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Farmer — Parents sometimes struggle as children seek independence

An Iowa parent writes asking about her son's infatuation with a long-standing girlfriend. She and her husband are worried about the amount of time he spends with her.

It is interfering with his school work and he is socially isolating himself from both family and friends during his senior year of high school. The girlfriend's attitude toward them is distant and standoffish. The parents are asking for advice on how to approach this situation.

As a mother of six adult children and one nearly adult child, my wife readily observes that 17-year-olds are her least favorite age in child rearing. This age is characterized by anxiety and lack of readiness for true independence and a bold willingness to enjoy their freedom.

An older teen may engender conflict subconsciously in order to ease the pain of leaving home. Fears of adult responsibility become the lesser of two evils when living at home under parental rules and supervision. Older teens reach a point of arrogant obnoxiousness in which think they know it all and are quick to point out parental ignorance and shortcomings.

The conflict at this stage also helps parents let go. By the time these budding young adults are ready to leave, their parents are also ready to have them go.

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Some conflict may emerge when parents undertake to "fine tune" their older adolescent to prepare him or her for responsibilities in the adult world. The additional polishing young people need will come about through natural consequences of their own actions with roommates, paying bills, managing money and making good decisions regarding impulse control.

How to get through the senior year.

This is not time to criticize but to maximize responsibility. Help your older teens take additional steps toward independence. Take the time to discuss what he or she has learned from misbehavior before applying consequences.

Express confidence in your teen's ability to make decisions, to recognize mistakes and to bounce back from poor choices. Too much worry is a vote of no-confidence. Let your teen know you are approachable when he or she has something that is troubling or distressing. Reassure your child that you will be there for support if mistakes are made.

Negotiate the limits or ground rules while your child is at home. Get an agreement on a reasonable plan for behavior in the home and guidelines for curfews and informing parents of activities and whereabouts. Be liberal in the negotiations, but be prepared to back up the agreements with consequences.

Plan outings. Have one last summer vacation as family. Make memories. Give generous compliments and recognition for his or her accomplishments, talents, and endearing qualities. Be generous with affection and expressions of love so your child knows the strength of your commitment to his or her well-being.

The more activities he or she is involved with, the better. Participating in sports or some other skill development activity will build self-esteem and shrink the amount of time available for aimlessly hanging out. Plan a busy summer.

Make clear guidelines about your child's role in paying some of their college expenses. Helping to work and pay for one's education will help children value their schooling more. Children need to be prepared to pay for any extras and perks connected with their wants. This means finding and keeping a job, saving money and managing their own money within a budget.

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Don’t overreact to the girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s presence in your child’s life. Until your child is engaged, treat the relationship as if it is transitory. Focus on the relationship with your own child and trust his or her judgment to recognize problems and address them if necessary. By forbidding the relationship or putting too many restrictions on it, you may be driving your child into the arms of someone who might welcome the opportunity to drive a wedge between you.

If the young couple marries, you won’t have a history of animosity between you and the new in-law. Also, that will be the time to negotiate how you treat one another.

College and increased maturity has a way of ending high school romances that were sustaining for a time but are mismatches in terms of true compatibility.

Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, MO.

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