Parents of older teens and young adults often ask how they can help kids become responsible and mature. After parents spend years teaching moral values and helping kids practice skills for adult life, the final stages of “parenting” can leave parents feeling daunted. Is there anything more a parent can contribute once a child is grown physically but not yet grown-up behaviorally?
Consider the following two high school seniors:
Hunter was a high school senior in the honor’s program at a local public school. Almost overnight he seemed to lose his energy, interest in school, and sense of responsibility. His parents were worried. Frustrated and anxious, his parents yelled at him and called him lazy. They had heated arguments about his lack of motivation for school and asked him if he was stupid enough to throw away his future. They harassed him to get work done, and when he didn’t, on several occasions his parents completed assignments for him. Doing work for him made them angrier and the situation worsened. His grades were failing. His parents were disappointed. They made him an appointment with me because he seemed depressed and they wondered if there was a medication he could take to improve his mood or his academic performance.
Taylor was also a high school senior. He attended the same school as Hunter and took many of the same honor’s classes. Almost overnight he too seemed to lose his energy, interest in school, and sense of responsibility. His parents were worried. He wasn’t studying for exams, so his grades were poor, and within the first month of the school year he was failing three classes. Taylor’s parents had been through a similar experience with an older daughter and were ready with a plan. Taylor was a debate team champion and a basketball star. His parents responded by cancelling all his extracurriculars until further notice and telling him he had to put his grades first. Taylor was upset, but then got to work. He turned his grades around in about three weeks.
The key differences in the parents’ approaches:
1. Stay Calm. The effective parents maintained their composure. The ineffective parents lost their cool. Staying calm when dealing with a teen can be difficult. Research proves that when teens have trouble keeping calm, parents can get triggered. Mastering your calm takes practice.
2. Be Confident. The effective parents were confident and in-control. The ineffective parents felt powerless, lacked confidence, and used anger to feel stronger. Remember, you’re the parent and you’re in charge! You may feel overwhelmed, but it’s important to appear strong. If you appear uncertain you may get more pushback.
3. Plan Ahead. The effective parents had a plan for this situation well in advance. The ineffective parents were caught off guard when their son’s enthusiasm for academics plummeted. High school seniors sometimes suffer a drop in enthusiasm (as do teens and young adults at other stages). Expect predictable bumps in the road and be ready with a plan to head them off. Make your plan before you get irritated or angry.
4. Teach Accountability. The effective parents’ plan made their son accountable for catching up on his work. The ineffective parents took-on accountability for schoolwork to protect their son’s GPA- depriving their son of the opportunity to practice solving his own problem. When your child makes a mistake or has a lapse in his work ethic, it should be his job to clean up the mess with his grades. Make certain your plan has him doing his own work.
5. Stay Positive. The effective parents stayed positive. The ineffective parents resorted to yelling and name-calling. Studies show that anxiety lowers test scores. It might seem natural to guilt your child for his failures, but it only helps to push your child as far as it takes so he regrets his mistake. Focusing on his duty to rectify the situation is more effective than reiterating his shortcomings.
6. Teach Valuable Skills. The teen with ineffective parenting ultimately developed mental health symptoms as a direct result of his low motivation and his parents’ response. The teen with effective parents learned a valuable lesson, practiced skills for accountability he will use in adulthood, and felt proud of his achievement. Teaching adult skills is the primary role of the parents during the last few years at home and in the first few years after young adults leave the nest. Fill their toolboxes to ensure they are equipped.
Dr. Deuter is a psychiatrist who specializes in the care of emerging adults.