How to Raise a Take-Charge Teen

How to Raise a Take-Charge Teen

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Teach your child to make his own decisions—confidently.

Alexa, 14, never had any interest in sports. Or gym, or even kicking a ball around the yard. Her mom, Laura Valsamachi, kept encouraging her to try something. Once she got into high school, a new option presented itself: golf. Alexa agreed to try it. She liked that it wasn’t a team sport, and the fact that it was walk-on, so her lack of athletic ability wouldn’t be on display during a tryout. Valsamachi completed the registration form, and Alexa took it to school the morning of the sign-up deadline.

And she brought it back that afternoon.

“Julia’s not doing it,” the Long Island freshman said, without looking at her mom. “Who’s Julia? And so what?” Valsamachi asked. “Julia, the one I told you is kind of popular?” Alexa reminded her. “She said she would do golf with me, but now she’s not, so…” Her voice trailed off, her earbuds went in, and that was that.

While some teens seem to have no problem deciding what they want to do and sticking to it, plenty more struggle to think independently and make choices for themselves. Wanting the approval of others is natural to some extent, even for grown-ups, but needing it can be crippling. If your kid seems to show a tendency toward flip-flopping, read on for the lowdown on how to guide him or her toward confident decision-making.

The Why Behind Wishy-Washy Behavior

Is it typical for teens to be followers, changing their mind about extracurricular activities, clothes, hairstyles, and even what after-school jobs to apply for, based on what their peers are doing? In many cases, it’s not a sign of a long-term problem, but more of a phase. “A lot of this is normal and even developmentally healthy behavior,” insists Robi Ludwig, Psy.D., a psychotherapist in New York City. “Teens are still discovering who they are and what’s important to them, so changing what they want and how they want to present themselves is all a part of this,” she explains.

Anecdotally, at least, girls seem more vulnerable than boys to deferring to friends on anything and everything. “Most teenage girls want to be part of the pack. They want to blend in rather than stand out,” says Susan Groner, “The Parenting Mentor” and New York City-based author of Parenting: 101 Ways to Rock Your World. “While this may seem silly to us, there’s nothing wrong with it. You don’t need to worry that she’ll be like this forever. It’s a phase.” (If your child resists making any independent decisions at all, though, “there could be a mood or self-esteem issue going on,” cautions Dr. Ludwig, and in that case, checking in with a therapist would be a good idea.)

Encouraging Independence

Of course teens are not, as a group, big on taking what adults say as gospel. But there are ways we can get our teens to see the benefits of making their own decisions.

Share a story of a time when being a follower backfired. Use articles, stories about people your child knows (with their permission), and yes, even “when I was your age” stories to get your point across without being too heavy-handed about it, Dr. Ludwig recommends. After the golf incident, Valsamachi shared a personal story with Alexa that seemed to strike a chord: When she’d been a high-school senior, her best friend Maureen had decided that college was a waste of time, and had opted to go straight to work. Valsamachi, used to walking in lockstep with her BFF, decided to forgo college too. “I wound up getting my degree much later, but still wonder how my life would have been different,” she says. “Oh, and I haven’t spoken to Maureen since 1989.”

Valsamachi resisted the urge to point out “Just like Julia and golf!” at the end of her story. It was just put out there for Alexa to interpret as she would. “And she did seem to absorb it, at least a little,” Valsamachi says.

Keep it neutral. The main thing to guard against, says Dr. Ludwig, is coming across as preachy. Keep a neutral tone. “Teens who feel criticized or are concerned that they would disappoint their parents are often less comfortable sharing their thoughts,” agrees Wendy L. Moss, Ph.D., co-author, with Donald A. Moses, M.D., of Raising Independent, Self-Confident Kids.

Be nonjudgmental. It often isn’t easy, but it can pay off. Rose Koehler’s daughter, Emily, wanted to apply to be a page at their local library on Long Island, but a friend convinced her to work with her at a fast-food restaurant instead. “Now, my daughter, who hates noise, rushing, and has been known to burst into tears if a soda splatters on her, working in a fast food restaurant…I knew this would not end well,” Koehler shares. “But I also knew that demanding she stick with her original plan wouldn’t either.”

So Koehler stayed supportive, asking a question about the job now and then, but keeping it neutral. After about five weeks, Emily quit—but the page job had already been filled. “I just gave her a hug and said nothing. Definitely not ‘I told you so!’” Koehler says. While Emily never came out and said she should have made the decision that felt right to her in the first place, Koehler feels the lesson stuck. “She doesn’t seem as quick to yield to her friends’ opinions anymore,” she says.

Let him practice. Have your teen be a part of the decision-making process for family matters, such as planning a vacation, choosing a family car, or even figuring out how to assist an aging grandparent. What you’re trying to do, Dr. Moss explains, is guide your child toward minimizing impulsive decisions in favor of the one that is actually best for the situation. And like any other learned skill, that takes practice.

Brainstorm. “Crowd-sourcing” potential solutions to a problem your teen is having by bringing in the whole family—even favorite aunts, uncles, and cousins—lets him know that “family is like a team, stronger than any one member,” Dr. Moss says. What that does is shift the focus off of “mom or dad know best,” so your child is less likely to feel defensive. By seeing that her ideas are as good as anyone else’s, she’ll start to build confidence, and, over time, be less apt to fall into a “what they’re thinking must be better than what I’m thinking” mentality.

The Social Media Aspect

Social media doesn’t seem to make it any easier to convince a teen to think independently. After all, accruing likes and positive comments is the name of the game. But that in itself isn’t necessarily bad. “We all want to get positive responses to what we present to the world,” Dr. Ludwig notes.

You don’t need to discourage your teen from posting a picture or a comment he thinks will get a lot of positive attention, as long as it doesn’t hurt him in the short or long term, Dr. Ludwig says. “Connect it to long-term goals he may have for himself. If he posts in a certain way, explain how this can send the wrong message and hurt him down the line.” She also advises encouraging teens to think like a publicist. This is a concept most high-schoolers can readily grasp. If you were in charge of managing a client’s reputation, would you post this?

Lynne Lincoln, a mother of two teens in New Rochelle, recalls the time her 16-year-old son, Daniel, posted several #foodstagram shots of the burger chain Shake Shack while on an outing to the city with a group of friends. When he came home starving, Lincoln asked, “I thought you had Shake Shack?” Daniel clarified: “Oh, I gave it to Ryan. I don’t eat that stuff. I would have rather had pizza, but nobody is going to follow an account that posts rando pizza. It’s hard to get melted cheese not to look gross.”

Groner says what’s important is that teens are able to separate their online lives from their real ones. If they snap a selfie in front of the now-famous statue of the little girl down on Wall Street, say, did they take the time to think about the art? “Next time your child posts, ask him about the experience,” she suggests. That will give you an idea of whether the experience drove the popular post, or the other way around.

At the end of the day, Dr. Ludwig notes, the best thing you can do to help your child with decision-making—or anything, really— is to tune in to his needs. “Just plug into your child…Let them know you’re on their side and there for them if they need you,” she says.

Related links: How to Get Your Teen to Read More Books

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