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Today's Family Magazine

How teens develop into healthy, capable adults

By Kimberly Blaker

As most parents of adolescents can attest, contending with teens' growing need for independence can be a daunting challenge.  But pushing away from their parents is a normal part of adolescence and necessary for teens to develop into healthy, capable adults. Because they are still maturing, however, they do need guidance and support along the way.

So how do you give your teen the space to grow and avoid overstepping boundaries which can alienate and tend to push your teen further away?  The first step is understanding the necessary components for teens to become capable adults.  Then know how to guide and support your adolescent during this trying stage while providing your teen the freedom to grow.

As kids grow, they need to take on more responsibility for themselves and within the family.  Taking responsibility for themselves includes waking up and getting to school on time, managing homework and extracurricular activities, among many other tasks.  Teens also need to develop more responsibility toward others.  At home, teens can cook for the family, do more chores, and help care for younger siblings.  Other ways teens can develop responsibility toward others is by holding a part-time job or volunteering to serve their community.

Learning to problem solve and make good decisions is crucial to becoming a capable adult.  So teens need lots of opportunities to make their own decisions.  There's no doubt, they're going to make mistakes along the way.  But the best lessons in life are often a result of mistakes.  It's natural for parents to want to protect their kids and prevent them from experiencing pain (physical or emotional).  But the mistakes teens make, and particularly the consequences of those mistakes, often dull in comparison to those they could potentially make as adults.  So don't try to protect your teen from ever making a mistake. By allowing adolescents to make decisions, experience failure, and problem solve now, they'll have the foresight and skills to make better decisions as adults.

The best way to help your teen develop decision-making skills is to pick and choose when to intervene. Consider the severity of the repercussions if your teen makes a particular mistake.  For example, drinking and driving can be deadly not only to your teen but anyone else on the road.  So if your teen doesn't make a responsible decision regarding this, you need to intervene.  When the consequences are less severe, parents should still offer guidance.  But teens should have much more freedom to decide for themselves and opportunities to fail and learn lessons.

During the teen years, kids struggle with the formation of their own identity.  But forming their own identity is necessary to becoming an emotionally healthy adult.  Teen identity formation is seen in many behaviors.

Rebellion.  Teens often rebel to differentiate themselves from their parents and authority figures. Rebelliousness can take the form of noncompliance or nonconformity.  Either way, a teen will provoke their parents' disapproval to assert the teen's individuality, says Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph.D., in “Rebel with a Cause: Rebellion in Adolescence.” Unfortunately, rebellion can lead to self-defeating and even self-destructive behavior.  If your teen is rebelling, Pickhardt recommends that parents allow natural consequences to occur, provide positive guidance (repeatedly), and support constructive growth.

Sex, drugs, and alcohol.  In addition to peer pressure, teens often use drugs, alcohol, or sex to feel grown-up.  These can be challenging issues for parents to deal with.  The best approach for parents to take is to offer ongoing guidance to their teens regarding these matters and to keep the line of communication open. Talk to your teen about the facts and dangers, how to be safe, and your expectations.  If your teen comes home intoxicated, don't overreact.  Wait until your teen is sober and discuss the matter calmly.  Above all, make sure your teen knows they can talk to you at any time.

Status.  Status symbols are another means by which teens search for their identity.  They may insist on wearing expensive shoes and clothing or spend on pricey electronics or cars.  This is an area where allowing teens to make their own decisions is often best (so long as they're spending their own money, not yours).  Still, it would be best if you tried to instill in your teen that material things aren't what defines who he or she is, but rather, what's on the inside is what counts.

Idolization.  Idols are another way teens search for their identity.  Teens often mimic their idols in the way they dress, do their hair, and talk.  While this can give teens a sense of belonging, it ultimately results in the loss of their own identities.  Let your teen know it's okay to admire their idol.  But encourage your teen to be himself or herself and remind your adolescent of their own valuable qualities.

Cliques.  Another way teens try to discover or establish their identity is through cliquish exclusion.  Being part of a group can be a good thing because it provides commonality and a sense of security and belonging.  But unlike groups, cliques are restrictive and allow only certain types of people in. Teens are very good at disapproving of and excluding others who dress or act differently from themselves and often form cliques.  If your adolescent is part of a clique, discuss the importance of still being oneself, having a mind of their own, and standing up to bad behavior that may occur within the clique.

It's only natural parents want and hope their kids will grow to hold the same values as their parents.  But during the teen years, as adolescents try to carve out their own identities, they begin to question some of those values and experiment with new ones.  Some of the values your teen comes to hold or oppose may go against your own.  In some cases, these different values may even be self-destructive.  Still, teens often carve out new positive values on their own as well.

Although teens will ultimately choose the values they'll live by, parents can still try to influence positive values in their teens.  The key is talking with your teen and allowing for open dialogue.  When you do speak with your teen, ask open-ended questions that make your adolescent think.  For example, ask, 'what would you do if you were with a friend who was bullying someone?'  Also, ask if your teen feels pressured to ignore certain values.  If so, ask how they think they can overcome that pressure.

Finally, lead by example.  Throughout the teen years, look for teachable moments.  Find opportunities to invite your teen to join you in value-based activities.  That way, your teen can experience the impact it has on others, the world, and their own sense of self-worth.