Parenting (Barely) Adult Children

When my kids were small, I dreaded the teenage years, much like one dreads going to the dentist. I viewed them as a painful but necessary season, one that I’d hopefully weather with as little bodily harm as possible.

Now that our oldest is in her final year as a teen, I can honestly say that it’s my favorite so far of all the parenting stages. During the teen years, I’ve gotten to watch our daughter and son transform from baby-faced middle-schoolers into one adult and one almost-but-not-quite-adult before my very eyes. Yes, there have been challenges and many tears (on both their part and mine!), but I love seeing the people they have become and are still becoming. I’m certainly not an expert, but I have learned a few things along the way.

Semper Gumby (Always Be Flexible)

 I’m borrowing from the unofficial motto of all military spouses, but when parenting teens, flexibility is key. My husband and I have learned that what works for our daughter (who tends to be anxious, cautious, sensitive and conscientious) doesn’t necessarily work for our son (who tends to be spontaneous, distracted, linear and procrastinating). When setting boundaries and consequences, we strive to be fair and consistent, but our kids both know that we don’t always parent them the same way, since they are so different. We’ve learned that it’s okay to try something one way, and if it doesn’t work, we can try something else.

This fall has been a lesson in flexibility for all of us, as our daughter has been spending her college semester at home instead of on campus. She’s had to give up some of the freedoms she was accustomed to last year. We’ve had to navigate how to treat her like the adult she is (she doesn’t have a curfew) while still maintaining healthy family rhythms and mutual respect (she lets us know where she is and when she’ll be home).

Lean into the Awkward Conversations

Parenting teens is all about seizing the opportune moment to have a crucial conversation. It’s not “okay, son, at 3 pm on Thursday, we’re going to sit down and talk about vaping.” But it is thinking about conversations I want to have and looking for opportunities to bring those topics up. It’s also being present and aware when my teen is ready to talk (spoiler alert: it’s usually when I’m ready to go to bed or I’m in the middle of doing something). I’ve never regretted putting my sleep or my to-do list aside in order to chat with my kids.

Before my son could drive, I would spend an hour each week driving him to his music lessons. That concentrated time in the car became our intentional space to chat. Talking in the car is less intimidating and awkward than talking face-to-face, especially for boys. Sometimes I’d have a topic that I wanted to bring up, sometimes I’d wait to see if there was something he wanted to say, but we used that time to talk about everything from girlfriends to grades to God.

I’ve also learned that it’s better to have a crucial conversation when my teen is ready to talk, even if I’m not feeling prepared. A few weeks ago, our daughter asked a spontaneous question that led to a meaningful conversation about love, marriage and planning for the future. Part of me was screaming inside “She’s only 19! I’m not ready to think about this with her!” and the other part of me was beaming with pride at the intelligent questions she was asking and at the amazing person she has grown into.

Freedom Is Scary for Them Too

When my kids were little, I was afraid of lots of things on their behalf – kidnappers, head lice and drowning, to name a few. As they’ve gotten older, the stakes have gotten higher and the list of potential dangers has grown. It’s absolutely terrifying to watch your teenager drive away in the car by himself for the first time. But letting go of control and giving them more freedoms, even though it’s hard and scary, is a critical part of parenting teens.

If you’d ask my kids, they’d be quick to tell you that adulting isn’t all the joyful bliss they pictured when they were little. Our daughter has now experienced paying taxes, voting and navigating career choices – and has found them all to be overwhelming and panic-inducing! Having more responsibility also means greater consequences if they make a mistake or choose poorly. I’ve tried to create a safe place to make those mistakes or poor choices, while giving them the space and freedom to do so.

When I think back to those days when I was dreading having teenagers, I wish I could reassure my former self that yes, it can be scary and painful. But it’s also gratifying and miraculous. It’s a good reminder in this season when our family, along with many others, is spending extra time with our young adult children under our roof. There is no higher pleasure as a parent than to see your kids becoming the leaders and friends that God has called them to be.