Guiding Teens: How Much Is Too Much?

04/11/2014 12:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2014

Written by Rosemary Strembicki

I recently received an email from my best friend from high school and I found myself flooded with crystal-clear memories of those times. And not only the memories, but the feelings that came with every new endeavor at that age.

I so often get preoccupied with the developmental needs of young children that I forget about the significance of adolescence. Many of the emotions and tasks of becoming independent are revisited when our children experience their teen years. They become self-centered and struggle with understanding new experiences and integrating them into their knowledge of who they are. As parents, it can be a real challenge to stay connected and guide them through the roller coaster of emotions.

My parents didn't take a very active role. They observed and commented, but rarely attempted to take control unless they sensed danger, like when I began riding on my boyfriend's motorcycle. I was left to experience my world, make my own choices and consider the consequences, both good and bad. I chose my own counsel and followed my instincts. I found out later in life that they didn't always agree and often worried about where my choices would take me, but they didn't interfere. As a result, I developed a confidence in my abilities to make decisions. I was guided by my need for their respect and fears of disappointing them and never took the risks that they so feared.

It's not a choice that every parent would make. Some of us feel the need to be involved and offer guidance at every juncture. It's hard for us to trust our teens for fear of them making irreversible mistakes and we want to be there for them when they're struggling with understanding the world. How much should we let them struggle?

It's up to each of us to make that decision. We'll rely on our experience and our hopes for our children. We may handle things exactly as our parents did or completely differently depending on how we experienced their parenting. What is most important is to make a conscious decision about how and how much to be involved. We need to rely on our support system to determine the best course and be consistent in our interactions. Open communication is essential and keeping our children safe is something that should never be compromised, but when to step in and when to let natural consequences prevail can be tricky.

Rescuing can send a message that our children can't handle things on their own and are doomed to making bad decisions. Facing consequences can provide a lesson in surviving bad decisions and help develop the strength to choose the right way even though it may be more difficult. The key is to develop a relationship of trust before the bad decisions are made. Being open about expectations and our confidence that our children will do the right thing can be powerful incentives for our children. Hearing our voices and internalizing our values will guide our children as they develop their own voices.

I relish the happy memories of my teen years. Some of it was a struggle, there were accomplishments and disappointments, but I can take full ownership of it all. I felt supported, and a little intimidated, by my parents' expectations and I don't think I disappointed them. I maintained a close relationship with them into my adult life and enjoyed the time I spent with them. What more can a child, or a parent, ask for?

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