Challenges of helping an independence-craving teenager

July 21 | Guest post by Victoria Brooke Rodrigues

Ariel's post on rebelling against liberal parents had me reminiscing over the last year, in which our household has been the on again, off again home to our seventeen year old niece. This was an interesting experience to me as a mother because it was a peek into the parenting future.

Teenage Fashion 2009
Teens at London's South Bank. Photo by Flickr user Garry Knight, used by Creative Commons license.

I often noticed the similarities between having a three year old and a teenager. Both are primarily concerned for themselves. Both are struggling with the need to distance themselves from you and anyone else perceived as taking care of them. Both are expensive (preschool + senior year of high school–now I am seeing the lifetime investment of a kid.) Neither wants to hear that you know better: whether it is sticking a finger in a light socket or skipping the SATs, they want to test the results themselves.

The big difference for us is that the stakes are so high with a teenager, and finding a balance of freedom and guidance can be nearly impossible. Sex, drug use and failing school were themes we were dealing with, and our niece ended up with many a strike in each category.

Our niece, in particular, was floundering in an effort to distance herself from her family. We wanted to help, but how? I saw over and over our niece's act of rebellion: it was to fail at what people wanted most for her, or what people tried hardest to help with. I don't know if she thought achievement would be some kind of umbilical cord to the people who helped, but it put us in a tough spot. What do you do for the kid who doesn't want you to do anything but give them a shower, some food, and some distance?

Being aunt and uncle removed us from any kind of "I am your parent" authority, which was a blessing, because it dictated the path for us: helping our niece in any way we could, and asking for her respect and cooperation in return. She knew that new tattoos and piercings couldn't faze us, but skipping classes or not turning in work on which we'd helped her would hurt us. That was as much as we could offer in the way of discipline to a girl who changed homes and families whenever she was turned off by one. She was going to be eighteen within months, and it seemed like it was sink or swim time, time for her to try out that independence she was craving. We would help, but we wouldn't force.

Sometimes I wonder if we chose wrong, and how we will deal our kids' teenage years and push for independence. Our niece didn't end up graduating high school, even though my husband stayed up night after night trying to help her with assignments and studies. She left us with little thanks.

She moved in with her boyfriend as soon as she turned eighteen and we haven't seen much of her since. I don't know if she will get her GED and continue with school, if she would let her own interests lead her life or or if she will live it for her boyfriend (as so many teenage girls do), or if she will be pregnant any day now.

Were we enablers? Would trying to rein her in have helped her or caused her to leave our home sooner? These are questions I will be hashing over for the 10 years until my son hits teen-agery.

And how about this: Were we wrong to spend so much time, money and effort when we were guaranteed so little in return? Is that the foolery of two young parents still entrenched in the years you absolutely cannot expect much from your children, or is that the fact of parenting at any age?

I am coming to believe the latter: as mothers, we will always be there for the kids we love, no matter what, and we can't look for any specific result from that. We have to do it out of pure love and dedication. We could be sorely disappointed waiting for our kids to pay us back with admiration and achievements in kind to our efforts. But if we do it all out of love, any kind of return is just a cherry on top.

It doesn't matter if your kid is three, seventeen or thirty-five: you will always try to help them, and they may or may not understand or appreciate it. It's not that I think parents should be doormats, but that parenting cannot be an investment in specific outcomes. In fact, according to studies on the happiness of parents, such expectations and investments are often the specific and unnecessary root of parental unhappiness and stress.

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  1. I think you did the right thing. I beleive parents have to give the young (their own kids and others') the tools and support they can, but in the end kids have to find their own path.

  2. OH, my goodness. I'm in this exact situation right now with a young person in crisis who is staying with us. This is us right now

    "Were we enablers? Would trying to rein her in have helped her or caused her to leave our home sooner? Were we wrong to spend so much time, money and effort when we were guaranteed so little in return?"

    I needed this today. Thank you.

  3. Wow. The story of your niece is absolutely identical to mine in so many ways. Our niece moved in with her boyfriend while still 17 and in high school (with her mother's permission). Thankfully she did graduate (huge sigh of relief from everyone). What's next is a bit unknown.

    We weren't as close to the situation since she never lived with us (we're pretty much the only relatives that she didn't move in with at some point). I think that of anyone she was most worried about disappointing my husband if she hadn't graduated. He was there for her a lot when she was little (more than her dad ever was).

    At this point, its the same as your niece- as much as we love her, she will be going her own way with life now, wherever that might be. I can only hope that she will be happy and comfortable in her own skin in her life. It is hard but your post absolutely hit the nail on the head- your own expectations as a parent/caring adult can't dictate the path of any child. I definitely have a lot to think about with our little one too.

  4. I somewhat believe that the urge to succeed is as much about nature as it is nurture, if not more so. My sister and I are a good example of what I mean. The entire time I was in grade school I have a ridiculous drive to be "the best" in school. I don't really remember my parents telling me I needed to do this but I did anyway. I craved that A or a teacher fawning over a project I did. My sister, on the other hand, came alarmingly close to never finishing school, dropped out of college, and struggles with financial debt from irresponsible choices she's made.

    I've always wondered how we turned out so differently when we had the same upbringing.

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    • K.K., I don't think this is at all unusual. My sister and I are the same way. I was always the academic "good girl" while Sis was a jock and a bit of a rebel. I've read that researchers have found that this sort of polarization between siblings is very common and has to do attempts by both kids to carve out a unique identity that is separate from anyone else in their family.

  5. I always say that having a three-year-old prepares you for the teen years. I feel I'm well equipped to handle any temper tantrum, name-calling, and bad-parenting accusations my son can throw at me!

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  6. thank you for this. I am a new mother (Ev is 6 weeks old) and the last 2 paragraphs of your story resonated with me so much. I just went back to work and it's so stressful for me right now, especially when I get home and she cries all night til midnight. I just needed to be reminded that I'm doing all the work I'm doing now out of love and not for a return from her. Thank you. Also, I think someday eventually people understand and appreciate what their parents and mentors did for them. My realization came when I got pregnant myself and finally understood the way my mother truly must have cared for me. Amazing.

  7. "We could be sorely disappointed waiting for our kids to pay us back with admiration and achievements in kind to our efforts. But if we do it all out of love, any kind of return is just a cherry on top."

    LOVE this.

  8. KK, my sis and I were also like chalk and cheese but, a few years out of school, she got control of all the external influences that were leading her astray and was resitting all her exams at nightschool. She got a good job and is now married to a millionaire.

    My father did not try to force her to do things, he just ensured that she always knew she could come to him whenever she needed anything and he would do his best to help. If he had shouted and laid down the law, he could have alienated her forever but, instead of stewing in her own self-made juice, she eventually took his outstretched hand without having to apologise or explain – and that was hugely important to a young woman's pride.

    With that experience, she has been a wonderful influence on her niece/my daughter. An Auntie can reach places that a mother just cant.

    With my own kids, I have learned that, as they grow up, all you can do is try to put in place all the principles for becoming a happy and independent adult, showing by example and cherishing with love.

    At the mercy of all those hormones, they can be quite horrible. They will do what they want to do, often ignoring all those lessons
    you so carefully emphasised. Again, all you can do is keep the lines of communication open and show that you care – in the hope that they will come through the dark times safely.

  9. I was that teenager. I left home at 17 and moved in with a boyfriend. My parents where horrible and abusive. I was labeled a runaway and problem child. I had some kind teachers and friend's parents who made sure i was taken care of. They didn't like my choices but they greatly influenced me. Taking me to plays and showing me how to be adult and make adult decisions. They also showed me by example that home is a safe place where you can be you and be loved.

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  10. I always worry about this. I never wanted to disappoint my parents, not in a horrible catholic guilt way, just that I respected them enough not to do anything stupid in my life. I don't know what they did to make me feel that way though. Sometimes I think it's dumb luck.

  11. I was also this teenager. Infact, I was this person until I was in my early 20's, when I met my husband. But one day I was stopping my 1 1/2yr old Godson from doing something and I utterd one of the phrases that my parents had said to me my whole life.
    I can't even remember what I said but I had one of those "Oh Lord, I'm turning into my parents" moments. I promtly called my Mom and told her that even though it seemed liked all those years she was yelling at a stump it had all sunk in. Now it seems like everything I do or say is reminiscent of them.
    I say to parents as someone entering into my 30's who was a TERRIBLE teenager just keep at it. One day, hopefully, all of your hardwork will come into effect, and I hope you get that phone call.

    1 agrees

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