When Toddlers Become Teens
[Portions reprinted from Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood by L.R.Knost. Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline also available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]
With society’s propensity for blaming social issues on ‘kids these days,’ and with struggling, frustrated parents seeking support by sharing stories of their teens’ attitudes and ingratitudes, it’s not surprising that adolescence gets a bad rap.
But the truth is that teens are just people like the rest of us, subject to human imperfections and simply trying to find their place in the world. They may have some hormonal ups and downs, but just as women don’t appreciate being grouped together and defined by exaggerated stories of PMS and men don’t like every decision they make in middle-age to be labeled evidence of a midlife crisis, teens don’t deserve that kind of disrespectful stereotyping, either.
The thing is, adolescent behaviors that parents fear most such as rebellion, drug use, eating disorders, etc. don’t just appear out of nowhere. Teens don’t grow up in a vacuum. Our early parenting choices matter far more than we can imagine in those first months and years of our children’s lives. Our early parenting not only shapes who our children will become, but also has a powerful impact on our relationship with our teens. We are, literally, building our relationship with our teens while we’re parenting our toddlers and preschoolers.
Ideally, preparation for the teen years begins in infancy as we spend those first months of our children’s lives laying a foundation of trust. Then, in the toddler years, that preparation continues as we establish safe and reasonable boundaries with gentle guidance, patience, and proactive parenting like planning shopping trips around naps and bringing along snacks and favorite toys to avoid tantrum triggers.
In the preschool and middle years, preparation for adolescence builds on the trust foundation we laid in the first months and years of our teen’s lives as we grow a spirit of cooperation rather than compulsory compliance, establish a healthy relationship with our children based on teamwork instead of a dictatorship based on forced obedience, and create strong lines of communication rooted in hearing and being heard rather than the often-closed hearts and minds that result from lectures and control-based parenting.
- Children who don’t have to fight for independence because they don’t have anything to rebel against or any motivation for rebellion
- Children who feel that they are respected and that their opinions are heard and valued and therefore don’t have the angst to fuel negative attitudes
- Children who trust and feel trusted and don’t want to lose what they instinctively know is of great value ~ our mutual trust relationship
Thus the groundwork is set for gently parenting through the teen years.
Once we’ve done the groundwork for the teen years, preparation shifts from preparing for adolescence to preparing our adolescents for adulthood. In the day-to-day parenting of teens, preparation means getting them and ourselves ready for their advent into adulthood by intentionally and incrementally handing over the reins of their lives into their inexperienced, but capable hands.
Another aspect of parenting our teens is participation in their lives. In the early years, participation means joining our little ones as they explore the world with mud-splattered walks in the rain and building tilted block towers which tumble and are rebuilt time and again. It means reading bedtime stories and welcoming midnight visitors in our beds and sharing morning tickle-fests and kissing imaginary boo-boos.
In the teen years participation means much the same, only instead of blocks tumbling, it’s plans and hopes and hearts that sometimes tumble into disappointments and need our support and understanding to be rebuilt. It’s midnight visitors who tap softly on our door and ask if we can chat for a bit. It’s shared hugs and cheers and tears and whispers of encouragement. It’s being there, being aware, being in-tune. It’s active, proactive, and intentional parenting.
And, finally, how we interpret our children’s behavior in the early years sets the stage in a very real way for how we will interpret their behavior in adolescence. In the early years, interpretation means that instead of assigning negative ulterior motives to our little ones’ crying, curiosity, outbursts, explorations, tantrums, and other behaviors, we seek to interpret what they are communicating and empathize with and validate their emotions. It means we try to meet the needs behind the behaviors first, opening the door to gentle guidance so that we can equip them with better ways of expressing their needs as they grow and mature.
Interpretation in the teen years means exactly the same. We listen, assume the best, meet needs, listen more, give grace for being human, empathize with and validate emotions, listen and listen some more, and continue to create open hearts and minds through connection and communication so that our gentle guidance can be heard and received and trusted.
Here’s the thing, yes, our teens are human and they will act like the imperfect beings they are at times, just like we all do. But when we’ve grown our little humans in an atmosphere of connection, communication, and cooperation, those imperfect human moments stay exactly that…moments. They don’t explode into rebellion or fester into addictions or plummet into depression because they’ve been punished, suppressed, and ignored. They are simply normal, small moments of life that we work through together before they become big life problems.
If, however, you are new to the idea of gentle parenting and wonder if it’s too late to rebuild and repair your relationship with your children, the answer is, “No.” One of the miracles of human nature is the ability to forgive, heal, and start again. Here are some links to articles with specific suggestions for walking with your children through that process so you can begin your gentle journey in parenting peacefully, kindly, and effectively with your older child:
L.R.Knost is a best-selling parenting and children’s book author and founder and director of Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, an online resource for gentle parenting education, articles, and research. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood , Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages , and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline the first three books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, as well as her children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series available from Amazon and other major retailers.