The more speaking engagements I do, the more convinced I am of the important role parents play in their teenagers sexual education…in fact, every part of their lives. As a parent of teenagers myself, I feel ‘in the thick’ of it every day; the emotions of their stage of life, the joy and pain, the confusion and the hormones, the importance of friends, of belonging, of boundaries, and the influence of peer pressure. Some days my teenage kids come home with stories of friends who are involved in self-harm, disordered eating, thoughts of suicide, bullying, ‘sexting’, pornography and more. On days like these I am grateful for my training in youth ministry and experience in counselling to be able to guide my own children and provide answers in such full-on and often confusing times.
I also realise that not all parents are youth counsellors or specialists and can often feel lost with how to respond when topics like these come up. Below are two key principles that will put the power back in your court as the parent of a teenager.
1) Stay engaged!
If there is anything we can do as parents, it is to not disengage! There is often a strong temptation around the ages of 8-12 to start to disengage. This is because now that they can feed themselves, dress themselves and go to the toilet by themselves, it seems like they don’t need us as much. This couldn’t be further from the truth. They still need you! Just not in the same way as a toddler or pre-schooler. They now need you more emotionally, to help them make sense of the world, to interpret what happens to them at school, to tell them it’s going to be OK. This is a crucial time when our voices as parents are still louder than that of the media and society, so don’t lose this opportunity to speak to them about all you value and believe. When the teenage years come about, it can be a shock to the system! Suddenly, they are more emotional, more moody, more demanding of attention, and the transition into this new phase is rapid.
I remember thinking ‘I’d better hold onto my hat because this is changing fast!’ It’s at this very point that it is tempting to disengage. We want to surrender responsibility because it’s either too hard, or we don’t know what to do and it would feel a lot easier to leave them to their own devices. Let me encourage you: don’t disengage! Stay in their space, no matter how hard or crazy it gets. No matter how easy it may seem to walk away…don’t! Keep being available, keep asking questions, be willing to listen and make some compromises, but continue to assert your authority and protection over your teenagers. They need you! They may not act like it or even want it, but they do.
2) Be the adult
One of the big temptations for parents is to let go of emotional control. Whilst helping teach your teenagers to make good choices, it is still important to maintain your right to say ‘no’. Sometimes the intensity of their emotions can feel too much and we end up saying ‘yes’ to something we wouldn’t normally agree to just to keep the peace. Let me encourage you to resist this temptation and stick to your values. They won’t die if they don’t go to ‘that party’ this time!
It is difficult to be ‘the adult’ in the middle of the emotions of teenage-hood. Sometimes we begin to feel ‘triggered’ and hurt ourselves when they are trying to express how they feel (usually not very well!). I have found sometimes, even though I am angry and hurt, that I have had to close my eyes and tell myself: “I am the adult here. They are relying on me to keep calm and make sense of this for them”. This can be a really hard thing to do, but I have found it to be so worth-while that my teenagers actually end up sharing more vulnerability at that moment as I become completely present to them and support them through their time of trial.
At different stages of their lives, our children need us to stay engaged. I want to encourage you to resist the temptation to give up and leave them to their own devices, hoping someone else will come along to save the day. Research shows that parental opinion has the biggest effects of a teenager’s decisions…It’s you they need.
Be the adult, stay engaged, and watch the amazing fruits of your effort grow….it may not be instant, but it will be worth it.