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Fear, Respect and Boundaries in Parent-Teen Relationships

Teenage years are often the most confusing for both the teens and the parents, too. It’s why the parent-teen relationship takes work, patience, love and lots of forgiveness.

While working with mothers of all ages, I can’t begin to count how many times I hear the fear, frustration and hurt they express while trying to maintain a positive relationship with their teenager. New parents struggle through the weeks and months of colic and teething. The terrible two’s feel as if they last into ages three and four. But teens… every time a hormone, day of the week, weather or fashion trend changes, it may seem as if we’re dealing with a whole new person.

Countless kids have walked through my door: my own children, their children, friends of my children, kids I coached in various sports, Sunday School students… well, I think you get the point. There’s one thing almost every one of them had in common. As much time as we spent together, prayed and played together, grew together, when it was all said and done, I often felt like I knew very little about them.

Sometimes love is not enough. Oh, that hurts me to say, because the Bible says that love conquers a multitude (of teens). Actually, the quote from 1 Peter 4:8 is: “and above all things have fervent love for one another, for ‘love will cover a multitude of sins“.

All the Saturday afternoon movies I grew up watching had a happy ending.

  • The runaway came home.
  • The family shared a big meal together during the closing credits
  • Family members called out into the night from their own snugly beds, “goodnight mom”.

Unfortunately, real life is not always like a Lifetime TV movie. And while some might not agree, I think today’s teens face many more challenges than even just a few decades ago. Technology – computers, smartphones, FaceBook, Twitter, etc., all play a role. (Parents, are you involved in how your teen uses technology? Yep, another article!)

Bullying, peer pressure, single parent families, drugs, alcohol, dysfunctional families, poor self-image, learning disorders, over-worked parents – you name it, and ‘IT’ has the potential to impact a teen’s life, and not often in a positive way.

For those of you/us that are experiencing these issues, my prayer is that by sharing some insights I’ve learned over a couple of decades of parenting and working with kids, you, my dear reader, will find hope, reassurance and maybe a kinship to those of us who have gone before you and come out successfully on the other side.

When this beautiful girl was born, I doubt her father envisioned yelling and screaming across the Great Divide known as adolescence. If we could choose a method of communication, wouldn’t we much rather sit across the table with a nice glass of tea, sharing our hopes and dreams for her future? So how do we get from point A to point B? From this father and daughter confrontation (and no, it has nothing to do with fathers and daughters, or mothers and sons) to the respectful conversation below?

I believe it’s about two things: fear and respect.

As parents, we fear losing the little child who holds so much innocence and promise, when we should realize that we will always have a part of them with us, and can continue a loving relationship with them with just a bit of adjustment.

Our teens fear their newly found and ever-growing independence being trampled upon by an overbearing parent, when in effect, as parents we are attempting to keep them safe.

Webster defines respect as “a feeling of admiring someone or something that is good, valuable, important, etc.; a feeling or understanding that someone or something is important, serious, etc., and should be treated in an appropriate way; a particular way of thinking about or looking at something”. I think it is safe to say we all want to be admired, important and valued. The important word to focus on is ‘all’. We all want to feel this way, both our teenagers and us as parents. Respect is not demonstrated by yelling at someone, even though we feel it’s the only way we will be heard. Admiration is not won by being a tyrant or acting ill-mannered and immaturely. Esteem cannot be held with an iron grip; it is to be treasured and safe-guarded.

Where is the middle ground between fear and respect? Boundaries.

One of the best books I’ve read is “Boundaries” by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. As I read page after page, underlined, highlighted and pondered, I quickly realized I found myself on nearly every page. There were lessons I’d learned and carried forward from my childhood, as well as new ones I’d developed as coping skills along the way – and most of them were not good and positive lessons and skills. I needed a new way of thinking, and not just toward my children but in all the relationships in my life.

In short, boundaries help to define who we are and who we are not. They are a defining line between where we feel good, valued and esteemed and believe we are being used, abused and deemed worthless. By realizing boundaries were first established by God (Garden of Eden), I learned to feel confident in saying NO when I was put into a situation that was not healthy or beneficial.

How do boundaries help relationships with our teens? It begins with us first. We must learn, model and protect our own personal boundaries. Then we must set appropriate boundaries for our children. And here’s the tricky part: you can’t START setting boundaries and rules when they are teenagers!

When we teach our children to keep their hands away from a hot stove, we are essentially demonstrating a boundary of personal safety. If they cross the boundary (the hot stove), they will be burned and experience the consequence (pain, blisters and potentially scarring). The best way to learn rules and boundaries is to understand consequences. Again, this lesson is best begun at a young age. For example:

Mom:  Please put your toys away.
Toddler: No!
Mom: Please put your toys away or we won’t be able to go to the park.
Toddler: No!
Mom: OK, I will help pick up your toys, but we will stay home and not play at the park.

Simple and straight forward, right? So doesn’t this make sense:

Dad (or Mom):  Please clean up your room.
Teen: No. I don’t feel like it.
Dad: Please clean up your room or you won’t be able to go to the mall.
Teen: Daaaadddd! I’m on the phone. And everyone is waiting for me.
Dad: Clean your room or stay home. You can choose.

I will admit, sometimes taking my kids to the mall would have been much easier than hearing cabinet doors slam, watching eyes roll aimlessly around in their heads or feeling guilty for ‘being a mean parent’. But what message would I be sending them? I think it would have been one of fear. Fear of them not ‘liking me’; fear of not being the ‘cool parent’; fear of losing their love. Hmmm, is that how I really wanted to parent? No!

Remember the fear and respect issue? By teaching my children good decision-making skills, I will also have taught them to accept the consequences and hopefully make a better decision the next time. My ‘fear factor’ goes down with each positive choice they make while becoming respected and valued citizens. You can’t learn to ride a bike without falling a couple of times. But the more you practice, the better skilled you are and the less you fall. As a mother who has doled out her share of bandages to daredevil boys, do they sometimes jump too high or over-shoot the ramp? Of course. But knees heal, bandages are cheap and the love of a parent is still the best medicine.

Parenting is an extremely important responsibility. It doesn’t mean I should be their friend, although I certainly have (almost) always enjoyed their company. While I am a child of the 60’s, being ‘cool’ is a relative term. I can be cool one day for cooking a great meal and un-cool the next because I set a curfew. It’s OK . As my son would say, “I have broad shoulders, I can take it.” I don’t need to be cool. That’s what air conditioners are for! 🙂

Note for the record:

  • I am in no way affiliated with Cloud and Townsend or the Boundaries book. It has simply changed my life in a very positive way. They have also created a DVD ‘workshop’ which I often use at our ministry. It helps to put things into perspective and reinforce what we learn in the book.
  • I do not have any doctoral degrees behind my name. Frankly, I was headed in that direction, but helping people got in the way. I am a trained volunteer counselor and mother to many children, grandchildren and ‘adopted in love’ children. My views and opinions are offered from this experience with the prayer they might provide you with some insight, peace and hope.

Be blessed,

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