To read the previous article in this series, Self-Esteem, Individuality and Love for Teenagers, click here.

Control

As children move from infancy into middle and later childhood, they have a growing need for control over their environment. To meet this need, teenagers must be given reasonable power to make choices about what they eat, whom they play with, and what extracurricular activities they participate in. They need to be given the opportunity to make choices that they view as important in different areas in their lives. Parents can find many ways to safely empower teens without allowing them to make dangerous choices. Teens can make safe choices when buying clothing, planning family trips, or selecting their birthday presents. Most of the time the significance of the choices does not matter; even small decisions can make a difference and allow them to feel that they can fulfill their desire for control in a healthy way. Whether to eat chocolate or vanilla ice cream, what time to have a get-together, or which days are best for a family outing are equally important. Although some choices seem inconsequential, what matters is the overall feeling teenagers will have when given the power to choose.

I once counseled family whose oldest child had trouble sitting for a long period of time at the Shabbat table. As the firstborn, he seemed to have a strong desire for control and felt too old to be sitting with his younger brothers and sisters. I suggested to his father that he make his son a partner in running the Shabbat meal and turning over some responsibility, such as giving out treats to the other children for good behavior. Almost immediately, this teenager felt empowered at the table and was more willing to participate and enjoy the family experience. He was provided a way to fulfill his need for control in a healthy manner, which reduced the power struggle at the table that had been going on for some time.

Control may also be given in return for a teen accepting increased responsibility. Here are some suggestions for safe levels of control parents can allow their teenager:

  • For teenagers who want to use the car: Make a list of necessary maintenance activities, like buying gas, changing the oil, and checking the pressure in the tires. Explain that when you see that they are responsible for taking care of the car, you will discuss ways of letting them use it more often.
  • For teenagers who want to buy their own things: Open a bank account with them and set target dates for saving money to buy the items they want. You can also deposit an allowance into the account on a weekly basis according to their behavior in the home.
  • For teenagers who want to have more fun outside the house: Make a list of chores around the house that they are responsible for. Reward their performance monetarily or by taking them to do fun things.
  • For teenagers who want to buy a lot of clothing: Create a monthly clothing allowance, a budget, and a list of prices of the clothing they want to buy.
  • For teenagers who don't like school and want to work: Arrange for an after-school internship in a local business or profession.
  • For teenagers who don't like eating with the family: Buy an easy cookbook and have them make a weekly menu of the foods they prefer. They can also help cook the meals they have chosen.

When parents empower teenagers with a healthy modicum of control, they are giving them the strength to step into the adult world and take responsibility for their own actions.

Meaning

The fifth pillar of the inner world is what the eminent psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl called the "Will to Meaning." This desire for meaning implies wanting to know the whys of life and not just the hows.

Most teenagers have a tremendous desire to know why events are happening to them. In fact, when teens are empowered with meaning and understand the whys of life, they are more able to negotiate the hows and the many challenges that life presents.

Unfortunately, our educational system often denies a teenager's need for meaning. Our schools tend to tell our children what they have to do but not why they have to do it. When they are given an answer like "because I said so," they interpret it to mean the teacher is not interested in what they are feeling or what they have to say.

With this in mind, parents need to spend a considerable amount of time trying to explain to their teens the whys of life. For example, when children feel neglected by their school, parents can help by discussing with them how a school runs, the financial and organizational pressures facing the school, and why teachers can't always give students the attention they deserve.

Teenagers also benefit from knowing the meaning behind their parents' behavior. If you want your teenager to go to bed early, for example, the reason you might offer is that the teenager has been working hard all day and needs to go to sleep early. And that's sufficient. At least your teenager knows why you expect him or her to go to sleep and does not think that you simply don't want him or her around.

I remember coming home from a very hard day of work to a very lively household of children. I told them that I needed a break and would be glad to play with them later in the evening. In the past - before I learned about my children's inner desire for meaning - I wouldn't have spent much time explaining to them how I was feeling. After learning more about their inner world, I was able to sit down with my two older boys and say, "I just want you to know that I love you very much and I had a really pressured day at work. I have a big headache and need some time to read a book and relax. Giving me a little time now would allow me to give you more quality time later. Please play by yourselves for another half-hour. Then I will come out and help you with your homework and play." When I explained to them why they couldn't have my immediate attention, they were much less hurt by my not spending time with them.

Parents shouldn't worry that they have to provide the perfect answer for every question or know the meaning behind everything that happens in life. Nor do their answers have to be absolute proof in the philosophical sense. If parents don't feel that they have the right answers, they can always tell their teenagers that they would like to speak to an expert in that field or do some more reading about the topic. The key element is to make teenagers aware that you are interested in their world and willing to discuss ideas that are close to their hearts.

By focusing on their teens' inner worlds, parents can create a deeper connection and facilitate a greater sense of closeness. The benefits of this new relationship include:

  • Mutual respect and trust
  • Empathy – sympathetic understanding – for one another
  • Emphasis on assets rather than faults
  • Sharing of thoughts and feelings rather than hiding them and bearing resentment

Spending Quality Time Together

As part of the process of connecting to your teenager, an important step is spending quality time together. I know that, for many families, spending time with an individual child or teenager seems like a daunting task. However, making the effort to do so can go a long way in building your relationship.

One of the questions that parents have is about what will happen if they spend time alone with a teenager with whom they fight. The answer is often surprising. Most teenagers enjoy the special occasion of spending time with their parents alone especially outside of the home. I counsel many families who have daily screaming matches with their teenagers, but when they take them out of the house, the emotional environment can change very quickly.

During this time with their child, parents should try to imagine that they are going out on a date for the first time. Everyone knows that the first time people meet someone else they are careful with their emotions. They know that they have to be calm and pay special attention to not delve into the other person's private matters. A kind of healthy distance exists that protects people when they first meet and helps them to maintain a sense of awe and respect.

When alone with your teenager it's important not to rehash the same issues you have been fighting about in the home. Talking about general ideas concerning current events, music, or sports or about your child's feelings regarding life and relationships is more productive. The main idea is to have a good time together. Work on developing conversation in the way that you would with a friend.

Many parents think that the only way to get their teenager to spend time with them is by shopping or eating out. But that is not entirely true. I suggest parents connect with their teenagers by finding hobbies and activities of common interest. For example, my wife and I found a pottery studio nearby where parents and children can paint kitchen items like coffee mugs and tea pots that are then professionally produced in a kiln. Painting pottery is a simple and fun way of spending time together. You can also share what you painted with the rest of your family, which is symbolic of the productive nature of spending quality time with your children.