Your teenager asks you:
Can I go for this party?
Can I have a new phone?
Can I streak my hair? Or shave my head?
Can I go for a late-night movie show?
I like that girl. Can I call her home?
As a parent of a teenager, when faced with such questions, the first word that pops out of my mouth is ‘No’. I am so full of fears.
If she goes for that party who knows what is happening there? They may be having alcohol.
If I keep giving in to his demands for new gadgets he doesn’t understand the value of money
Streaking her hair. What's wrong with her? What will other people say about my child?
Night show… My mother in law will say I have no control over my children.
Boyfriend/ girlfriend… This is not the age for all this. It will harm their studies.
When I observe these thoughts, I realize that most of my decisions are coming from a place of fear and societal conditioning rather than being open to the needs of my child. And with every blanket ‘No’ I say, I have pushed my child further away. She feels she is neither heard nor understood. She slams her door, goes into her room and says, “You are the worst parent in the world”. I start wondering what I should be doing differently. I go back to what I have learnt about my teenager and her brain.
What is happening with my teenager?
According to neuroscientists, this is the age when their brain is propelling them to separate from the parent and learn to survive on their own. In this process, survival means depending more and more on their peer group. It's like an animal facing death in the wild because he has been separated from his pack. There is a similar process happening for humans too. According to Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, for adolescents having that new phone, going to that party or streaking their hair FEELS like a matter of life or death. They are overcome by emotions which tell them that if they do not fit into the “pack” their survival is at stake. Along with this they have entered puberty where sexual attraction is most natural. Telling them they “cannot feel attraction” goes against their own reality.
Moving from ‘No’ to ‘Why’
Knowing more about the teenage brain and body has helped me move away from quickly saying ‘No’ and starting each conversation with curiosity. Why is this so important to my child? So, I try to begin with statements like; “Looks like you are really keen on having this particular phone? Tell me more”, “You really want to go for this movie with your friends? Why?”, “Wondering why you want to streak your hair?”
These conversations convey to the child that I am genuinely interested in understanding her point of view. And then we can have discussions in which I too can present my views and concerns. I do realize that each child and family is different and we all come from varied family values and culture. It is not possible for anyone to arrive at a list of what we should or shouldn't allow our teenagers to do. What is acceptable to one family may not be so for another.
I found value in pushing my own boundaries of thought and asking myself “Why not?”. A parent from a conservative family recently shared with me how she said ‘Yes’ to her daughter who was very keen on shaving her head. She even went along to the parlour and it was great bonding moment. She said if this mattered so much to the child and it was not harming her in any way then “Why not”.
Listening to her story made me realize how when we convert these ‘Nos’ into ‘Why nots’ we actually grab an amazing opportunity to connect with our children. And there will be times when we need to set limits when we believe it will harm their safety and wellbeing. During those times both we and our teens will know that this ‘No’ is not coming from unfounded fears but from genuine concerns for their safety and wellbeing.
Author: Kesang Menezes is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families.