Aug 3, 2023

Holding Tight and Letting Go: Parenting a Teen

Holding Tight and Letting Go: Parenting a Teen

Holding Tight and Letting Go: Parenting a Teen
Holding Tight and Letting Go: Parenting a Teen
Holding Tight and Letting Go: Parenting a Teen

I work with a lot of parents of teens and I find myself giving advice like:

  • “Teens need independence, autonomy, and connection.”

  • “It’s your relationship with them that matters more than the amount of screentime they have.”

  • “Parenting a teen is like being flipped off and asked for a hug in the same breath.”

And yet, sometimes I struggle to take my own advice.

  • I felt like I needed to set up a schedule for my teen this summer, just like I had for the past 15 years…

  • I do worry about the amount of time he plays video games or spends looking at his phone– and that activates feelings of being an imposter (“The Screentime Consultant’s kid has screentime challenges?! What a hypocrite!”) and…

  • It seems as parents we hear the complaints and negativity, all the time, about any new experience from our son, causing us to toss our hands up in frustration and wonder if we’re doing anything right…

My son Max turned 15 in March, and this summer has felt…different. In an attempt to keep him on some sort of a routine schedule, we planned for camps and travel. To introduce him to unfamiliar experiences, we signed him up for activities that were tangential to his interests, but still new. We tried to establish some general expectations around screen use and video games and sleep.

We were being such great, proactive parents.

LOL.

Thanks to the pandemic, this summer was actually Max’s first real sleepaway camp experience. We didn’t let him bring his computer, but he did have his phone. And for the first few days we go texts like this:

“I hate this.” 

“This is so boring.”

“I’m just going to play games on my phone.”

“I want to come home.”

No parent likes to hear that their child is miserable, but because he had his phone, he could let us know how awful it was in real time. We tried to encourage him to keep busy, tried not to contact him until he contacted us (to support that Independence! Autonomy! Connection!), and reminded him he could do hard things.

One evening he called to talk, starting out friendly (he flipped his camera around to show me a deer grazing nearby), but then got suddenly really mad and ended up hanging up on me. I thought maybe the call had dropped due to bad reception so I texted to ask, “Did you hang up on me?” and he wrote, “Great observation, Sherlock.”

Ouch. 

The rest of the week, my husband and I talked about What To Do, especially when he got home from camp. We knew he’d been missing his gaming friends and would want to play. We knew he was exhausted and would want to sleep. We knew he was mad that we “forced” him to go and we may get payback. After all, all week he’d been saying what awful parents we were.

Parenting a Teen LOL

We felt completely defeated before he even got home.

And then…something shifted.

That same evening after he hung up on me, he called me a few hours later– unprompted– to say…“I’m sorry.” 

Whoa. 

Then, we came to town a few days before his camp ended to see his group perform (jazz combo). After they finished their set, he said, “I can come to dinner with you– I just need to check out with my counselor.”

So we took him to dinner. And as we spent time with him, he softened. We softened. And we talked and laughed and kept it fun and easy. We didn’t talk about camp or video games. We just…hung out.

The night before camp ended, his responsibilities complete, we offered him an out– did he want to leave a night early and come home with us? 

He said no, and then asked if we could go out to dinner again…and this time, bring a friend he met at camp.

We said: “YES!!”

And when we picked him up the last morning, met his counselor and said thank you, she said, “Max was awesome. Great kid,” and gave us a thumbs up as he walked towards us. 

We blinked. What?!

We learned a lot the week that Max was gone. That we are no longer parenting a kid, but a teen, and how we approach things with him will need to be different. And that that is okay. 

We were reminded that parenting teens means we have to ignore the middle finger they throw at us in their fits of anger or frustration, but notice and embrace their bids for connection. And wow, is that tough to do.

And we remembered that how our teens behave and interact with others outside the family is indicative of what they’ve learned from us as parents– social skills, values, empathy, communication, attitude. Even if what they give us is negative, negative, grouchy.

And that when they get mad, we can’t get mad back, but when they call to apologize, we get to focus on that and say THANK YOU and I APPRECIATE THE APOLOGY.

And finally, when they get home from camp, we have to dial wayyyyyy back on re-establishing or revisiting rules and regulations and remember that above all else, CONNECTION is key. Nothing else will happen until we reestablish that.

So when Max came home, Ben and I decided not to say anything specific just yet about video games or sleep schedules. We decided not to change rules or launch into “Do this!” and “Don’t do that.” 

We decided to just let him (and life) be.

It’s only been a few days, but we’re astonished by how this week has gone– how different it has been compared to our gloomy assumption that it would be a week of payback and misery. Au contraire.

The first thing Max did when he walked in the house was pick up his guitar and play it. For an hour.

Then, he invited me to watch him play a story-based single-player video game, whose scenery reminded him of the beautiful forest surrounding the camp he’d just attended. 

And then he went swimming with a friend, invited him over, played some more video games…and then helped us make tortillas for dinner. 

The next day, after he woke up at noon, he came up to me again, unprompted, and said, “Hey– I have an idea. What about instead of committing to playing a sport this fall [another debate we’ve been having], I get an after-school job?” 

I had to peel my jaw off the table before I could answer, “That’s a great idea. Tell me more.”

We’re good parents. Not just Ben and me. You are too. Parenting is hard. Parenting with screens in our world is harder.

See?

He looks pretty happy to see me, in spite of what his texts said!

If you’re here, reading these words, trying to learn more, finding others who share your worries, you’re a good parent.

Even when you mess up.

Even when your teen’s moods make you feel crazy.

Even when you think you have no idea what you’re doing.

We’re doing a good (enough) job.

Thanks for being here.

e

P.S. I asked Max if he wanted to read this week’s essay. He did, and he said he liked it. And I asked his permission to post it, and he said OK. (A tech-intentional strategy: get permission to post/write about your kids!) 

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Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™

are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.