It’s Time to Change Your Job Description

Posted on March 12th, 2012, 0 Comments

Last week I took part in a panel discussion aimed at reducing teen drinking and drug use. One of the questions dealt with how we can underscore the important role of parents in preventing teen risk-taking without blaming them if their children use or begin to use.

Truth be told, how we parent does matter. Study after study supports this notion. So when our teens mess-up, we often do feel that we are to blame. After all we’re in-charge. Aren’t we?

Pondering this question caused me to think back to how my parenting job changed over the course of my kids’ growing-up years. When my children were very young, I was in-charge. I decided what they got to do, when they’d do it, and who they’d do it with. I was their manager. But my parental control shrank as my children got older and became teens. It had to.

Attempts to maintain tight control – with too many restrictions, warnings, and punishments – can keep teens from learning how to make good decisions for themselves. Plus this type of micromanaging can invite rebellion, causing teens to dedicate all of their energies to out-maneuvering us and eluding our checkpoints.

On the other hand, becoming too hands-off also puts teens at risks. In fact, the more teens feel that they’re truly on their own without their parents’ supervision and guidance, the more susceptible they are to all the major risks – to drinking, drugs, early and unprotected sex, anxiety, depression, and even suicide.

So while we’re still responsible for our children when they become teens, we’re no longer in-charge. At least not totally.

When parenting teens, it makes more sense to think about our power (and responsibility) in terms of influence rather than control. This means our job description needs to change. It’s time to give up our job as our kids’ managers and become their consultants. And not just ordinary consultants – we need to be proactive consultants.

As a proactive consultant, you still make rules, set limits, and enforce consequences – especially when it comes to your teen’s safety and health. But as a proactive consultant you no longer make all the decisions. Instead your new job is to stay connected to your teen and keep the conversations going so that you can collaborate with them and guide them – by helping to manage the risks you can’t eliminate and by helping to train their brains so that they can learn how to make good decisions for themselves.

There is a huge body of research showing the relationship between parenting styles and teen behavior. (A good overview of the protective effects of good parenting can be found here.) But it is not a perfect one-to-one relationship. We cannot be with our teens at every minute. At the end of the day teens will make their own decisions – including decisions about whether to drink or use drugs. Our job is to influence our teens’ decisions by making it harder for them to make bad decisions and easier for them to make good ones.

Parents who think, talk, and act like proactive consultants (termed an authoritative parenting style in the research literature) have lots of influence over their teens’ decisions. The next blog post will take a more detailed look at how these parents go about their job.

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