With teen-agers, Mom must become adviser, not boss


I am on the cusp of my children's adolescence, and I feel as though I am fading like milky fog under a warm sun. They don't need me as much, and they want me less.

I am about to be fired as their manager, says Michael Riera, an adolescent psychologist and author of the soon-to-be-published "Uncommon Sense for Parents with Teen-agers."

Fired? This is a very tough notion for us control-freak mothers, who want to dress our pre-adolescents like the children in a Lands' End catalog while choreographing their friendships and portioning their meals. (My sister set new standards of control when she started serving buckwheat pancakes every Saturday morning to make sure her children were regular.)

Not surprisingly, kids find this kind of parenting suffocating. And clearly it will not produce very grown up grown-ups. But how do we pass this baton of independence to our children without dropping it into the chasm of time and experience between us?

Simple. After you've been fired as their manager, Riera instructs, get yourself hired as a consultant.

"The issue is who is in charge, and that makes for power struggles neither party wants to be in," says Riera. "We need to stop talking about control and start talking about influence. Then the idea of manager vs. consultant makes a lot of sense."

Knocked off balance by the bizarre mood swings of our once-loving child and fearful of the dreadful mistakes he can make as a teen-ager -- drugs, alcohol, pregnancy -- we often screw the lid down tighter. Teens react first with fury, but soon enough find ways to sneak and lie their way around us.

But the concept of letting go feels too much like giving up to me.

"Giving up your role as manager does not mean doing nothing. No parent wants to sit there idly and just watch what happens," says Riera.

Instead, the author says, you must work like mad to develop an adviser role, to convince your kids that you are not an intrusive, mistrustful adult, but a caring resource person whom they can bounce ideas off as they "develop their decision-making muscles," as Riera describes it.

This is a knife's edge line to walk. It takes a special kind of listening, an opportunistic kind of advising.

"You have to train your ear to hear when something important is coming," he says. "They want your input, but they don't want to be overwhelmed by it. They need to know that if they ask you something, you are not going to step in and take over."

Riera's book, based on years as a high school counselor in San Francisco, moves through the minefield of adolescence, using questions and comments of real parents and their real kids on topics such as parties, grades, television, music, sports, driving, eating disorders, grief, divorce, sex, blended families.

"A number of kids read the book and told me it sounds just like their house," says Riera.

Using the words of parents and teens, he "translates" for two adversaries who stopped communicating right after the first blown curfew.

First, Riera advises, stop talking. Resist the temptation to give advice until your child has asked three times. If she wants to know what you think, it is because she isn't sure what she thinks. Give her time to work it out. Besides, the less you talk, the more she will.

He is not suggesting that parents blindly trust their children. "That will get you in trouble. You have to negotiate with them about how they earn that trust. You start with small steps. Let them know that the limits are negotiable, but not when something happens. If they break the limits, they face the consequences.

"And you have to enforce the consequences neutrally. Don't drive the lesson home. They will figure it out themselves. They are very capable."

Teen-agers, Riera says, stating the obvious for anyone who is raising any, are moody, irresponsible, vulnerable and unpredictable. It is in this muddled state that they will -- and must -- make decisions about school, friends, drugs, sex and where they fit in the world.

The goal is not how well you can live your children's lives. Rather, it is how well they will live them. Your job is to let them know you are there for them. But just as a consultant, not a manager.

"Uncommon Sense for Parents with Teen-agers" is available by calling (800) 841-2665.

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