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Parents of Teenagers and Policy

The recent discussions of liberalism in Present Time and at the Pre-World-Conference Conferences have been excellent. In particular, I appreciate Randi Wolfe's article in the July Present Time. She talks about liberalism as "being tolerant of distressed behavior, whether it's our own or our client's." She says, "We avoid holding out high standards and don't want to 'push too hard' because the client may 'feel badly.' We question our own judgment and our ability to think about our client's situation, regardless of how obviously screwed-up the situation is." We abandon the client to his or her distresses-because of our own.

Liberalism is a major issue for parents of teenagers. Oppression is extremely heavy on adolescent young people. Their resulting internalized oppression, their lack of information, and their undis-charged distress can combine to dump many young people into life-threatening practices like "experimenting" with drugs, alcohol, and tobacco; having unprotected sex; and seeking thrills. Many teenagers get caught in downward spirals from which they do not escape: addiction, violence, incarceration, overdose, suicide. Desperate to see their children "happy" or "successful," many parents in the U.S. agree to put them on legal but unhealthy prescription drugs like Ritalin and Prozac. Clearly, parents need to clarify our own thinking and set policy to keep our young people safe while they are making the transition to independent judgment.

RC parents of teenagers, while very well-intentioned, have been particularly vulnerable to confusion around liberalism. In our effort not to be oppressive, we have sometimes abandoned our teenagers to their own distresses. (Although my sons are now young adults, I'll use "we" in talking about parents of teens. In fact, all allies of young people have something to learn here.) For years we have struggled not to be oppressive-to respect our young people and to give them as many choices as possible. We've thought our way through hours and hours of special time with our children, gamely playing what they wanted to play. We've resisted our pulls to dictate their clothing, hairstyle, bedtime. We've managed most of the time not to bark: "Clean up your plate!" Each of us has struggled with the educational system in some way, trying to keep the oppression off our children as much as possible. We've tried hard not to be authoritarian parents.

On the other hand, we also kept household poisons out of the reach of a baby, we did not let a toddler play at the top of a stairwell, and if a child began to run in front of a car, we stopped him or her the fastest way we could, without a thought of being oppressive. It was common sense that our first job as parents was to help the next generation survive.

As our young people become teenagers, many parents get less clear about what our job is. We RC parents get confused about the difference between being oppressive and taking responsibility. As our teenagers become more independent, we often cannot tell that we are needed or how we are needed. Yet we watch them struggle in a system that is very hard on them. Our chronic terror may get kicked up, and many other chronic patterns, too. Some of us tend toward rigidity and some toward wishy-washiness.

I want to distinguish between two different functions we have as parents: policy-setting and counseling. Policy-setting is being a reference person in an area where a young person is not yet able to think ("No riding in cars with drunk drivers," for example). Counseling is encouraging discharge on the subject or on the feelings around the policy. The two can go together. When we take a firm stand, often our teenager will be able to have a spontaneous session then and there. She or he may begin pouring out all the upsets that have been pent up for a long time. Even if she or he continues to be furious, deep down she/he will know that she/he is cared about, so the contradiction is there. The discharge is key, of course, but if it doesn't happen with the parent, it can still happen with someone else, sooner or later. The policy-setting, however, really is the responsibility of the parent, and its purpose is safety-now.

One area where parents of teenagers need to set policy is drugs and alcohol. It makes no sense for anyone to use drugs and alcohol. They impede and damage our precious ability to think and re-evaluate. Given the nature of addiction to chemical substances, even "experimentation" is dangerous. Drugs and alcohol ruin lives and end them. Parents need to make this policy clear: no drugs, no alcohol.

For this particular generation of parents in the U.S., many of whom used drugs as young people, there is often undischarged confusion from the past. It is important for all of us to discharge thoroughly on our own teenage years. But even before that discharging is done, we must decide not to be permissive. We must be clear and up-front with teenagers that drugs and alcohol are not okay with us, for ourselves or for them. It's not enough that we ourselves do not use chemical substances-if we are wishy-washy inside about our teenagers' experimentation, they will read our silence on the subject accurately.

Liberalism often involves pretending to ourselves that a problem is not there. With our teen-agers and their use of chemical substances, this is often the case. If our teenagers are not telling us about their irrational, dangerous practices, it is easy for us to pretend that everything is okay. Our patterns are comfort-seeking, even if the comfort is false.

One cause of our permissiveness is wanting to be liked by our teenagers. We may give in to their irrational pulls just to keep them from getting angry at us. Parents of teenagers may be struggling to remember that our young people love and want us. Of course they do, but this may not be readily apparent. As our teenagers deal with the hardships of their lives-young people's oppression, internalized young people's oppression, classism, sexism, men's oppression, etc.-we may be the target of their upsets. They need us to remember that they want us, even while they are upset with us. We need to reach for closeness with them-but real closeness, based on honest struggle, not a false peace bought by the surrender of our integrity.

As parents of teenagers, let's avoid being oppressive in every way we can. Let's respect our teenagers' right to try many things and to make sense of their own lives. We may not like that pierced navel or that purple hair, but so what? Let's watch them make plenty of "safe" mistakes-missed deadlines, painful (different from harmful) relationships, parking tickets-and let's be there for them when mistakes happen. The minor crises resulting will be good opportunities for us to get closer to them as we come through for them. Let's also notice their growing areas of proficiency and notice when our input is no longer needed.

However, if we believe that a situation is irrevocable or life-threatening, we must act decisively. We should forget about being oppressive and do what's right; feel as mean and authoritarian as we need to, but not let our teenagers ride with drunk friends; endure their hostility for a while-it's worth it. Even if we turn out to have been wrong in our assessment of the situation, that's okay. We can make mistakes, too, but let's make them in our best attempt at rationality.

Intervening to prevent someone we're close to from making a serious, irrevocable mistake is uncomfortable but rational. It's something we hope not to do often, but we need to be willing to do it-with a friend, a spouse, a Co-Counselor, someone who trusts us deeply. Our teenagers trust us more deeply than they may show. We owe it to them to be courageous as parents in setting rational policy.

Anne Toensmeier
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

(Present Time No. 110, January 1998)

Last modified: 2020-07-02 14:27:35+00