And sometimes our teen’s expectations and demands for personal space and property grow beyond our families’ ability to provide them.  It can be difficult to juggle the needs of individual children and the needs of the entire family, however parents need to be aware that teens do need to have some personal space and personal property that they don’t have to share.

            Sometimes families need to be a bit creative to achieve personal space and property for their teens.  Ideally each teen would have his own room, however many times family situation makes this impossible.  Use furniture configuration and simple dividers to help kids have their own space.  Also, teach your younger children to respect the space and property of teens.  Sometimes relationships between teens and younger siblings become strained due to changes in the teen’s needs and personality.  Younger children will often deal with this strained relationship by teasing the older sibling or disrespecting their space or belongings.  Set firm guidelines to help your teen feel respected.  Teach your younger child to give their sibling some space and then give your younger child some extra attention.


            I have one tip for parents of teens about lying.  Don’t ever say, “My child would never lie to me!”  Given the right situation nearly all kids will lie.  Sometimes we push our kids into lying.  When you walk into a room and see something broken and a guilty looking child do you ask, “Did you do that?”  That question pushes everyone into survival mode and the usual answer becomes, “No!”  A better question would be, “Tell me what happened here.”  No child is perfect, so expect that your child will make mistakes.  Everyone wants to protect themselves, so sometimes lying is a natural reaction.  No stage is more fraught with mistakes or self-protecting behaviors than the teen years.  There will be times that you must confront your child with a possible wrong that he has done, however do be careful not to push your child into lying.  Use the tips below to avoid this.

  • Keep your cool- As tough as it may be, it is very important not to get emotionally charged over a bad situation.  This is never so important as it is with teens.  Sometimes teens do unacceptable things just to get a rise out of their parents, so keeping calm helps avoid reinforcing poor behavior in your child.  You will also be better able to deal with the situation in a positive manner if you remain calm.
  • Assume the worse, but leave the option of the best open– If you come upon a situation where your child appears guilty, assume he is, but keep an open mind.  Comments such as, “Tell me what happened,” or “This looks pretty bad for you,” give the child the opportunity to tell what happened in a non-threatening way.
  • Don’t accuse, but teach– Sometimes it is impossible to tell who is lying and who is not.  This is particularly true when dealing with more than one child.  I find in these situations it is best not to accuse anyone of anything, but to use the situation as a teaching moment.  A sample conversation would go something like this:

Sue:     “Bobby called me a dummy!”

Bobby: “I did not!”

Mom:  “Bobby, what is the rule about calling someone a name?”

Bobby: “I didn’t call her a name!”

Mom:  “I didn’t ask if you called her a name.  I asked you to tell me the rule about calling someone names.  Can you tell me the rule?”

Bobby: “We are not allowed to call people names.”

Mom:  “Bobby, can you make sure that you don’t call Sue names?”

Bobby” “Okay.”

Mom:  “Sue, Bobby is going to be careful to remember the rule.

      In this scenario Mom assumes that Bobby did call Sue a name, however she never accuses, asks him to explain himself or reprimands him.  Mom simply checks with Bobby to be sure that he understands the rule and that he will be careful to follow it.  Bobby has been given a lesson on the rule and he is clear that Mom knows that he may very well have called the name, however he has not been asked to defend his actions so there was no need to lie.  The other plus to the way Mom handled this situation is that it is a positive situation for Sue.  If Mom believes Sue over Bobby it gives her power over her brother.  This may lead Sue to tattle on Bobby continually if he bugs her to keep her powerful position.  If Mom believes Bobby and not Sue no one is taught better behavior, and Sue feels mistrusted by Mom.

  • Give think time and leave a “Way Out”– Sometimes kids will tell a lie and then later decide to tell the truth.  Sometimes parental comments make this very difficult.  This is especially true if others are involved.  I can’t tell you how many times, as a teacher, I have seen a parent stand up for their child, only to find out later that the child was lying.  If you unequivocally believe and stand up for your child it can make it very difficult for the child to tell you later on that he was lying.  This is a very difficult situation because you do want to stand up for your child if he has been wronged, however you must be sure you have the facts before you pursue it.  If the facts do not seem to align with your child’s story don’t tell your child that you think he is lying, however leave a way out.  Investigate all of the facts fully before going after someone who you think may have wronged your child, and then give your child a chance to recant their story.  Tell your child that something doesn’t seem right about the story, and that if he changes his mind about what happened to let you know.  Make sure the child knows that it is okay to change the story and that you will understand.  Also, be sure to tell your child that you will be going after the perpetrator if your child was truly wronged.  Sometimes kids think they will just tell a lie to get their parents off their back, and the parents take it to a level that the child did not expect.  If your child knows your next step he can make an informed decision and you are more likely to get the full story.

Another thing to remember is that we all have clearer heads after we have had time to think things through.  Sometimes the best approach is to tell your child that you both need a few minutes before you talk about a situation.  Sometimes this method works well if you suspect that your child is lying.  Tell her that you are having trouble believing her under the circumstances.  Tell her that you both need a few minutes to think through this before you finish the conversation.

18 years and Up

            Legally your child becomes an adult at 18 years, however anyone who has ever been the parent of an 18 year old can tell you that most are not ready to take on all controls of their life at this age.  Add to this situation the complexity and expense of living in our society and you will realize you will not be finished raising your children when they turn 18.  Of course at 18 many of the ground rules change.  At 18 you are no longer required to provide support for your young adult, however he is no longer required to obey you.  The best way to deal with this situation is to be clear with your young adult as to what the new guidelines will be.  It is a good idea to begin to lay the groundwork for this early on.  During the junior and senior years of high school most teens are looking at plans for jobs, advanced training and college.  This is a good opportunity for you to make clear to your child what your expectations will be for her after graduation.  Do you expect her to attend college or is a trade school acceptable?  What about a job?  Will your child need to work when he hits young adult age or will you cover all expenses?  Under what circumstances will your child be able to remain living at home, and if he does remain at home what will be your expectations?

            Most of your early plans for your child’s young adult years will be a work in progress and some things can be negotiated as time goes on, so try not to be too stern about things you are unsure about.  Do, however, start early to lay the ground work for what the essential tasks will be for your child as a young adult.  Also, don’t negotiate on family values.  Make it clear to your child that continued support is contingent on your young adult following whatever family values you have previously instilled in your child.  Remember that legally you have no more responsibility to support your over 18 offspring.  If your young adult really wants your financial support she will comply, as long as you are clear early on as to what the guidelines are. 

In our family we have had extensive experience dealing with children as young adults.  We live in an area with many outstanding and affordable community and state colleges close by.  This has made it possible for us to support our kids in college as long as they live at home.  Through this process we have learned many things to make this relationship work.  Look at the list below before your child hits the young adult years.  Talk with your spouse about what your ideals, expectations and available resources are, and come to a consensus.  Then present your plan to your teen so that he can begin to plan for the young adult years.

  • Decide what is important and necessary- Just as you decide what is important for your little children, you should also decide what is important for your young adults.  If it is important for your children to attend and graduate from college, you should provide assistance and guidelines that encourage this.  In our family we felt it important for our kids to attend and graduate from college.  However, we found it necessary to set some limits on how and when we would pay college expenses.  We told our children that we would pay for tuition and books as long as they lived at home.  We would do what we could to help with college expenses should they want to attend a college not in our area, however additional financial assistance may be necessary.  When our kids transferred from community college to the state university we were no longer able to pay cash for tuition.  We found it necessary to ask our kids to take out a student loan, then we promised to repay it to the fullest extent that we were able.  Don’t feel bad if you cannot finance your child’s college expenses.  Financial assistance and student loans are always available for college students and your student will be able to repay loans at a low interest rate once his career is established.  Sometimes just the help of having a place to live rent free is enough to help a young adult choose college.  If you are paying for college or room and board don’t be afraid to set limits on what schools or types of schools you will pay for or support.  As long as you are footing the bill you have a right to set limits on what you will be willing to pay for.  You can also set other guidelines or limits on grades or other achievement measures.  In our family we agree only to pay for passed classes.  Some parents set the bar higher on this, but we try to be realistic and leave room for some mistakes.  My feeling is that as long as my kids are getting credit I am willing to pay.  Do ask to see a report card at the end of the term.  You will not be sent a report as you were when your child was in public school, even if you are paying for it.  Make it your young adult’s responsibility to give you a copy in exchange for continued support.

If you find it important or necessary for your kids to hold a job, don’t hand out cash freely to your young adults.  Room and board for your college student can be very reasonable if they live at home, however money for clothes, fast food, insurance and other personal wants and needs can be very expensive.  The reality is that young adults who learn to work for their own extras learn to be more appreciative and have a much better work ethic.  They are also often better students because they learn to really budget their time and money and tend to use them better.

If you find it important or necessary to charge your young adult rent make the guidelines clear early on, and be sure it is affordable.  In our home full time students are afforded free room and board.  Less than full time college admission would incur a rent charge.  So far all of our children have chosen to remain full time college students.   I am sure that this has been one of the contributing reasons.  Some families have a financial need for their kids to help with the expenses.  If this is true for you make this clear to your young adult and explain the reasons.  Also, spell out what their portion of rent pays for and what things are not included.

If it is important or necessary for your young adult to help around the house make this a part of the agreement.  Make sure your young adults understand that your home is not a luxury hotel with maid service.  If she had her own dorm or apartment she would be responsible for upkeep of the entire place, so you are not asking for anything unacceptable for an adult.  You will probably need to be a bit more flexible with job assignments and time frames with you young adult than you were with your child.  Give her more say in which jobs to do and give a large time frame in which to complete them.  In our family young adults are responsible for keeping up their own rooms and doing their own laundry.  They also have two jobs to do a week that benefit the entire family and we occasionally require ½ hour of work in the yard per week.

  • Assist with early plans for adult readiness- If you will be requiring your young adult to attend college or obtain a job you will need to do some work during the teen years to help him be ready for this.  Start early by helping your teen look at acceptable colleges and their entrance requirements.  Also, look at expenses and make sure she understands what will and will not work for your family finances.  Help your child look at possible jobs for an inexperienced teen and give him tips on how to apply and interview and what to wear.  Help your teen look at transportation options and choose one that will work for your family.
  • Ease into the young adult years- There is usually no clear cut time as to when this period of a child’s life begins.   Some feel adulthood officially begins at 18 years, others look toward high school graduation and still others look at beginning college or financial independence.  Except for financial independence, most of these milestones usually occur within a few months of each other, so a slow transition into the rules your family adopts for young adults works best.
  • Write a contract- Our family found that this is a good time to write up a new Parent Child Contract (although one of our kids insisted on crossing out the word Child and replacing it with Adult).  The contract (Appendix H) worked well in the same form (with the possible exception of replacing the word Child), but filling it out was quite different.  The list of privileges was quite different for a young adult than for a child.  For a child privileges included such things as TV, computer and playing with friends.  Young adults who live in your home should have free access to household amenities, and you really have no control over their friends.  The list of privileges for a young adult for our family included such items as free room and board, tuition and payment for books.  Responsibilities for a young adult are also quite different.  They tend to be more general, like complete all household tasks as expected, and young adults should be held to a higher level of expectations.  Make sure you cover things such as chores around the house, financial expectations, curfews and communication about their whereabouts and grades and school attendance.
  • Consequences- There must be consequences for your young adult violating the contract or the contract is useless.  Obviously you can’t ground your adult-aged child, however you can take away privileges that you provide.  This can include car privileges, cell phone or spending money.  Of course if your young adult has purchased his own car or cell phone you do not have this leverage, and taking away a mode of transportation poses other problems.  Some families have found that assigning extra chores or fining their young adults can be effective, but I always found it difficult to collect on these consequences. 

One thing you should not do is constantly threaten to throw the kid out.  It is a pretty drastic step to make a young adult move out just for leaving his socks on the floor, so once you calm down you will probably not follow through on your threat.  Be sure not to get mad, but do get busy.  Get busy to come up with a way to show your displeasure without a drastic threat.  Our family found that this turned out to be a good time to pull out the trusty Strike Chart (Appendix G) again.  In the past, 5 strikes equaled 1 privilege lost, however with our young adults most of the privileges were really a package deal.  We provided room, board, tuition and books in exchange for following family rules, performing a few jobs and staying in school full time.  We determined that 5 strikes would necessitate moving out of the home and providing their own support.  Because the consequence was more dire, strikes were awarded for larger infractions than before.  Strikes could be earned back, as before, however the jobs would be more difficult and more time consuming.  Generally, a job would be assigned for each strike, not for each privilege as before.  If a young adult did earn 5 strikes he was given a time period in which to either correct the infraction and earn all strikes back or make arrangements to live elsewhere.

If you’re young adult does make the choice to move out, accept it, and help him make arrangement.  Many times young adults make this choice only to learn that it is a lot more difficult to make it on his own than he expected.  If you maintain a good relationship with your child he is more likely to come to you if going it on his own doesn’t work out.  And if he does want to move back in, consider it carefully, and draw up a new contract with clear terms. 

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