Parenting a teen is intense. Why don't we talk about it more?

Salon talks to the authors of "Grown and Flown" about why, when parenting teens, "the work is hardly done"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 2, 2019 2:00PM (EDT)


There's no book out there called "What to Expect in the Eighteenth Year." During pregnancy and early parenthood, I never lacked for guidelines on how best raise my children. After a certain point, though, the advice pickings started to get slim, just as the challenges of my kids' teen years were kicking in hard.

Fortunately, Lisa Heffernan and Mary Dell Harrington have been there. As cofounders of the hugely popular Grown and Flown, they've created a resource and a community for those of us who've graduated from temper tantrums to driving lessons. Now, they've just released a new compendium of their wisdom, appropriately titled "Grown & Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close As a Family, and Raise Independent Adults."

I talked to them via phone recently about surviving adolescence, and why the kids are alright.

One of the things that really resonates for me right from your introduction is the message that your work is not done at all. Sometimes when you have a toddler, you think someday they'll be in college and this will all be easy, and that is not true.  

Mary Dell Harrington: Lisa and I started Grown and Flown because we felt that there really wasn't much out there for the mom with older kids. To some degree that may make people think that all the work that they're doing with their young kids just kind of stops, because there are not many people talking about parenting older ones.

Right. Like at some point it becomes a self-running machine, which couldn't be further from the truth.

Lisa Heffernan: I think that many times we draw on our own experience. When we send our kids off to college, we think it's going to be like when we went off to college. When we called our parents once a week, we were very conscious of how high the long-distance rates were. We probably made a pre-arranged call to make sure Mom, Dad and the family were all at the same place at the same time and could all talk for those few moments.

That isn't how it works once kids pass the age of 18. Whether they work or whether they go to community college or whether they're away to college, their communication with us is fundamentally changed, and the relationship with us is changed. There's a lot of data to bear this out. They are much more willing and eager to talk to us. They're much more likely to confide in us about their work life, their financial life, their romantic life. They're much more likely to seek our advice. The work is hardly done, because their relationship with us is so fundamentally different than the relationship we had with our parents at their age.

The other side of that is that we are living in a more complicated world. We have less of a community, we have less support, we are more isolated. We don't have the same structures, where we are seeing other parents and getting reality checks like we did when we were at the school drop-off every single morning.

Harrington: That's a big differentiator between the grown and flown years and all those that come before. Certainly as a parent your scaffolding just kind of falls away, especially once your kid starts driving or getting themselves to and from wherever they need to go. You disappear from view. You're not in the pediatrician's office anymore. There are no more parent-teacher conferences that you grew accustomed to. You really have to work hard to get to know the other parents of your children's friends. And your kids would prefer that you stay at arm's length, so you have to really battle that as well. It can feel very isolating.

Heffernan: We've read a bunch of research which shows that this is a period in which parents feel the least secure in their abilities to parent. Some of that is because they're dealing with some of the most consequential issues around parenting. If you get the paper/cloth diaper thing wrong, life still goes on and everything is fine. If you get some of the larger issues that teens deal with wrong, the consequences and the heartbreak can be much greater. We’re feeling alone at the exact time where we need the community and we need experts the most.

It's a transition we know for our kids, but I think it's surprising how much of a transition it is for us as parents as well.

Harrington: That's actually a really good way to put it, that is a transition for the parents just as our kids are transitioning. Knowing that teens' brains are not fully formed and won't be until their mid-twenties, it gives us pause because we know that their judgments are developing. Their ability to use restraint and not make impulsive decisions can have real bearing on what they do when they're being asked to make these adult decisions without their parents in the loop. It can add a degree of terror to our roles as parents.

Let's talk about what can we do first for ourselves as parents, independent of our kids. What do we need to do to keep mentally healthy and not freak out?

Heffernan: One of the first things to do is to stop listening to the chatter all around us, either in the media or in our daily lives, and recognize that we have raised and are raising a wonderful, wonderful generation of kids. They are so much better-behaved than we are. They are better-educated than we are. I'm talking, obviously, as a generation. They are more tolerant than we are. They are more welcoming of people who are unlike them than we were as generation.

This is a generation who's smoking fewer cigarettes, having fewer unwanted pregnancies, engaging in less drug use with the exception of marijuana, and less binge drinking. Raising the current generation of teens and young adults has been very successful, and we should recognize that. There's a lot of bad press saying that we were helicopter parents, that we've done too much, that we've disabled them, and I don't think the facts bear that out.  

So step back and realize we've done a good job raising them. The second thing to think about is that the closeness that we have to them is highly beneficial to them. Young adults who are close with their families are happier teens. It provides an inoculating effect against a teen's bad behavior, being close with their parents.

There's a study we cite in the book where freshmen in college drink less on days they talk to their parents, even if they never talk about alcohol. Just that inoculated them against some of the bad behavior that goes on in college campuses. To recognize that we're largely a very positive influence in their lives and also that many of the things that they want to talk to us about careers, money, their romantic life, that's a good thing. We know more about that than their friends know.

As you're dealing with your teens, one rules of thumb that works pretty well is to ask, would I do this for someone else's kid? If you're ever worried about overstepping, if you're ever worried that your parenting might be becoming too much, would you do whatever you're doing for your nephew, for your best friend's daughter, for another kid your kid's age who isn't your kid? If I would do it for my best friend's daughter, why wouldn't I do it for my kid?

You talk a lot about becoming over-involved. It's an identity shift for parents as well as the children. We all know that kids have to separate. It's a developmental thing. But it's a developmental thing for parents as well.

Heffernan: When our kids were walking, they needed to walk around a certain age. They're supposed to sit up around a certain age and they're supposed to talk within a certain age range. There were developmental milestones. That's less so for teens and young adults.

I'll give you an example. There was a discussion in our Facebook group about whether you should track your kids with electronic tracking devices you can use you with their phones, like Life360. A lot of parents were very opposed to this saying, "Look, they're freshmen, they're adults, they're 18 years old. You have no business tracking where they are."

There's merit to that argument. We discussed it in the book. One mom came out and said, "My kid has type one diabetes. He has never managed this in his life on his own. We've been working towards that, but he's been in our home, so ultimately I'm there. I know if there's a problem.” She said, "I am not going to stop tracking it now. I'm going to make sure in this transition phase that I know he's up and moving in the morning and that he's going and doing what he should be doing in his day."

You’ve got to let go of the one-size-fits-all in this of era. The notion that any 18-year-old should be doing any particular thing, it can be difficult. We shouldn't put ourselves under that pressure. They're all different.

We are living in a different age in terms of things like anxiety. Especially for daughters, the pressure's on them. Their support systems are different, the way that maybe talking and hashing things out with their friends is not always a good thing. What makes being a parent of teens and college students today different from the experience that we had maybe 25 years ago as teenagers ourselves?

Harrington: The obvious thing of course is that technology's totally different, in both good ways and bad. There's the concern our children, especially our daughters, are fearing that they're not Instagram perfect in their lives, and that's an unbelievable pressure on them.

The good thing about technology is that we can be in touch with them in a very organic way. We have our family group chat, and we're constantly talking and we're constantly in touch. That mitigates a little bit of that loneliness or that feeling of anxiety that our kids have. That's the positive side.

Heffernan: Mary Dell and I say the digital dinner table, which is this ongoing conversation that happens in our families that never really ends, kind of takes up the space of what happens on the wooden table in our kitchens. It is a really, really strengthening, inoculating thing for kids because they know that their family is there. We're not hovering, we're not interfering. But if they need to jump into the family group again, and they need to have just that moment where they know those three people or four people or five people love them and support them, we’re all there for them. And we can be there for them instantly in a non-intrusive kind of way.

There's a piece in the book by Rachel Simmons about perfection and girls, and about how much we need to tell them that perfect never happens, explicitly over and over again. We need to be giving them constant examples of people who appear perfect in their social media feed, but we know they're not. I think we can't give our teenagers that lesson too often.

One of the most powerful things for me was the quote from the teenager who said, "You can't tell your kids you love them enough.” That feels really important because it's something that parents sometimes feel questioning about: They don't hear it, they're not listening, I'm just making them uncomfortable. But you want to feel like this is a bank account that I'm just putting all of my love and support in, and maybe today you don't need it, but when you need to draw on those funds, you want to know that they're there.

Heffernan: One overarching message from the book is that they are listening even when they appear that they're not listening. You'll get this through the section where Mary Dell interviews Frances Jensen, and has a long talk about the need to keep talking about drinking. Keep talking about it. When they don't want to hear any more, just keep talking about it.

They are really hearing what we're saying in terms of our expectations that determine their behavior, morals, and the values of our families. Those messages are coming across loud and clear much later in their lives than we had originally thought.

When they appear to be rejecting you, not listening to you, rolling their eyes at you and telling you that you have already said this five times and they don't need to hear it again, say it again. It is getting through. This has been researched thoroughly. It is getting through, and it is making an impact.

And go easy on ourselves and remember that we're going to do this imperfectly and have days where we say the wrong thing or we blow up or we just screw it up in some way, and then just get right back on it.

Harrington: It's really important to share our own imperfections with our kids over time. We certainly want to be judicious. But I think sharing the failures that you've had, sharing the problems, the obstacles you face, some of the mistakes you've made, really helps your kids see you as a human.

It will help you become a more approachable source for them over time. You want them to come to you when they've made a mistake, and that is inevitable. They will. They do. We all do, but if they look at you as this person on a pedestal who's never screwed up once in their lives, they might find it so much harder to disappoint you with what they need to unburden and they need help on. During the teen years is really a great time to begin to be a little more honest about some of the problems and obstacles you've had in your life.

Heffernan: There's a piece in the book by Helene Wingens about the inadvertent pressure that we put on kids. She would say to her son, "You're going to do great things," thinking that that was a way of expressing her confidence in him and her enthusiasm and excitement for the prospects that lay in front of her son. Instead he turned to her one day and said, "But what if I don't do great things? I'm going to let you down."

Be really careful about inadvertently setting expectations that we could have never met at their age, and that we don't even mean. We don't expect them to get perfect grades. We don't expect them to look perfect. We don't expect them not to make mistakes. In our enthusiasm and support, we can somehow inadvertently set our bar too high for them.

We’ve certainly seen from the Ivy League admissions scandal recently, that if your kid's not the best and your kid isn't in the .001%, there is a lot of shaming that parents take on for themselves and for their kids. Why is it so important to say it's okay to be who you are and it’s okay to not be perfect and not the best? How do we do that?

Heffernan: The way we do it is we say these words over and over to our kids. "I just want you to be happy. I just want you to be happy." We say it from the time that they're tiny, and it almost becomes reflexive, but we need to remember that we mean that.

What we want are happy, well-adjusted adults who function well in life and find joy in their life. That doesn't require a fancy education, that doesn't require a fancy job, that doesn't require being the best at anything. Those are not the keys to happiness. We sometimes can forget that about our own lives, but we should try to remember that. You can certainly have all those things with great unhappiness, and we can all point to examples of that.

It's important to show kids what a happy life looks like, what a happy family life looks like, what a happy relationship between two adults, a romantic relationship of any sort looks like. To model those things. 

Practice it. Practice our own happiness and contentment and model of what we consider success.

Heffernan: Particularly the happiness part. The things that bring us joy are our friendships and cooking meals together as families and the everyday things in life that are the building blocks of joy. Just remind them of that.

Harrington: There are many different paths that kids take, and a lot of times there's not enough light shown on the paths that kids take into the trades, or into the military, or they take to take some time off, or stay at home and go to community college and launch after that.

The focus on highly selective schools and the path into very competitive careers is really not doing justice to the actual variety of ways that kids find happiness and success after high school. It's been very eye-opening being part of our Grown and Flown Facebook group, and seeing more and more stories of parents saying, "I'm so proud of my kid. They're going into the military." " I'm so proud of my kid. They decided they wanted to be a tradesperson." By enhancing the visibility of these alternatives to the hyper-selective college route, it does make people realize that there are many different ways that kids can become functioning adults. It's been enlightening for other parents to see how many other different ways that adulting cat to be skinned.

Heffernan: It's also a generation that has different values, as every generation does because they're shaped by the times that they're living. There are many things that this generation values in terms of political engagement, in terms of inclusiveness, in terms of the environment, in terms of helping people. Those will be paths for them into happiness and satisfaction in their adult lives, because those are values that they're holding as a generation, perhaps more than previous generations did. We have to be really careful not to bring our biases and our worldviews into their decisions about their lives, because they're going to shape a different world.

This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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