As a Dad my fifteen year old tunes me out at home, but as a Counselor my adolescent clients are surprisingly candid and willing to talk about their lifestyle and what is happening in their lives. The parents of my daughter’s friends all know what I do for a living. When we run into each other socially someone usually prods me to find out what is really going on in our teen’s world. I avoid working when away from the office and can usually short circuit the conversation by saying they don’t want to know. If they really push, I threaten to tell them. They end up agreeing with me.

Kids who are having a great year don’t end up in my office so we understand from the start that the population I work with is defined up front by their propensity for some problem. There are some common threads that run through this group, common denominators that we as parents overlook at our peril and at our teen’s expense.

First is unsupervised time. What most parents forget, or never realize, is that identity is formed in tension with other individuals. We try on our identities, we practice our identities, and hopefully we end up choosing to become what we are called to be. But in this “practice time” the practice is usually in an area that parents should be cautious of. Muscles are formed when we exercise them. Bones decalcify in space without resistance. And our identities do not develop unless we are acting against something or someone else. The parent’s job here is to put some parameters on where or who this someone else is. I believe we are allowed to jerk our children back off the edge of a cliff and sometimes we need to. But if we don’t even know they are walking on the ledge we cannot participate.

Second, we need to attach responsibility to the freedom that the child seeks. Our kids are all about this idea of freedom and our role in this is to show them how to appreciate it. Appreciated freedom manifests itself in responsible behavior. I saw a very thought provoking editorial cartoon once that made this very point. Frame one posited “Two good examples of why we should leave our kids more than just money.” The next frame showed Paris Hilton and Brittney Spearson a drunken spree. When we are given freedom with no responsibility we never learn how to appreciate it or use it wisely. To do this, simply offer your child alternatives without taking their choices personally. Be home by midnight or lose the use of the car tomorrow night. Do your chores or don’t go out. Hand them back the power to choose and then their choices will reflect the opportunity to claim the responsibility that needs to accompany freedom. And the best part for me is that I get to recognize that their choice is then their responsibility and I do not have to invest in which choice they make.

This latter principle is directly related to the final one I offer you. Get with the other decision makers in the house so one of you does not erode the other’s power. Yes this is difficult, particularly in extended and mixed families. But if we can agree that the health and growth of the adolescent trumps all else, then we stand a chance of finding common ground upon which to offer these choices to our child.

I had one client who had lost the use of his car as a reprimand. With some coaching, I told him that we could get the use of his car back if he would agree to be home by curfew (and he would have to do it on a consistent basis). He smiled and declined because he knew his Dad was going to give him back the car soon enough and Mom and Dad never agreed on curfew anyway. When Junior was out, he simply waited for Mom to raise the heat enough in messages to him on his cell that he would then call Dad back and assure him that he’d be home “soon.” In the vagueness of “soon”, he could get Mom and Dad to fight over the specific time, and Junior got to stay out drinking.

Responsibility must accompany freedom or it is really indulgence. If we as parents are not going to insist on this responsibility then we are abandoning our children. It might even lead one to suspect that our refusal to insist on this teaching with our children is the source of the lesson the child is learning. Our children deserve better.

Rev. Daniel Gowan, LCDC, LPC-S