Help! I've Messed Up My Kids!

Now that my son and daughter are teenagers, it seems the parenting mistakes I’ve made stand out glaringly. I get so down on myself. What can I do at this point?

Your children’s adolescence is the worst time to judge your own parenting! In their efforts to become independent human beings, previously pleasant and thoughtful kids can become self-centered, arrogant, and rude when they move into their teens. This does not necessarily reflect on your parenting. Adolescence is really a developmental stage, involving the child’s preparation to move into the wider world beyond the home and develop an independent life. Negative behaviors appear during this stage which will never appear again. So don’t hasten to judge yourself just because your children are teenagers.

Dr. Fitzhugh Dodson’s advice to parents of teens is : (1) minimize your rules, (2) be consistent with the rules you have, (3) ignore your child’s verbal flak, (4) be positive, (5) spend 1:1 time with your child, and (6) “roll with the punches.” He also suggests looking in on your little darlings when they are asleep, to remind yourself how angelic they can be when their mouths are closed! In other words, adolescence happens to all kids, and although it differs in severity, it’s a necessary part of growing up. All teens become pretty unpleasant at times, especially to their parents.

The child’s individual temperament plays a part in what kind of adolescence he or she has. A child who is naturally cautious, and learns from watching, is much less likely to plunge into dangerous activities than a child who is naturally impulsive and has to learn by direct experience. Mind you, that cautious child may still be quite unpleasant at home for a few years – but at least you can sleep at night. The extroverted, exploratory kid is more likely to experiment with the things we all fear (sex, drugs, and – no, not rock’n’roll – hanging around with criminals). This is not necessarily because you’ve been a “bad parent.” Loving and moral parents often have teenagers whose desire to rescue less fortunate friends leads them into dangerous situations.

When I’ve worked with teenagers who get into major trouble, I’ve found the following kinds of family situations : 1) Serious abuse (physical, sexual or emotional) and neglect. Abused and neglected children tend to take to the streets when they are able, and become prey for pimps and pushers. 2) Overprotectiveness. Children whose parents don’t trust their ability to make their own decisions and take care of themselves at age-appropriate levels often need to rebel in extreme ways to prove they can manage life on their own. The new hormones and brain structures they develop in adolescence push them towards independence – a right and necessary thing to happen just prior to adulthood. If the parents fight these changes rather than supporting them, conflict grows and the kids act out more extremely. 3) Enmeshment. Parents whose life revolves around their children have difficulty letting go and allowing their children to grow up. All of us grieve as our children prepare to leave the nest, but if we don’t have a life independent of our children, we may cling and try to keep them closer than they naturally want to be in their teens. It is normal for a teenager to want privacy and to share less and less time and thoughts with their parents. If we press them to remain close, they will respond by pulling away from us and lying to maintain their privacy. 4) Spoiling. If a parent has consistently given in to a child’s demands, without standing up for his or her own rights, and has bailed the child out of earned negative consequences (such as bad grades or forgotten lunches), the child remains immature as she goes into her teens. She expects the world to bend to her demands, and she can become more and more demanding and egocentric.

As you examine your parenting history, I wonder what you think are the mistakes you have made. Dealing with our past mistakes involves (1) apologizing and making amends, and (2) changing our behavior so that those mistakes don’t continue to be made. Teenagers have discovered that their parents make mistakes, and will often welcome apologies. You could write your children a letter of apology, if you believe you have genuinely made mistakes. You also need to resolve to change your behavior so that you don’t continue to parent in any of the ways listed above, or in other ways which are detrimental to your child’s growth.

Most teenagers pull out of their rebellious behavior and become sane, responsible adults. You need to express confidence that your son and daughter are able to do this. You need to take responsibility for the parts of their problem behaviors which genuinely arise from your parenting. But then – don’t keep beating yourself over the head with your mistakes. We do the best we can at the time, with the information we have. Apologize, change your behaviour, and do the best you can now with your new knowledge. And don’t blame yourself for teenage behaviors which are symptoms of adolescence or of your individual child’s temperament rather than of your own poor parenting.

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