Parenting in the teen years

Worried about what the teen years will bring? Parenting expert Karyn Gordon offers some advice that may surprise you

For many parents whose kids haven’t reached the teen years yet, adolescence can seem scary indeed. One day you’re stressed about scheduling playdates and whether they’re eating enough vegetables. The next you’re imagining your kids operating a vehicle and worried about them experimenting with drinking, drugs and sex. Karyn Gordon is a counsellor with a private practice in Toronto, a popular keynote speaker and the author of Dr. Karyn’s Guide to the Teen Years. She’s been coaching adolescents and parents for more than a decade. Dan Bortolotti talked with Gordon about parenting in the teen years.

Q: Let’s begin by talking about an idea you call “inside-out” parenting. What does the term mean, and why is it important?

Pretty much all parents I talk to say they want their kids to be confident, responsible, trustworthy, hard-working, reliable and courageous. If they were to define success, it really boils down to developing a child’s character. Yet if you listen to most parent-child conversations, they aren’t about character, they’re about behaviour: “Why did you only get a B on this test?” “Why are you hanging out with those friends?” We get stuck when we start focusing on the outside. So I try to get parents to focus on the inside, on what kind of character you want to develop in your child. When a child has a solid character, then you see it on the outside.

It’s not that behaviour should be ignored, but teens feel judged if you focus on behaviour. And behaviour is always a symptom of a character trait, or lack of one. If a teen brings home a poor mark, inside-out parents will ask questions about why the lack of achievement is occurring. They’ll focus on the teenager’s self-esteem, her thoughts and feelings.
Q: Is this idea specific to parenting adolescents or is it important for parents with younger kids as well?

For a lot of parents with younger children, there is a huge fear factor: “I’m so scared about when my kids become teens.” So I emphasize that if they start now to develop a parenting style that is more inside-out, they’re going to see the fruits of their labour when their kids hit adolescence. Parents who try to implement inside-out parenting only after their kids are teens are going to have a way more difficult time.

Q: With parents, one of our bad habits is trying to control every aspect of our kids’ lives. What effect does this have on teens?

Boomer parents are extremely hard-working, and that has come out in their parenting. They micromanage: They wake their kids up in the morning, they make their lunches, they talk to teachers regularly, they help their kids with their science projects — they do the science projects for them. They are doing way too many things that really should be their kids’ responsibility. These are not bad parents, or bad people. They are loving parents who just don’t understand that what they are doing is really not helping their kids.

The result is the exact opposite of what the parent wants. It makes teens underfunction. They become irresponsible. They don’t step up to the plate. They blame their parents: “It’s your fault that I’m late because you didn’t wake me up” or “You didn’t drive me on time.” They tend to externalize things.
Q: The teen years are famously emotional. How can this interfere with communication?

People can control others’ thoughts, but they cannot control their feelings. So it’s really important that parents know they can lovingly challenge a thought, but they should never challenge an emotion. If they do, the wall will go up so fast.

For example, a teen says something like “I feel as though you’re not a good parent.” She will throw that word feel into a sentence and think she is expressing her feelings. Then the parent says, “No, that’s not true,” and the teen responds, “You can’t tell me how I feel!” The simple way of differentiating feelings from thoughts is that feelings can be expressed with only one word. So the accurate way to say it is “I think you are a bad parent, and I’m feeling frustrated and angry.”

Q: It seems that the most common emotion you hear expressed by teens, particularly boys, is anger. Why are teens so angry?

I have never had a parent call my office and say, “My son is really hurting” or “My son is really sad.” They say, “My son is really angry.” It’s because there’s an unspoken rule that it’s OK for guys to say they’re pissed off or angry, but it’s not OK to say they’re sad. So all of their negative emotions come out as anger.

If the first step is understanding how feelings and thoughts are different, step number two is trying to learn the language of emotions, so it’s not all lumped together as anger. Sometimes people have this sense that being emotional means they’re going to lose control, but it’s actually the opposite. Once we understand how all this stuff works, we feel empowered because we can control how we think. And if we change how we think, it will affect how we feel.
Q: The teen years are a time when peers become all-important, often squeezing out parents. How much influence do parents really have?

A teen’s fundamental values seem to be fairly consistent with the parents’, as long as she has a pretty good connection with them. Friends tend to influence teens with superficial stuff: music, clothes, that sort of thing. But the number one source of influence is the parents.

The inside-out model, in a nutshell, is about trying to get parents to increase their power to influence their teens. All parents have authority, but authority is very different from influence. Authority is something you inherit, but influence has to be earned, and you earn it by respecting and being plugged into your child’s character.

For example, overfunctioning parents think for their kids, and they tell them what to do: “Don’t hang out with this person; hang out with that person.” I try to explain that if kids have a strong character and healthy self-esteem, they are going to be attracted to a certain kind of friend. I see friends as an external way to gauge how teens, girls especially, are really feeling about themselves because, unconsciously, we are attracted to friends with the same kind of self-esteem we have. So if parents don’t like the friends their teens are hanging out with, the friends are not really the problem. The core problem is the child’s self-esteem.

Q: Every parent with a teenager worries about drinking, drugs and sex. Is there anything we can do to control these behaviours?

Parents nearly have a heart attack when I say this, but the reality is that you simply cannot control whether your kids are going to have sex. What are you going to do, have video cameras following them?

Focus on the things you can control. Talk to your kids about your value system because drinking, drugs and sex are all about values. You can’t control the values your kids will accept, but you can teach values and set boundaries in your home. For example, if a girl is 16 and she’s dating her boyfriend, they might be having sex outside the home, but you can make a rule that they’re not sleeping in the same bedroom in your house.

When I have kids in my office, I ask, “Tell me what you think about sex. What are your values? When will you do it and when will you not do it?” My job is def-initely not to tell them what their values should be. It is to get them to do their own thinking about their values. Once they start thinking about it, then they can figure out their own boundaries and stay true to those.

For example, I was coaching an 18-year-old girl who said she didn’t want to be intimate with any guy until she was in a committed relationship. But then she told me that she went to a party one night and had too much to drink and ended up having oral sex with a guy. I didn’t say, “What are you doing? That’s crazy.” I simply asked, “Did you stay true to your values?” This approach can be difficult. It is a lot quicker and easier just to tell our kids what to do — but it doesn’t work.

Q: Parents worry they’re going to have to contend with rebellion. Is rebellion a reaction to parenting style, or is it hard-wired in teens?

It’s a bit of both, but in my experience the bigger variable is parenting style. Some kids are definitely more strong spirited. Others are much more compliant and, when you take a quick glance, they look like these perfect children. But if they are too compliant, they’re not developing their own ideas and independence, and a lot of times you’ll see these kids rebel once they’ve left home. So it’s really about learning what kind of child you have and how to really work with your child.

I encourage parents to rethink how they see rebellion. If they see adolescence as an amazing opportunity for their teens to become more independent, their kids will sense that and they’ll be more likely to take responsibility for their behaviour. Sure, teens will test to see how serious their parents are, but if the parents have built a strong foundation, things are more likely to go smoothly.