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Parents As Leaders for Their Teens

By Klaus Klein MA, Registered Clinical Counsellor

Working with teens on a daily basis in groups, classrooms, wilderness settings, and in my private counselling office I see that every move you make as an adult has an impact on them. Teens want to learn appropriate ways of handling situations in life. Teenagers will watch how I treat or react to a co-worker, a parent, or handle a difficult situation. They will test and see how I react to something that they think might be shocking to me.

Teens appreciate adult leadership in situations where they feel too awkward, weird, or uncomfortable to handle on their own. This is particularly true when it is something that they must face that involves emotions such as embarrassment, shame, guilt, sadness, hurt, to name a few.

How You Can Be a Positive Leader for Your Teen:
Lead by Guiding Your Teen Through Challenging Events

On multi-day camping trips with the teens I work with, we often form a circle and process challenging events. Some of these events are inter-personal conflicts or inappropriate behaviours. We, as the adults, lead and guide the conversation. We encourage everyone to express themselves, take responsibility for their actions, and be held accountable.

The school staff and myself are responsible for maintaining an atmosphere of emotional, mental, and physical safety. While teens may not often appreciate sitting in a circle processing an event, they do appreciate the adults being in charge so that it is a safe environment in order to grow and learn from. Teens have confided in me that they will take risks with peers and even parents only when an adult is there to advocate for them or hold everyone accountable for an emotionally safe environment. Teens will share emotions such as hurt, frustration, fear, anxiousness, etc, when they feel safe enough to do so. The adults make sure that the group doesn't get into a negative spin with people angrily accusing each other, which hinders the resolution of conflict and the facilitation of growth.

On a smaller and personal scale, you as a parent are responsible for the emotional and mental safety in your home. Teens will not share everything with you of course, but they will be much more open to being held accountable and taking responsibility for their actions when they feel a good level of emotional and mental safety and trust with you as the adult. Being aware and responsible for your own emotions, especially in challenging events is the first step to creating emotional and mental safety in your home. Suspend your own emotional reactions and practice listening first to what they have to say. Listening is not the same as approving any negative behaviour. Listening does show that you are in control of yourself, which is the first step creating a sense of emotional safety in most situations.

Lead By Modeling Healthy Spousal And Ex-Spousal Relationships

How we treat our spouses and others around us is also picked up by our kids. When we, as adults, work through our own issues and inter-personal conflicts with the people closest to us it gives our children a tremendous internal compass of what is possible between people. No one is perfect, but the overall values of trust, commitment, self-respect, determination, hope, responsibility, etc. are things that kids learn from being in the presence of adults who practice these values.

Single parents are also very influential in how they treat or handle ex-spouses and other adults around them as well. Every situation is different and sometimes single parents need to make difficult decisions based on their circumstances. However, a decision based on integrity and good intention in regards to relationships is far better than reacting emotionally.

Lead By Taking Responsibility For Yourself

Like most parents you are willing do a lot for your kids, but remember to be willing to do things for yourself as well. If you are prone to anger and irritability because of stress you are responsible for the impact this has on your teen –and for apologizing to help heal the wounds. Sometimes we end up snapping at our kids for things that are stressing us out that have little to do with them. Just like we expect our kids not to take out their frustrations on us or other people, we need to be aware of how well we are taking care of ourselves so we can be in the best frame of mind when being with our kids.

Lead by Showing Strong Personal Values

How we eat and drink, the amount of time we spend on the computer,and the amount we exercise, etc., all have an impact on our kids. Our attitudes towards different ethnic cultures, towards our jobs, and how we see the world has an influence on those closest to us and around us.

Teens will experiment and test values to varying degrees, but as they grow up many of the values that you practiced and exposed them to in the home will sprout later in life in them. Of course we don't expect our children to become carbon copies of ourselves, as there will be differences, but as Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and author of ScreamFree Parenting stated, "Who you are as a person has far more influence on your kids than any lecture you give them."

Lead by Being Engaged in Self-Development, Growth, and Learning

I have worked with teens who are very proud of their mothers or fathers for upgrading their own education, starting something new in life, or overcoming drug and alcohol abuse. What these adults did was focus on self-development by taking action and making a commitment. Teens looked up to these parents as an example of what is possible in a very concrete and real way. They saw an adult take charge of their own life, work hard, and achieve something that could be measured and celebrated. It doesn't have to be a major life changing event either. Even little things show a sense of responsibility and care for yourself that is positive for you and positive for your child to witness.

Leading As a Parent Is Not The Same As Controlling Behaviour

Leading is about being in a position of influence, rather than trying to control our children through lectures and discipline. As teens experience the kind of positive leadership that you show them, they start adopting these values and behaviours themselves. I have seen teens grow over time because of challenges they face and being lead positively through the process by an adult step by step. Then as time goes on, the teens rely less on the adults because of their own practice, confidence, and skill in handling different and difficult situations. I have seen teens after being lead through many growth processes by adults eventually take over and step into more leadership type roles. They are able to do this because of their experience and wisdom gained from having gone through several challenging processes. This, in the end, is what parents want when launching their kids into adulthood.

"Not the cry, but the flight of the wild duck, leads the flock to fly and follow." - Chinese Proverb


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Klaus Klein, MA, RCC
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