Parenting the Young Adult: Ages 13-18
It might be interesting to note that the term ‘teenager’ is a relatively new label for youth between the ages of 13 and 18. Before its creation, children around the age of 13 were called youth or boys and girls. However, somewhere between World War II and the end of the 1960s, the expectations of this age group transformed from a time of responsibility into an extended childhood freed from worry, work and wisdom.
The word teenager first appeared in the Webster dictionary in 1961 as a noun synonymous with the word adolescence. It was used to describe someone who didn’t have to grow up before the age of 18. Teenagers were granted a 5 year pass exempting them from the rights with responsibilities of adulthood. They were cleared to be risk-takers, find and experience all worldly pleasures (whether moral or not) and following their peers.
Contrast the term of teenager to that of youth. Youth are considered persons who have their sights set on becoming adults and accepting mature responsibilities. Youth use their teen years to become dependable, trustworthy and reliable. They are subject to the usual pitfalls of immaturity but they seek out and consider the guidance of parents and adults.
Why is this terminology noteworthy? Simply, what you expect is what you will get. As parents you need to decide which type of person you want to deal with over the next 5 years. Will you view your child as a teenager or as a youth? The way you frame these 5 years will impact the magnitude of the challenges you and your child will face.
The Catholic Church implores you to see your child as a young adult. In doing so, you understand that you are still the primary educator. Children should not find themselves alone during this stage of life. The wisdom of the Church states that parents should “educate their children for life in such a way that each one may fully perform his or her role according to the vocation received from God.” (FC. 53) This implies that parenting is a lifelong task. It does not take a break or vacation during the teen years.
Remember, the future of humanity passes by way of the family. Build a hopeful future with your young adults.
‘It’s time to become the guide at the side, not the sage on the stage”. This phrase aptly describes the transition parents make during the young adult years. Youth are still expected to follow the right counsel of their parents and participate in family life and parents are still expected to provide guidance and interaction. However, both the youth and the parents needs to be aware that in just a few short years, the youth will be out on his own - away from daily, family contact. This means a shift in basic decision making has to occur. The transition should reflect the young adult’s need to practice sound judgment. Let’s look at the various ways to make the transition smooth.
Youth need to experience what it means to ‘fly solo’ when making decisions and bearing the responsibilities that will follow. Let’s talk about what ‘flying solo’ really means. In the world of aviation, a pilot has to make several solo flights (no one in the plane but the pilot) before becoming certified. While this means he is physically alone, the pilot never considers himself to be without guidance. The pilot has been trained to ‘fly solo’ using prior knowledge, ground support and his instrumentation. He knows that he has to file a flight plan and follow it. Once, he is in the air, he knows that he has the ability to look at what the gauges say, contact the control tower, and recall previous flights to guide him safely through his journey. He understands that if he uses his resources well, he will make a safe flight, gain confidence in his abilities and eventually become a certified pilot.
Maintaining a community of persons during this life span means that the family takes on the role of ground support for the youth. Parents become the control tower that knows the pilot’s flight plan and is available for contact as needed. Further, the family has to make sure that the instrumentation the pilot uses is fully operational. In this case, the instruments are the established virtues and expectations of the family. The parents must be convinced that the pilot can read and follow the gauges before allowing solo flight. Finally, the family has to have taken several ‘accompanied’ flights with the pilot to ensure safe practices prior to the solo experience.
Let’s translate all of this into four practical parenting steps.
One of the most dangerous trends in modern society is the creation of a “teen age” culture that is isolated from the adult world. Teenagers are encouraged to have their own music, movies, social networks, and modes of communication about which parents know nothing. Children are trying to move into adulthood without the guidance of adults.
The cornerstone of this wall of separation – more impregnable than any physical or political wall in history – is the media. Teenaged media outlets such as MTV, companies that market directly to teens, and the music and entertainment industries work together to create a culture where adults are as unwelcome as they are out of place. Parents have received the message loud and clear. If you ask any parent to recite the lyrics of the music their teenage children listen to, you are likely to receive a vague response such as, “I don’t know. I can’t listen to that junk.” The result is that adolescents are left adrift without guidance or standards to judge the culture around them, and they all too often fall prey to the worldly and materialistic snares that await them. Unfortunately, the adult reaction to this separation is to either let the isolated teen culture continue or to attempt to isolate their families from secular culture altogether.
Lumen Gentium from the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council reminds us that the vocation of the laity is to engage the culture in order to transform it. The transformed culture should remind us of God’s goodness and make it easier to live holy lives. This transformation cannot take place if God’s people blindly accept human culture as it is shaped by secular, materialistic concerns, nor if they blindly reject all of human culture because parts of it have been corrupted. Transformation of culture results from God’s people actively interacting with culture, accepting what is good and rejecting or changing what is evil. Teenagers, lacking mature wisdom, need the help of adults who have experience making such judgments.
Although they will deny it until they turn six shades of purple, teenagers desperately need strong family structure. Even though adolescents pride themselves on being fiercely independent, the classroom walls resound with the opinions, philosophies, and attitudes of the world around them, soaked up as water in a sponge wrung out in the guise of their own. If the family does not guide what the teenager soaks up, media and “teen culture” will.
The good news is that the popular belief that teenagers outgrow their families and that they need to rebel is pure nonsense. If families work on fostering close relationships throughout their children’s lives, they will remain close. Oscar Wilde is quoted saying, “Children will love home if home is the most fun place to be.” Here are some ways to make sure you remain the most important influence in your young adult’s life.
Though the expectations you set for your child never change, the manner in which those expectations are met will. During the teen years, revisit your standards for various activities. It is very possible that some of the rules need to be renegotiated (example – curfews, time limits on media use, etc.) Take a look at the Standards Discussion Guide for more information.
Believe it or not, your children are watching you more now than ever before. It is during this stage that your child will ask many questions about what it was like to be single, seriously dating, engaged, or newly married. Because many young adults are searching for answers on dating, relationships, and marriage, they will be more observant of how their parents love each other. Provide your child with a lived example of God’s plan for love and life by:
Continue to be an indestructible team that stands together to love and guide the family.
Convincing a young adult to reserve sexual activity for marriage is one of the greatest challenges a parent will face. There are many reasons for this. First, many parents themselves did not wait until marriage so they do not think they can expect their children to wait either. Secondly, some parents think that sexual activity before marriage is beneficial – something that can actually help the youth become a better spouse. Finally, some parents think that the pervasive sexual culture is a more powerful influence then they are. Thus, the best they can do is to teach how to engage in sexual activity safely.
All of the above ideas are based on flawed morality and logic. First, parents can and should expect their children to live according to God’s standards (not theirs) – and His standards are very clear. Sexual activity is a right and good of marriage. As the saying goes, ‘what you expect is what you get’. If you expect that your child can’t wait, they probably won’t. But, if you expect that they can wait (and make your thoughts known to the youth), they probably will wait.
Secondly, there is no evidence based research that indicates that sexual activity before marriage prepares an individual to enter into a lifelong, committed and loving covenant. On the contrary, a person who comes into marriage with a ‘sexual history’ that includes multiple partners and fornication brings more emotional baggage and relationship ills with them.
Finally, while it is true that the media today is oversexed and insidious, it is less influential than the love and care of a parent. Parents still sit in the chair of greatest influence when it comes to their children. When parents talk, the child does listen.
Let’s outline several strategies a parent can use to teach sexual purity to their young adult.
This is the top parent strategy. If you want your child to respect their sexual powers of bonding and making babies – honor your sexual powers. Remember, honor involves three steps:
Every time that you choose to mismanage your sexual powers (inappropriate relationships, viewing pornography, making sexually explicit comments or jokes…) your youth is watching and being impacted.
All youth deserve the best from their parents. In this case, the best is to make sure that your youth knows and understands your position on sexual activity. Talk slowing and let the conversation unfold. Be ready to talk for more then a couple of times on this topic. Include the following:
The teen years present a great opportunity for parents and their youth to learn more about the true meaning of sexual love. As was previously mentioned, today’s culture does not hold sexuality as a fundamental component of each person – one that should be revered and honored. Thus, most resources on sexuality and it’s meaning will not be found in secular resources. That is why we suggest that parents team up with their young adults to learn the basic teachings of the Catholic faith on love and life.
By the time your child is 18, he should have the knowledge and virtue to go into the world and live as Christ lived. This means that parenting during the teen years should focus on readying your youth for participation in the world outside the home. In general, this means checking in with your emerging adult to see if the principles established in the family are neatly packed within his heart. How do you do this? Engage in regular and meaningful conversations with him. Some of these conversations will be light subject manner and some will be deep and thought provoking. Consider the following communication steps when checking on the contents of your child’s heart.
There are numerous virtues that each of us needs to live as Christ did. First and foremost are the theological and cardinal virtues. There are a couple of minor virtues that a parent should spend extra time and effort developing during the teen years.
We live in a world that’s ‘all about me’. Fame, attention, and shock value are esteemed above doing a hard days work without any notice. And yet, it is the latter which builds up society and attends to the needs of the common person. Before your youth leaves the nest, provide ample opportunities for her to become a servant. Consider the following:
This virtue is the recognition that we become happy not because we receive what we want but because we appreciate what we have. How do we cultivate this habit?
Of all the virtues, this one is claimed to be the rarest. Perhaps the fear of not having enough for ourselves motivates us to hoard rather than to offer what we have to others. What can you do to stir generosity in your youth’s heart?
Once you have these identified, discuss ways that she can be generous in each area. It is vital that she decide what she will give rather than be told what you want her to do.
The main task at this stage is for the young adult to graduate into an adult faith in which the relationship with Christ really makes a difference in his or her life. As this happens, the young adult also seeks God's vocation for his or her life. One of the worst mistakes we make when dealing with young adults is to create unique expectations for them that we do not hold for adults. We want to see our young people engaged in community service, but we are not engaged in community service as adults. We want to see our youth actively engaged at Mass, but we adults coast through Mass and don't even remember what the homily was about when it is over. We need to remember that young adults look to us adults to see what it means to be an adult in the faith. If we want young adults to be actively engaged in their faith, then we need to actively engaged in ours.
Many parents are daunted when their young adult begins to ask penetrating questions about the faith, either because of a fear that the young adult is rejecting Christ or because the parents are not sure of the answers to those questions. Intellectually and spiritually, young adults are at the stage in their lives when they need to understand and own the faith for themselves. This time of natural skepticism leads to many questions that may be expressed as curiosity, doubt, or cynicism. Don't panic if your child's questions make it seem like he is rejecting the faith. If your child is disinterested and not asking questions, then you might want to take steps to regain interest. However, these questions are a normal part of entering into adulthood. Young adults need to intellectually consider the faith and make a free choice to adopt it in their adult lives. The good news is that these questions are not necessarily a sign of rejection. Most of the time, the young adult is honestly seeking understanding. The bad news is that if these questions are not answered the young adult may conclude that the faith is not valid. It is important for parents to prepare for these questions. Here are some points to help you.
Too many times, young adults think that graduation means that they are done with the sacraments until they get married. In turn, parents too often think that this is the time to give their children freedom by not requiring that they go to Mass or to confession. If young adults are going to own the faith for themselves, they need to continue to strengthen the habit of receiving sacramental grace. But how do you overcome the "typical" resistance to going to Mass?
The question is not whether or not your young adult has a vocation. The question is what vocation your young adult has. The Second Vatican Council reminded us in Lumen Gentium that every human being is called to serve God through their specific state in life (married, ordained, consecrated, single) and through their specific task (career, family life, religious order, priestly office, etc.).
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