Co-authored by Rory Gilbert LCSW, Individual and Family Therapist.
After all my years working with teens and their families, I'm convinced that raising healthy, happy kids depends on two words: Yes and No.
The secret is knowing when to say which.
Kids need boundaries. They yearn for structure and limits. Few will admit it, but it's a natural and universal need that revolves around No.
Can I eat cake for dinner? No. Can I see how far the cat can fly? No. Can I stay up late, phone tethered to hand? No. Can I treat this person with disrespect? Never.
Limitations such as these create safety. A free-for-all creates uncertainty and chaos, which leads to confusion and fear. Say No when laying the groundwork for safety and security as well as character.
But No is not always the answer.
In fact, saying No at the wrong times can shut down a teen faster than an eighth-grade romance gone bad or a cell phone battery on its last leg. It can cause stress, distrust, secrets, and separation. I've seen it happen countless times in my office. As dire as the situation may feel, the solution is often found in swapping No for Yes.
Say Yes to self-expression. Say Yes to unexpected choices. Say Yes to your teen being who they are or who they're working so hard to be.
I know how hard this can be. As the adult, we feel in our bones we know the way forward, whether that entails saying no to an invitation to jump off a bridge or saying no to passing up sports in favor of drama.
Despite the difficultly, you'll get what you want in the end if you can open the door to choices that may differ from yours but present no actual threat to your kids.
They've come from you but they are not you. They need to follow their path, with all its fascinating and frightening twists and turns. Giving them the freedom to write their own story ensures that you'll be a part of it.
That's what my parents are truly after. They want to be part of their kids' lives. They want to be informed and involved. When you say Yes at the right times, you will be. You'll be an influence. You'll be a guide. Say No, and you'll have a teen that keeps you as far from his or her world as possible.
Here are three tips to help you get started with Yes:
1. Let your teen know you understand the importance of making their own choices. Though they may differ in the extreme from your own, recognize the importance of giving them the freedom to carve out their own place in the world--and let them know you get it.
2. Show respect for their choices. This is not easy. Most parents pour their heart and soul into predicting a perfect future for their kids. When a choice appears to derail that plan, we leap to resentment or anger, with our fragile ego calling the shots. It's only natural, but it's not right, nor is it helpful in the long run. Shout down the ego with a love for your kids that trumps any conception of an ideal, pre-planned future. They're writing their story in real time. Respect every plot twist.
3. Want to lock down a wonderful relationship with your kids? Go beyond showing respect for what they do and actually dive in. Take a sincere interest in their interests. You created this bundle of flesh and feelings, of bones and potential. Take joy in seeing it evolve. Take interest in seeing it fully form. As Dale Carnegie taught us decades ago, we are interested in those who are interested in us. Let your kids write their own story; then join them for the adventure.
A teen who feels understood, respected, and supported is far more likely to become the human you had hoped for, regardless of the path taken to get there.