Our teen's choice in partners, schools, work, and recreation will at some point rock the boat. As parents, we want what's best for them. If they would listen to us, we could save them from so much pain. Alas, they won't. Here are some ways we can accept our teen's choices, and some ways we can actually make our relationship worse.
Our Teen's Choice Isn't Our Choice
This is such a difficult concept for parents to grasp. Against our wishes and better judgement, our teens are likely to do or at least try any number of these things:
- Dating & Marriage. Maybe your teen is LGBTQ. Maybe you are LGBTQ and they are heterosexual. Perhaps they won't ever get married or produce the number of grandchild we want. She or he might have children without a spouse, or become sexually active before you want them to. All of these relationship issues are strong triggers.
- Change religions. Some teens will deny their religious upbringing while others are likely to embrace a new faith or marry outside of the family's religion.
- College and career choices. They may not go to our alma matter or even be accepted there. They may enter the workforce or travel the country for a year.
- Dabbling in drugs and alcohol. This one's particularly scary, especially if we have been affected by addiction.
As parents, it is so very important to respond in a positive manner. While for some parents, our teen's choice may not be a surprise, others may feel blind-sighted with this revelation. Either way, when our hopes and dreams for the child veer off course, we're likely to feel:
- Anger, and
- Perhaps, even disgust.
So What To Do?
First, have an open dialogue. Open listening is the most important aspect in any conflict. The child needs to know he or she is loved and accepted because if not, this will create a very difficult path for them.
Second, get up to speed. Don’t be surprised if your child has already done significant research about his or her decision (except in the case of addiction). You can get a better understanding by immediately doing your own research.
Third, accepting their choice may be difficult for you, so aim for damage control. Trying to prove your child wrong or demand he or she conforms to your will isn't likely to help. It almost always pushes your child away.
Here Are Some Things NOT To Say
- “Are you sure?” They may not be, but this is something for your teen to figure out. Saying this makes your teen feel you are questioning their thoughts and feelings. Also, it is seen as a negative comment regarding your own preferences for the teen’s life.
- “Don’t tell your… ( dad, grandmother, brother, etc.).” This is a slap in the face and starts a spiral of shame.
- “You’re breaking my heart.” This puts undo shame and responsibility on the child. As parents, we are responsible for our own feelings.
- “Who have you told?” Underlying this statement is also shame for the parent is looking to control; i.e, “I hope the neighbors, your coach, etc., don’t already know and maybe we can keep this a secret.”
- “You’re too young to know.” Letting children go is tough at any age. They might be wrong, but teenage and young adulthood is the age-appropriate time for making mistakes.
- “God/Allah/Jesus… will punish you for this is a sin.” Using religion to control behavior is punishing by shame. It doesn't work and often only drives a wedge between your child and yourself and his or her support group. This is a horribly inappropriate thing to say to the teen as he/she/they already know your views and this makes them feel even worse about the status. Punishing by shaming does not work. Sending them back to church/mosque/synagogue and making them read religious texts about the sinfulness will only cause greater harm.
- “You are banned from this house and we do not acknowledge you as our child.” How horrific that a parent would ban a child and unfortunately, this still happens frequently. This will likely strain your relationship for life.
What You Can Say
To be honest, your teen's choice has just thrown you a curve ball. It's OK to take some time to figure out how you feel. Before you react, give yourself permission to be quiet and think. You deserve time to research and even seek out opinions of friends, family, and counselors. You can say things like:
- I'm not sure what to say.
- I'm going to need some time to think about this.
- I didn't see this coming, or I need to do some research.
- I love you no matter what.
As parents, we do have to right to set boundaries on appropriate and inappropriate behavior (especially when dealing with alcohol and drug use). We can tell our children what we need. We do not have to accept unacceptable behavior, but if we are very upset, we don't want to speak and act out of fear or anger. Many of those speeches and tirades only lead to hurt, not healing. Give yourself some time to look for helpful ways to love and support your teen's choice.