Regardless of city, state or country, virtually all teens face the temptation of drugs, sex, and rock n roll. You might not be too concerned about the rock and roll, but, if you’re like most parents, the idea of drugs and sex are probably disconcerting.
Mainstream propaganda teaches parents to handle these sensitive issues with a superficial “just say no” approach but if this black and white strategy worked, wouldn’t there be fewer kids doing drugs, drinking and having sex? Since statistics don’t lie, it’s plain to see that teens participate in mature behaviors whether parents like it or not.
As an New York crisis counselor, I worked with adolescents between the ages of twelve and nineteen. Over the course of seven years, hundreds of teens told me things they were too afraid to tell their parents, and, as a result, I learned about adolescence in ways that traditional education could never provide. I later used this knowledge to successfully raise three sons, and now I’m about to share what I learned (and practiced) with you!
Although most of the world treats adolescence like a disease needing to be cured, adolescence is meant to be a bridge between childhood and adulthood where teens learn how to make age-appropriate choices, navigate responsibilities, and develop independence. Ideally, with this in mind, adolescence should provide the space for self-exploration and self-discovery. Unfortunately, the traditional “just say no” approach to parenting often sabotages these important aspects of adolescence, and, instead of encouraging self-empowerment and independence, many well-meaning parents attempt to restrain teen expression by tracking and controlling behavior.
In most cases, this parenting strategy backfires - trying to squash independence often encourages deceitful behavior where teens lie and sneak around, and when parents forbid mature behaviors and leverage punishment as a means of control, most teens rebel. Although rebellious behavior is sometimes blatant, oftentimes, covert behavior allows clever teens to bypass parental radar, and many teens learn how to manipulate rules with misdirection, while parents are never the wiser. Even when parents diligently monitor phone calls, texts, and emails, and enforce early curfews, teens still find ways to do the things they want to do.
Worst of all, when parents deal with sensitive or mature issues with the “just say no” approach, they often cut off any chance of meaningful communication, and, consequently, they miss pivotal opportunities to provide guidance when kids need it most. It’s pretty clear that teens don’t talk to parents about sensitive subjects when they fear judgment, punishment, or other repercussions and, unfortunately, without proper guidance and advice, teens often make important (and sometimes life changing) choices based on peer pressure, curiosity or hormones.
Many well-intentioned parents don’t realize that the “just say no” approach to parenting can be just as detrimental as ignoring important issues and hoping for the best. In fact, teens raised by strict or closed-minded parents are more likely to make poor choices and participate in dangerous activities. And, because these teens are afraid to confide in their parents when they experience negative consequences, they are more susceptible to depression and suicidal ideation.
Most parents naturally want their children to follow family traditions, cultural beliefs and specific values that include good morals and a clear sense of right and wrong. However, once kids reach adolescence, healthy natural development motivates teens to challenge ideals and question everything.
Growing up requires trials and tribulations where teens test morals, ethics and beliefs, and, therefore, they need space to find their own truth. Like it or not, this translates into personal experiences where they can explore life and discover who they really are, and this could mean rejecting parental beliefs and making choices that go against everything they’ve been taught.
Surely, it can be difficult to watch our children question, or even reject, all we hold dear, but not allowing them to find their own answers is a recipe for parent-teen alienation.
Although the Amish are one of the strictest cultures in the world (even electricity is taboo), some Amish communities support a rather radical rites of passage known as “Rumspringa” (meaning running around). During “Rumspringa,” teens as young as fourteen years old have the opportunity to explore modern life outside the Amish community; often living independently in the city and experimenting with alcohol, drugs and sexual behavior. Surprisingly, after this period of adolescent exploration, almost 90% of Amish teens rejoin the Amish church, and because they make this choice consciously, they are fully committed for life. Clearly, the point is that, when given a choice, most teens eventually return to their roots.
Whether parents approve or disapprove, virtually all teens experiment with mature matters. As a parent, you can either help your kids make conscious and responsible choices or, by default, they will make their most important choices without you – and without the benefit of your wisdom and guidance. The answer to this dilemma is a Radical Parenting Approach where you think outside the box and aren’t afraid to toss antiquated parenting strategies to the curb!
Although teens are faced with adult choices on a regular basis, there’s no reason to allow peer pressure, hormones or fear to be deciding factors, nor is there any reason to miss pivotal parenting opportunities. As Radical Parents, we have the ability to raise teens who are confidently self-sufficient and emotionally well-adjusted. Knowing when (and how much) to let go, Radical Parents encourage age-appropriate independence while allowing teens to grow into their own space at their own pace. Ultimately, becoming self-empowered adults who own their worth and have mastered authentic self-expression.
In the following guide, the 3 Steps of Radical Parenting will show you how to build and sustain effective strategies for raising conscious and empowered teens.
The #1 tool for a Radical Parent is communication, and, in fact, without good, open communication, there’s no way to parent effectively. It’s fair to say that the ability to guide and influence adolescents is relative to the level of communication, and as communication improves, parental influence improves accordingly. In comparison to traditional parenting that depends on rule setting, discipline, and consequence-based parenting strategies, conscious communication creates a whole new paradigm for parenting. When it comes to parent-teen communication, here are the most pivotal concepts:
Refrain from Judgment - Believe it or not, most teens really want to speak openly with their parents, but, in many cases, well-intentioned parents inadvertently block communication by being judgmental. Although most parents don’t mean to judge their kids, when a parent focuses on misbehavior, faults or inadequacies, children of all ages experience judgment. Because parental judgment makes kids feel unworthy of parental love, it causes insecurity and makes them shut down (most teens only open up when they feel safe and loved). Even an isolated judgmental comment can cause teens to shut down and shut parents out.
If this isn’t a good reason to avoid criticism and judgment, also consider that parental judgment can damage a teen’s self-worth and become a source of disempowerment. It can also create the kind of guilt and shame that inhibits growth and development (impeding the type of learning that comes from mistakes). Of course, when teens make mistakes, refraining from judgment can be difficult, but this is exactly what a Radical Parent must do!
Here’s good news; if you don’t judge, get defensive or launch into lectures or explanations, teens often share the details of their lives and even ask advice. Hence, if you play your cards right, the best parenting opportunities lie ahead.
Avoid Power Games - Not only do teens need to feel unconditionally safe and loved, they also need to feel like they have some degree of power. When it comes to communication, there’s no way teens will talk to critical or condescending parents who make them feel powerless. So, when parents say things like, “I’m the parent and you have to do what I say” or “This is my house and as long as you live here, you’ll obey my rules,” there is no chance teens will open up and listen to parental advice.
In fact, when parents play these power games, teens often try to diminish parental power by demonstrating their own. For example, when teens feel powerless, they might intentionally break the rules, talk back, or rebel in some other manner, and if they feel powerless over an extended period of time, they might even run away or threaten self-harm (regardless of precipitating factors, all threats should be taken seriously).
No one ever wins a power game because every move has a counter-move, and the more controlling you are as a parent, the more rebellious your teen will be. Even if you somehow win, if you alienate your teen and block communication, you’ll both lose!
Keeping in mind that rules and consequences established without teen participation encourage power struggles, a key element to Radical Parenting is negotiation. By discussing and negotiating rules and consequences and formulating agreements with your kids, they’ll feel like they have a say in their own lives, and, when it comes to communication, this can make all the difference in the world.
Don’t Make Teens Lie - Parents hate it when kids lie, but they lie for the same reason adults lie; to avoid negative consequences, and this means that parental judgment or punishment can set the stage for lying and deception. In other words, if your child honestly tells you the truth about his thoughts, actions or behavior, and you respond with judgment or punishment, you’re teaching him to lie. Rather than risk parental wrath, most teens will choose to conceal the truth. So, if you want honesty, don’t punish your teen when you get it!
Beware the Test - Before communicating about more difficult subjects, teens sometimes test their parent’s reaction by introducing the subject matter as a third party story (maybe about a friend or something they heard on TV) and, if they sense any degree of parental judgment or closed-mindedness, they’ll drop the topic and never mention it again. This means that you’ll miss an opportunity to discuss a meaningful matter that affects your child.
Don’t Underestimate - Parents often avoid difficult discussions when they believe a teen is too young for mature subject matters. However, even if teens are immature for their age, or you think they are too young to make certain choices, if their friends or peers are engaging in mature behavior, it’s inevitable that they will be faced with the same opportunities. Do you want peer pressure to guide your teen’s choices or might you be a wiser guide? Here’s more good news; with open communication parental influence well-outweighs peer pressure.
As Radical Parents, we must learn to be excellent listeners! Although you may find your teen’s interests boring to discuss, there are three good reasons to attentively listen when kids share the everyday, ordinary stuff.
You just never know when your teen has something important to share, so it’s best not to risk missing potential parenting opportunities. Although most teens don’t outwardly initiate a conversation with their parents, whenever teens try to get a parent’s attention, it usually indicates they want to talk. Other indicators include dropping subtle hints or silently following a parent around without any noticeable intention. Therefore, if there is any sign your teen wants to talk, drop everything and pay attention; turn off your phone, computer, and TV. However, don’t expect your teen to do the same. Eventually, you can make this an agreed rule, but first, you must set and establish a precedent where you give your full undivided attention.
Timing is Everything - When it comes to parent-teen communication, timing is everything. If you try to push, manipulate or pressure teens into meaningful conversations before they’re open, it’s probably not going to fly. When my boys were adolescents, I learned to patiently wait for opportunities when they would be receptive to guidance. Sometimes, this meant waiting many months, but, hands down, it was always worth the wait! So, be chill and keep the door open; just let your teen know you are available to listen whenever he or she wants to talk. But, also, stay conscious, so when opportunity knocks, you’re ready to offer guidance and support.
Opportunity Knocks - The opportunity for communication often knocks when adolescents are faced with difficult issues or experiencing the natural consequences of poor decisions (this is when they are most receptive to support and guidance). However, although times of confusion or crisis offer priceless opportunities to connect and mentor, there’s a delicate balance; if you intervene too much, become controlling, or invasive, your teen might close down, and, consequently, your ability to mentor and guide will be equally diminished. By avoiding judgment, lectures, and control tactics, and showing unconditional love and support, Radical Parents hold the space for communication and exploration.
Allow Silence and Awkwardness - Since teens are just learning how to put words to their thoughts and feelings, it’s important to allow time and space for silence and awkwardness. In fact, it’s common for teens to speak slowly with a lot of space between thoughts. So, if you jump in with solutions or interrupt their process of communication for any reason, they may close down and stop talking altogether, and you’ll never know what’s really going on (or how to help). If you dominate the conversation, you will likely miss what they really want to say, so, as a good rule, allow your teen to talk (at least) twice as much as you.
Talk Feelings - You may want to protect your teen from emotional pain, but it’s just not possible, and even if you could, you might actually cause more harm than good. Yes, challenging situations sometimes result in painful emotions, but these experiences are precious opportunities for growth and learning. So, instead of suppressing or avoiding uncomfortable feelings, Radical Parents teach their teens how to feel and process emotions. Remember, if you want kids to share their feelings, you must create a safe (judgment-free) space for expression.
Be a Source of Empowerment - In addition to actively listening without judgment or commentary, a Radical Parent is a source of empowerment and upliftment. Instead of focusing on negativity and mistakes, show your sons and daughters what they do “right,” and teach them how to learn from their mistakes without self-judgment (because it damages self-worth and causes disempowerment). By the end of a meaningful conversation (even if the problem is not yet resolved), your teen should feel more capable and confident in his/her actions. As an added benefit, when children feel supported by their parents, they are more inclined to share challenging subject matters.
Confidentiality is Crucial - If you desire open communication, you must respect your teen’s confidentiality. So, whatever your teen confides in you stays with you (unless it involves a potentially harmful situation like suicidal ideation, for example). Or, if you believe the other parent needs to be informed, don’t go behind your teen’s back. Instead, ask your teen to communicate directly, or let him or her know you plan to communicate and explain why.
Improve Communication Skills - If you’re uncertain about healthy and empowering communication, don’t allow lack of knowledge or experience to get in the way. Instead, do whatever it takes to improve your communication skills; take classes, read books or hire a coach.
Children of all ages learn by example and naturally copy their parents, so, by the time, they reach adolescence, most are hyper-sensitive to parental indiscretions, and this makes them notice any discrepancies between the rules and expectations set for them and the ones their parents follow.
Since you can’t expect a teen to do what you say, if you’re not doing it yourself, make sure to clean up “sloppy behavior.” Oftentimes, this includes negative self-talk, disempowering language, unhealthy habits, and unconscious reactions, and, needless to say, make it a point to model desirable behaviors and do what you want your kids to do.
Furthermore, if your teen “calls you out” on your behavior, don’t defend yourself, make excuses, or belittle your teen by acting superior (above the rules because you’re the parent). Instead, make it an opportunity for meaningful communication. Even if your son or daughter is trying to use your behavior against you in order to manipulate the rules on their behalf, don’t react or take offense. Rather, listen carefully and have the courage to recognize the wisdom in their words, and without burdening your kids with adult issues or excuses, be open and honest while engaging a real discussion about the subject. And, if appropriate, course correct your behavior accordingly, so that you can be the person you want your son or daughter to be!
Parent Heal Thyself - Few can argue that adolescent self-discovery can be weird and messy (green hair, odd piercings, unusual friends, etc...), plus, driven by hormones and curiosity, this period of exploration can push a parent’s comfort zone. Sooner or later, most teens unknowingly trigger their parent’s emotional wounds, and, consequently, a parent’s unhealed issues can negatively impact parenting, and may even be passed down from parent to child.
No doubt, we cannot raise confident and emotionally healthy children unless we are confident and emotionally healthy parents, and, therefore, we must courageously do the inner and outer work to become the people we want our children to be. In helping our kids build self-worth and become empowered adults, we must break free of our own limitations and disempowering beliefs, and this requires healing unresolved issues and emotional wounds. In other words, Parent Heal Thyself!
Mutual Respect - As a Radical Parent, mutual respect is key; no teen will respect a parent more than they feel respected by the parent. Therefore, it’s vital to treat your teen with the high level of respect in which you want to be treated; for instance, if you want your teens to call when they’re late, you must also do the same.
Most of all, never speak to your kids in a way you wouldn’t want them to speak to you, and this means no yelling, blaming, or disrespectful communication of any nature. If you want respect, you must first give it, so, if you don’t want your teen to judge or curse, you better refrain. However, if you slip, either in words or affectation, take responsibility and apologize without excuses or justification.
Also, although you should never accept disrespectful behavior, do not take it personally.
Honor Privacy - Unless there’s a reason to believe your teen’s life is in danger, it’s best to respect privacy and not invade private space. “Parental invasion” motivates teens to protect their privacy, and, therefore, eavesdropping and snooping leads to secretive behavior. Moreover, not only won’t your kids trust you, you’ll also make them feel untrustworthy, and, as a result, they’ll act accordingly.
What about friends who are bad influences? - Well, if you’re judgmental of your teen’s friends or forbid certain friendships, there’s a good chance your teen will rebel by holding onto these relationships. Where parental judgment and ultimatums don’t work, time and space often do the trick, and given the opportunity to choose, most teens decide to ditch unhealthy relationships on their own.
Consider, if you are not consciously encouraging independence and empowerment, there's a good chance you are unconsciously encouraging dependency and powerlessness. Here’s what you need to know in order to empower teens and help them make empowered choices in all areas of life:
When teens believe they must meet certain conditions in order to be worthy, their ability to make good choices is diminished accordingly. Choices that are based on proving or improving worth are almost always disempowering in one sense or another; especially when those choices require the suppression of authentic expression in order to be liked or accepted.
Teens who know their unconditional worth make better choices because they are not afraid to say no or set boundaries that could result in judgment or rejection, and they don’t compromise self-respect or self-expression in exchange for approval or acceptance – nor to fit in or be popular. Therefore, it’s not an understatement to say that the primary job of a Radical Parent is teaching self-worth.
So, how do you do it? - Firstly, take a stand for your teen’s self-worth - let them know that their worth is not dependent on anything or anyone, and this means that Radical Parents don’t judge their kids for less than perfect grades, nor do they focus on failure or inadequacy. Whether verbal or non-verbal, every time you express judgment, disappointment or criticism, your teen gets the message that worth depends on demonstration and meeting conditions. Rather than motivating kids to do better, this debilitating message causes disempowerment, and, all too often, results in the kind of self-doubt and insecurity that can last a lifetime.
Since Radical Parents must practice what they preach, don’t forget to embrace your own unconditional worth! So, if you don’t yet have it, do whatever you need to do, to get it!
Boundaries Set the Stage - To make good, healthy choices, teens must identify their personal boundaries and have enough confidence to enforce those boundaries, even if it results in peer judgment or rejection. Teach your teens that they always have the power to choose (even when it appears otherwise), and they can say ‘no” when everyone else is saying yes. Teach them to stay empowered through clear communication, and encourage them to leave situations where boundaries might be crossed or compromised.
Also, teach your kids to recognize and avoid emotional manipulation; let them know that they are not responsible for another person’s behavior or emotional reaction, and they should never compromise themselves to protect someone’s feelings. You might say something like, “You are responsible for you, and your job is to take care of yourself because no one else can do it for you.”
Own Responsibility - Since empowered choices require a high level of self-responsibility, teach your teens to take responsibility for their choices and consequences, and not give their power away by shifting responsibility or blaming someone else. As a Radical Parent, you must demonstrate self-responsibility by being responsible for all your choices and consequences, including actions, reactions, language, and moods. Therefore, you must forego excuses, such as rationalizing negative behavior or using an end-result to justify the means.
Practice Positive Thinking - Most teens spend a great deal of time worried about all sorts of things; from getting invited to that special party to being accepted into the right college. However, worrying is a waste of time and energy because it means focusing on the least desirable outcomes. Instead, teach your teen that thoughts create reality, and, therefore, it is essential to focus on positive outcomes.
Don’t Project - Don’t project your experiences or beliefs on your teen; what was/is right for you is not necessarily right for your growing child. Instead, support each child to become his or her best self.
Encourage Self-Trust - If we want our children to think for themselves and make good age-appropriate choices, they must believe in themselves, and this requires self-trust. However, to help teens develop self-trust, you must trust them, because if you don’t, they won’t know how to trust themselves.
“Parental invasion,” such as spying and eavesdropping, not only teaches teens to be defensive, paranoid and sneaky, it also demonstrates your lack of trust. Moreover, if you use your teen’s mistakes to justify distrust, it will make him feel untrustworthy, and that’s what he’ll tend to be. Conversely, the more you trust your kids, the more trustworthy they will become, and the more they will know how to trust themselves.
Follow Inner Guidance - Even more than knowledge and logical thinking, learning to listen to inner guidance is the key to making good choices. Since emotions can be powerful, intuitive guides, teach your kids to listen to their feelings, and when making choices, ask them to imagine each potential outcome and notice how it feels. Most of all, help teens identify their true voice and follow inner guidance.
Ask Empowering Questions - When parental advice is heard as lecturing or an attempt to control, teens tend to shut down and block communication. Even if you know what’s best, spewing advice often alienates teens from the get-go. Therefore, instead of lecturing about consequences, why not use thought provoking questions to explore options; for example, “What do you think might happen if ...?”
Good open-ended questions invite teens to discover answers for themselves, and not only does this demonstrate your trust, it also teaches them to trust themselves; thereby building a bridge of confidence that can take them anywhere in life!
One of the greatest gifts you can give is a “question” that elicits greater awareness and inspires new ways of thinking, or enlightens potential consequences. Empowering questions open the space for increased consciousness by inviting the mind to imagine possibilities without constraints or limitations. Questions that begin with, “What if...?” are usually gems in disguise. For example, “What if you could express yourself, without fear of judgment, what would you say or do?”
Although our teens might come to the same conclusion (as we would advise) when they think for themselves, answers are more meaningful, and, in the process, they develop significant life skills, such as discernment, inner guidance, and self-trust.
Adult Education - When it comes to adult subject matters, to help your teen make good choices, it’s important to get educated and open the space for conscious discussion. For instance, if your son or daughter is curious about any mature behavior, instead of just regurgitating propaganda meant to control the masses, educate yourself and encourage him or her to get educated. Then, together, discuss the benefits, dangers, effects and what to expect. Remember to explore the difference between conscious exploration and recreational thrills, and make sure to discuss the importance of a safe environment. Also, let your kids know that they can call you any time to pick them up anywhere – no questions asked!
The Contract - Although it’s not always possible, do your best to create a verbal contract, so that your teen agrees to speak to you before engaging in drugs, sex or other adult behaviors. Ideally, the contract should include a post-experience discussion as well. The post-discussion is of utmost importance because teens sometimes have new experiences that leave them feeling confused, alone or afraid.
During the post-discussion, allow teens to express their thoughts and feelings without giving them a lecture or sharing your personal commentary. Once they are done sharing, your job is to help them make sense of their experiences so that they can learn about themselves, and use this knowledge for future choices. Remember, no matter the experience or outcome, avoid judgment. Even if they express regret, don’t say, “I told you so” or any version of it, because it will only make them shut-down and not trust you again.
Since contracts can only be made voluntarily, don’t force your kids to agree; even if you get them to commit, forced agreements have a tendency to backfire.
Say “No” to Best Buddies - Although you may be your teen’s support system, guide, and confidant, don’t try to be a best buddy and don’t expect them to be yours. Therefore, don’t burden teens with adult concerns, don’t share personal issues, and don’t depend on them for emotional support. In fact, do your best not to behave in any way that could make your kids feel responsible for you or any adult stresses. It’s not their job to be your caregiver. Furthermore, if your teen perceives you weak or needy, you’ll lose trust, and if they feel they have to take care of you, they won’t ask for guidance. Therefore, resolve any emotional issues and other problems with an adult friend, coach or therapist.
As guides who support the journey from birth to adulthood, immense power has been invested in every parent, and, therefore, this power must be consciously used to raise children who become independent and empowered adults. As such, we must remember that we don't own our children, but, rather, those entrusted to our care are simply wise beings in new bodies, and it’s our job to help them remember who they really are.
Indeed, it’s not always easy to parent an empowered teen, but it might help to remember that the behaviors commonly discouraged in adolescence often become desired attributes in adulthood, such as questioning the rules, thinking for oneself and standing for truth. Therefore, keep in mind that positive adult behaviors are best learned and cultivated during adolescence, and with the help of a Radical Parent, many empowering attributes become the foundational building blocks for life.
Finally, although we may point the way and encourage authentic self-expression, we must ultimately allow our grown children to find their own path and walk their own talk. Therefore, without projecting prejudice, we must also encourage the exploration of new ideas and unique ways of living so that one day our children can fulfill their greatest dreams, and, consequently, pass on the gifts we have graciously bestowed.
Even if you forget everything else, just remember one thing; be the person you want your child to be...
With Grace and Gratitude