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Parenting in the Third Plane

January 11, 2019

 

The stereotypes about teenagers abound: the eye rolling, the cliques, talking-back, faces in their phones. If you only believed what you saw in the media, you might think teenagers were universally unruly, antisocial, disrespectful and surly. 

 

Yeah, sometimes. 

 

But they're just as often, and often more often, kind and compassionate, engaged and idealistic, hopeful to change the world and certain that they can be the ones to do so. They have enough knowledge of the world to notice its failures and enough confidence to believe they can make it better. 

 

Parenting in the Third Plane is a roller coaster. Your children will challenge your patience, challenge your authority, challenge your taste in clothing. They'll have lots of opinions, and they'll want to make sure you hear them all. There will be times when you can't get an word in edgewise, and times when you're talking to the top of your child's head as they refine their ability to ignore you completely. But there will also be times when they remind you how young they still are, how easily hurt their hearts are, and how dearly, if rarely mentioned, they still want your approval and cherish your love. They will struggle with injustices you've long ago grown numb to. They will experience deep sadness that breaks your heart, enthusiasm that you wish you'd never lost, and a wonder in the world that makes you know, one moment at a time, that they really are going to change the world. They will anger you and humble you, inspire you and make you want to pull your hair out. 

 

Patience. This, too, shall pass. Know, in the meantime, that your child's struggles are essential to their creation of themselves as adults. While they may not yet demonstrate the ability to self-regulate the chaos of their own development, they are testing their own limits, testing their separateness from you and challenging the norms of a world they've inherited and want to improve. In the same way that you knew to be patient with them as toddlers, waiting it out when hungry or exhaustion or frustration led them to tantrums, likewise, your job is still to walk with them through the challenges of their own growth, without condemnation or punishment. You cannot rush this stage of development any more than you could rush their infancy. But you can honor it, acknowledging with them when the world is a hard place and celebrating their efforts to make it better. 

 

Maybe it's because they're almost our height, or maybe it's because they're verbal, or maybe it's because of our own fears of losing the implicit authority that comes with being the adult in the house, but we're rarely as forgiving of our teenagers as we were when they were younger. We rarely find their misbehavior endearing anymore. We are sometimes more comfortable raising our voices or asserting our authority in arbitrary ways,  tossing out"because I said so," and "as long as you live in this house..." and feeding adversity toward our children instead of reminding them we're always on their team. 

 

If you're wondering who snuck in and took the place of the well-behaved kid who loved to hang with you, there's an easy way to find out: ask. Parenting adolescents can try your patience, and it can certainly challenge your authority. But remember: your goal is not to raise children who become obedient, unthinking adults. Your goal is to raise fully-actualized adults who know how to discern good from bad, who see themselves as useful contributors and who influence the world for the better. You're not going to get them there by shutting them down in the meantime. Instead, this is a time to ask your child endless open-ended questions. "You seem really angry. Can you tell more more about that?" "This feels important to you. What do you think needs to happen to make it better?" "I miss spending time with our whole family. Can you suggest some things we might do together?" 

 

This is not to say that you abdicate all parenting responsibility to your teenager. They don't want it and they're not ready for it. But they do want to know they've been heard. They want to know their opinions, separate from yours, matter. While a toddler may have a tantrum because he's hungry for food, a teenager will have a tantrum because she's hungry for agency. They want both to influence their world, and to feel safe to take the risks that that influence requires. Yelling at them all the time doesn't move them closer to either goal. Look for the ways you can offer them influence. Look for the ways you can validate the things they're frustrated by, and help them to brainstorm the ways in which they can get involved. Avoid talking over them. Avoid telling them why their ideas won't work. Instead, treat them like you'd treat an old friend: with candor, but respect. Avoid bulldozing their ideas, and hone your ability to ask the right questions. "What might happen if your plan goes wrong? Let's think through some other stakeholders' perspectives on this. What do you think they're feeling?" 

 

Remember: even when they appear to have completely disregarded you, your children are still watching. They want to know whether you think they're capable, functional contributors. They want to know whether you trust them. When they are internally confident that they have agency and the faith of the people they love, they won't demand as much external noise. When they feel safe, emotionally, intellectually, socially and physically, they won't behave as often like they're unsteady swimmers flailing for attention. Give them your eye contact, your undivided attention, and your thoughtful responsiveness. Continue to treat them like the people you hope they'll become, and you'll help to clear their path for them in the meantime. 

 

 

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