Imagine your teen is walking a long journey across a desert. Any grain of sand that enters her shoe may eventually form a blister if it stays there. However, if you stop her at every step to clear out her shoe, the trip is going to take a long time. Some of the grains fall out naturally simply through the process of walking. This metaphor offers a good model for parents on how to handle what they perceive as their teen’s potential long-term mistakes.

I have worked with parents who looked at certain ‘red flag’ warning signs that they perceived as potential problems or flaws, and reacted with great concern and passionate alarm. Some examples include not caring about schoolwork enough, being socially reclusive, wasting a talent, seeming irresponsible, or being rude with peers or adults. It was as if the parent is not only seeing the trait today, but is imagining his teen having that trait forever. He seemed to imagine his teen’s lifetime with that trait, all her future relationships and work experiences tainted by that flaw. He was envisioning what his teen would be like in twenty years never having learned her lesson. So one could imagine, given that context, the parent’ responses were quite extreme.

But the trait of a teen is not necessarily permanently set. She is not done evolving and maturing yet. You cannot treat every grain of sand as if it is already the blister resulting from a thousand steps taken with that grain. That parent was right, to some extent. If that trait didn’t change, the teen will have some serious problems down the road. On the other hand, she is not down the road yet. And some of those problems may resolve themselves through the natural process of growing up and learning from experience (oftentimes repeated experience). Sometimes it takes kids experiencing the same consequences multiple times before they are willing or able to alter their behavior or make a different choice. This is not simply stubborn pigheadedness. It is how kids learn, through repetition. By repeatedly experiencing the same sequence and consequences, their neurology forms new connections and associations, which EVENTUALLY translates into new behavior choices. It takes a lot of repeated experience to reshape neurology, and a lot of patience from parents.  Like a grain of sand falling out of her shoe through the process of walking, it make a lot of steps before it falls out on its own. [i] The difficult balance is how to communicate the risks and lessons regarding that potential flaw, without exaggerating its present form and allowing for the child’s natural and independent learning curve.

[i] It is important to note that many factors that are commonly seen as ‘red flags’ may not actually be linked to later problems. The relationship between perceived cause and effect is so apparent that it often goes untested. Recent research has found that when such common assumptions are tested, they do not pan out as one might expect. For example, one study examined the assumption that a teenager who has sex at an early age is more at risk for academic problems, emotional problems, and delinquency (drinking, smoking, or commit crimes), and found that sex at an early age was actually linked with lower levels of delinquency and antisocial behaviors. I am not suggesting that underage sex should be encouraged, but the research shows it is not a cause of the disastrous outcomes that parents might naturally fear. Another study examined the presumed link between early aggression and disruptive behaviors and later academic problems and found no such direct link. One problem with addressing every ‘grain of sand’ is that you may not be certain whether you are identifying something that actually is a risk factor for later problems, or is more of a temporary problem that will pass in time. Sometimes these minor problems are not as catastrophic as we might believe. These perceptions are based on fear for your child’s future and common assumptions that go untested and SEEM to make sense. They are still problematic growing pains, but they are not dark omens of future disasters that we fear them to be.  Begley, Sharon. (2007, November 26). Are the kids alright? Newsweek. 52.



Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.