Parenting Self and Adolescents

Over the coming weeks I am going to write a series of articles on adolescence, covering such topics as the nature of adolescence, the importance of boundaries, peer pressure, bullying, adolescent sexuality, adolescent turmoil, enabling adolescents’ educational career development.  The intention is to equip parents with the knowledge and skills needed to accompany their sons and daughters into the complex and challenging territory of adolescence.  Of course, parents can only do this when they work on have a mature relationship with themselves, so that from that solid place of self-reliance they can guide their charges towards that same goal.  This relationship with self is still a major challenge for many parents as their own child and adolescent experiences were of lean-to relationships, either that ‘you should be there for me’ or ‘I should be there for you’ or, sadly, the absence of belonging or harsh and violent abandonment.

In considering their relationships with their teenagers, parents would do well to first consider their present relationship with self, along the several dimensions:

Parents, make no mistake about it, how you relate to yourself, the values you hold and the beliefs you have established will have a marked influence on how you relate to your teenage son or daughter.  For example, when you physically nurture self, keep yourself fit, eat, drink and party in responsible ways and enjoy and enhance your appearance without being obsessed with it, then you provide a model of physical self for your offspring.  However, if the contrary is true that you treat your body like a workhorse or you are preoccupied with your weight and diet all the time of you frequently ‘put yourself physically down’ or sadly, hate your body, how can you inspire your adolescents to treat their sacred bodies with love, care, respect and nurturance?  It is a priority that you seek help and support to understand what has brought you to such a dark place and how you can realise your physical worthiness.  Given the ever increasing rise in the valuing of ‘the thin body beautiful’ and the consequent responses of anorexia nervosa and anorexia bulimia, the need is urgent for parents to find authentic physical self-expression.

When it comes to sexual self-expression, parents and most adults have a lot of self-work to do.  Whereas up to 75-80% of adolescents will talk to their parents about most things when it comes to discussing sexuality and sex, only 20% of young people feel it is safe to discuss this serious topic.  Those parents who have sexual ‘hang-ups’are homophobic, are embarrassed around the topic of sexuality and are frightened or ‘turned-off’ sexual expression to redeem their sense of authentic sexual self-expression.  It is a great loss for themselves when they don’t, but it may also be a great loss for their sons and daughters who intuitively pick up on ‘the taboo’ and miss out on mature conversations on the topic.

The degree of intimacy that a parent has with self is the degree of intimacy they will have with their partner and children.  The unconditional love of self is central to a parent having a high self-esteem and communicating with their children from that solid place of intimate interiority.  When such intimacy is lacking, the, in spite of a parent’s best intentions, it will adversely affect his or her relationship with children and adolescents.  Unconditional love lies at the heart of the mature family.  Such a ‘hearth’ provides young people with the secure base to discover their own identity and to see life as an adventure rather than as a test and a trial.

In order for adolescents to effectively face the challenges of adolescence, a conviction of being loved and valued will carry them a long way, but a confidence in their intelligence and their ability to understand and explore the world will carry them even further.  Parents and teachers can help enormously here by firstly, believing in their immense intelligence and not confusing knowledge, or academic performance or educational achievements with intelligence.  There are comparatively few adults who know their ‘power beyond measure’ and why then does it surprise us when eight per cent of adolescents go for the average (an ingenious way of offsetting failure and success).  Both experiences have become the greatest impediment to your people’s progress.  Parents need to redeem their genius and get back to the adventure of learning that was so present when they were toddlers.  These parents need to be with people who believe in them and go back to life-time education.

Relationships outside the family are a hugely challenging experience for adolescents and it is in this arena where great vulnerability can appear and enormous hurts be endured, sometimes with tragic consequences.  Young people need parents who enjoy relationships outside the family and are sure of themselves in different social settings.  Parents who are socially insecure, shy, timid or aggressive and loud in social situations deserve to find ways of developing social confidence and competence.  Courses on self-realisation, communication skills, relationship studies are possible ways of resolving their social fears and insecurities.

Finally, but not exhaustively, adolescents appear to benefit from having a spiritual belief.  Presently, Ireland is in the throes of a secular revolution and many parents and other adults struggle with finding a spiritual meaning to life.  In many ways, coming out of a history of religious conformists, it can be more difficult for Irish people to discover a spiritual dimension.  There is evidence from research done by Eckersley in 1995 in the US that having a sense of connectedness to something that transcends the material world and its addictions to success, wealth and status, helps young people because it provides an alternative perspective when the going gets rough.  Ultimately, each young person needs to make their own spiritual discoveries, but it is supportive when parents act out from strong core beliefs.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology including Whose Life Are You Living.