Finding the Ninja Turtle in your Teenage Mutant
If you currently have kids or happen to be a child of the 90s, you are likely familiar with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! Four natural-born turtles came in contact with a secret ooze that mutated them into immature, bratty teenagers. Their caregiver, Master Splinter, then made it his primary focus to school them in the art of the Ninja; a practice of self-control, self-discipline, independence and responsibility. While at least 2 of them continued to wrestle immaturity, they ultimately became quite the crime-fighting squad, vanquishing the likes of the evil Shredder and Krang.
Humorously, over the years I have heard parent after parent lament the mutation of their beloved sweet, cuddly, naturally loveable little child into irrational, rebellious, irresponsible, angry and distant teens upon contact with the ooze of hormonal development. The adolescent years are often fraught with tension and strife as the young pubescent seek to assert their individuality and navigate independence. So what’s a mama and papa to do during this emotionally turbulent time when baby birds are wanting to jump the nest?? Here are 3 ninja tips for developing wisdom and teasing out responsibility in your teen.
NINJA TIP #1: Understand their Developmental Timeline
First of all, it’s important to know that adolescent brains have not yet finished developing. In fact, their limbic system (center of emotion, excitement and pleasure) matures in puberty, while their frontal lobes (brain region responsible for decision-making, judgment calls and impulse-control) don’t achieve full maturation until their early 20s. So for typical teenagers, emotion and pleasure trump judgment for roughly a decade! As such I say- teenagers may attempt to make you feel bad about continuing to set boundaries and rules! But they absolutely need your guidance and structure to keep them safe.
Second of all, they face an immense onslaught of hormonal and physical changes to their developing bodies, which can usher in a whole new host of problems (ranging from self-esteem and body image issues to anxiety, depression, and other mental health difficulties). And not only that, those hormones also cause a disruption in their normal sleep-wake cycle; which is why adolescents tend to fall asleep later and have difficulty waking up. While there are other variables that may contribute to this sleep problem, such as friends, parties, and technology, the hormonal shift is significant enough that it got the attention of the American Academy of Pediatricians in 2014. As a result of discovered chronic sleep deprivation, the AAP then attempted to encourage high schools nationwide to push back school start times to 8:30 or 9am! So biologically, this stage of life is incredibly physical, transitory, emotional, and exhausting!
Thirdly, while keeping brain development and hormonal shifts in mind, your teen is also in a psychosocial stage that entails identity development. Psychologist Erik Erikson actually termed the phase “Identity vs. Role Confusion.” What this means is that every teen is attempting to figure out who they are and where they belong. As such, they may take on several different roles (styles, interests) and move in and out of different peer groups and niches in search of where they belong. Peer pressure and peer influence are strong; and time with friends becomes a top priority for most teens. But not only are they attempting to discover “where they belong”; they are ultimately searching for “who they are.” Some parents often feel that they have completely lost the ability to influence their children during the teen years as friends take center stage. However, it’s important to note that most research suggests teens still have a slight preference for the advice of their parents over their peers (although they don’t frequently show it;). It is also important to note that if a parent is emotionally absent or take a “hands off” approach to raising their kids, the likelihood of losing influence to peers does increase. So if you love your kids and remain involved in their lives, take heart! Your advice will still take preference. But be advised and be prepared: they must still pull away from you and your sacred bird nest in order to find their place in the world!
NINJA TIP #2: Teach Them
From the time your little baby birds are born, you have been given the ultimate task: to prepare them for adulthood, to survive in reality, and to…in effect… work yourself out of a job (of parenting;). While this may be scary and emotional to think about, it is reality, and it is coming whether you like it or not! As such… the question remains: what are you doing to get them ready??
The transition from child to adult involves YOU as much as it involves THEM. Ideally, the ninja tip of “teaching” should have been in effect from infancy and toddlerhood. Through the younger years, and continuing on into adolescence, you want to teach them about life. About character, integrity, respect, love, kindness, forgiveness, and many other concepts that are essential for becoming healthy, productive members of society. But additionally now in adolescence, you also want to begin teaching them independent living skills so they can eventually survive on their own. Some suggestions for skill teaching chats with your teen:
- How to do laundry; general self-care and hygiene, room cleanliness
- How to make, prepare and store food
- Money management and bill paying: Budgeting, saving, a realistic outlook on the cost of living vs. average income levels
- Time management and scheduling: How to set an alarm, how to prioritize responsibilities, using a calendar/planner, how to approach a teacher with an academic concern, calling out sick for work, how to schedule personal appointments (doctor, dentist), etc.
- Goal-setting: How to realistically structure goals and map-out a pathway for their achievement; problem-solving skills
- Finding and Keeping a Job: Resume building, interviewing skills, work ethic, dependability and punctuality, respectful attitudes toward coworkers and superiors, etc.
- Auto care: If they have a car- how to change a tire and check the oil; how to access roadside assistance
- Transportation: How to access/utilize public transportation if they do not own a vehicle; safety tips
- Community Resources: How to look up and access other community resources as needed
- Emergency protocols: What to do in various situations ranging from natural disasters to a busted pipe flooding a room (how to turn off the water, how to flip a breaker switch, etc.)
I honestly cannot tell you how many college students I have spoken with who did not possess these basic skills and struggled in their first year away from home. Many have confessed to me that their parents continued to “do everything” for them right up until they left the home. While parents mean well and often assume they are loving their teens by doing everything for them, continuing this behavior can ultimately set a child up for failure, being completely unprepared for reality as it is. It is crucial that they learn these lessons. And you are their best teacher!
NINJA TIP #3: Train Them
As described, teaching (a verb) is an impartation of truths, lessons and explanations. Training (a noun) on the other hand, is the internship; it is when the teaching is actually put into practice. The reason for the difference and the need for both teaching and training is this… did you know that on average, a student only retains about 5% of what they learn in school? Unless they USE what they have learned, they will LOSE it. I lived this as a young college student and then a grad student. Seven years of school and an incredible amount of information overload! At the end of all the coursework and classes, I was then required to complete an internship of 1,000 counseling hours in order to receive my Master’s degree; and then in order to achieve my state license as a Mental Health Counselor, I had to complete another 1,500 face to face hours of therapy! And the truth of it all is… I learned THE MOST during those internships as I repeatedly revisited my textbooks and notes, rediscovering what to do in various situations with clients! Putting what I learned into action is what cemented my learning. The experience of utilization produced memories I can now return to when I find myself in comparable situations. Similarly, adolescence is the training ground for adulthood. This is when young teens can begin to practice the skills of independent living while still in a safe, supportive and structured setting. But for training to be effective and successful, I want to point out two vital components:
- Require Responsibility. By adolescence, it is crucial that parents begin to really step back and require their teens take full responsibility for the activities of their daily living. Hygiene, laundry, daily chores, scheduling. They can’t wake up on their own? Hand them an alarm clock. Can’t remember their obligations? Hand them a calendar (or show them how to use their digital one). Late on a school assignment? Make THEM speak with their teacher to request an extension. Extracurriculars conflicting their dentist appointment? Give your teen the phone number and have them call to reschedule. Trouble in friendships? Offer love, support and advice, but stay out of the conflict. They MUST learn communication, assertiveness, problem-solving and conflict resolution. You will feel the tug-o-war between letting them do it and wanting to do it yourself (sometimes the latter is way easier!). But these skills are absolutely essential for life and now is the time for them to learn it. Within this time period, your teen may also be ready to take on a job, open a checking account, or purchase a car. However I must issue this DANGER! WARNING! sign: be very careful to avoid free handouts, even to your beloved child. The danger of the handout is that it can produce a warped view of reality within your child. If everything comes free to a child, then why would they ever have a need to work? And why would they ever have a need to leave the safe sanctuary of your home (while that may make a mama secretly smile, a child that is unable to leave home would be deemed ‘failure to thrive’). And if the goal is to prepare your child for reality, a free car and a bottomless bank account at 15 is not reality for most. That’s not a reality at 55 either. When your child has the opportunity to work, work hard, and work harder in order to save for the things they want, they then have ‘skin in the game.’ They can also then identify the value of what they have purchased. It’s no longer a frivolous $40. No, those two movie tickets and dinner for his girlfriend was 4+ hours of labor. Feeling that pinch is much more likely to speed up responsibility development as he must consider his limited income and prioritize purchases (My husband’s father gave him a truck with no engine for his 16th birthday; he had to work and save to but it part by part. And then in the process, he was able to spend quality time with his dad, learning how to build an engine!). This is also a sure-fire way to avoid entitlement and the ‘you owe me’ mentality;). Require responsibility.
- Enforce Consequences. Now as you give increasing levels of responsibility, so also should consequences be in place for balance. Many teens lack motivation or initiative when it comes to learning new skills that they would rather have mommy do, and even more specifically, that mommy has done all along. So consequently, many teens default to manipulation and guilt trips as a means to finagle their way out of a given task. However now, with adulthood just around the corner, they must begin to feel reality hit them by the reality consequences they receive for not taking responsibility. Similarly as in childhood, you can design consequences that fit the crime (ex: excessive amounts of time on electronics may result in loss of electronics); but then also design consequences that reflect reality (ex: they completely fail to plan and tell you at 11pm that they need you to go get them supplies for a project due at 8am the following morning, let them take the late grade). Admittedly, this can be a very difficult lesson to teach (letting them feel the natural consequences of their irresponsibility), because it may involve allowing your teen to fail at something. No parent wants to see their child fail. But what every parent must know is that failure and pain are incredible teachers. And failing an exam, or even a grade, is much better than failing a DUI test after a fatal accident- if they don’t learn responsibility from now. You can still express empathy over their consequence: “I am so sorry you didn’t get the grade you wanted. Maybe next time you can plan ahead and make sure you have everything you need, as well as beginning the project well in advance.” The most important thing to ensure, is that you do not rescue your teen from the natural consequences of their irresponsibility. This is called “enabling.” While you may feel guilty or responsible for their pain, that is false guilt. You are responsible for your own choices and actions. They are responsible for theirs. They need to develop a healthy fear of consequences. This is the reality of life.
So ultimately, all parents desire to see their children grow into capable, responsible, mature adults who can function in healthy independence. There IS a pathway to this. Start teaching them skills and life lessons when they are young! Then move into training, giving them the opportunity to practice what they have learned and requiring responsibility. Be careful not to confuse love with rescuing (enabling). Ask yourself if your home is an escape from responsibility? Or is it a place of growth? In the real world, if an adult does not work, they do not eat (or they spend their time begging for money). Ensure that you are setting up situations that allow your teen to experience and understand reality as it truly is. This way, when it is time for your little bird to leave the nest, they will fly!