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Parenting teens: Expectations and control vs happy lives

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

I will add my normal disclaimer that the content of this blog is based on my opinions, centered on the last 3 years of counselling practice and the last 40+ years of life. This blog is really founded on my observations and experiences as a parent of teenagers. I did the hard yards and now I want to share with you my lived experiences and findings so that, unlike me, you might not have to bang your head against a very hard wall. I found parenting through the teenage years difficult, the drama and conflict were at times impossible to understand and comprehend. However, the drama and conflict were usually a direct result of my futile coping responses to parenting.

I had to start really thinking about my own moods and where they were coming from. Why was I angry? Why was I feeling disappointed and overwhelmed? Why was I feeling like a failure of a parent, unable to regulate my own emotions? Well, the simple answer, as I found it was, the conflict was triggered by two things…….a clash with my expectations and my futile attempts at control. As humans, we face many problems; really the list is endless and exhausting. I think, no matter what you are going through right now the basis of your problems fall broadly into one of those two categories.

So let’s talk expectations. Expectations are natural disasters of the mind. The reality is that if we didn’t have expectations, we wouldn’t have any problems at all. Have a think about it? Remember a time that you got angry, what was behind it? I can bet you it was a conflict with your expectations.

I feel a real-world example is needed here. Yesterday I was sitting in the car waiting for my daughter (17) to come out of Coles with my credit card and food on my specific shopping list. I had just been the passenger in the car while teaching my daughter to drive (a subject of a future blog). As she had my phone, I didn’t have access to endlessly scroll through social media or look at funny cat videos, so I was just sitting there thinking. What came up was the topic of expectations. I had an expectation (or perhaps it was stupid blind hope given the past did not support this reality at all) that my daughter would only get soya sauce, fake bacon, and hair dye. But I got to thinking and I thought to myself, ‘why do you do that to yourself. You know that if she goes into Coles with your credit card, she will also get chocolate, drinks, and some other sugary thing. Why do you set yourself up so much?’ Then I got to thinking even deeper what if I had no expectations at all. Well, the answer is I would be happy (or even content). I would accept the things that she bought, and I wouldn’t be upset. Please NOTE: When you give a teen access to your credit card and no supervision; it's going to be costly.

So, it got me thinking more in-depth. Stupidly, and stupidly for a lot of us parents, we have this generic list of expectations: We expect our children to have manners, be courteous, do things when we ask, do chores, clean up bedrooms, sort out their washing, engage in school, do homework etc; you get the picture. So, when are we most angry at our children? Come on take a guess…….Ok, I’ll answer, it is when they don’t do the things on our exhaustive list of expectations. Now you might be saying ‘Yeah but…’! ‘they should…’! but see how you are setting yourself up? SIDE NOTE: have you ever stopped to think about how this list is intergenerational. I bet your parents required those things of you as well? That is just a side note but interesting nonetheless. You might want all those things, but the reality is they are just your expectations projected on another person. What happens if we took away our expectations and we expected nothing at all…..could you do it? I have to say you would be a lot calmer, less angry and more excepting of others.

Now I am not suggesting that our teenagers do nothing to help around the home, but those things can be done with negotiation and careful influence.

Now we come to control.

Well, this kind of works in association with expectations. When we are parents of small children, we have a modicum of control. We can force our children to do certain things like going to school, chores, and the like. But when they turn into teenagers, WE HAVE NO CONTROL. It took me a long time to understand that I have no control – who wants to say they control another person anyway? Control is an illusion and one that creates some debilitating mental health issues. If we are talking about controlling our environment, that is one thing but if we are talking about controlling others – then you must be mad. What we do have is influence, which is grounded in negotiation and mutual togetherness. So again, in the car yesterday I was having a think about that as well. As a mother who is teaching two people to drive, I don’t have a lot of control. I may say ‘brake, brake and finally scream BRAKE’, in the hope that finally the brake pedal will be activated, but I have no real control at all. This example is kind of triggering and dangerous, but you get my gist. I’ll look for a nicer and less dramatic example…ok as a parent I have no control over my teenagers attending school. As 16-year-old people, I cannot pick them up and force them into the car, stuff some food into their mouths, drive them to school, sit them into a classroom and leave. Even if I could do that (which would be a scary exercise) I couldn’t control them staying at school.

Perhaps I could try controlling them with guilt, anger, punishments and/or fear of rejection but, they are all the suckiest parental tricks around. I may want to control the situation and have them attend school, but the reality is I can’t and I don’t really want to force them to attend if they hate it so much. So, I let it all go. I realised that yelling and screaming in the morning to get them up and ready without success, was causing both myself and them a lot of stress and unnecessary tension; and it wasn't working. I did the only thing I knew was the kindest thing to do – I let it go. Guess what happened? They took time, got bored and realised that they must work instead. A half-year later, they are working nearly full-time hours and contemplating returning to school next year.

I hope that this blog will help other parents understand that expectations and control can be the things that hurt us the most. If we let go of these things, I guarantee the home will be safer and happier. Parenting is hard and parenting teenagers harder, but we can, and do, get through it even if we have to change our way of working and thinking.


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