As children move from infancy into middle and later childhood, they have a growing need for control over their environment. To meet this need, teenagers must be given reasonable power to make choices about what they eat, whom they play with, and what extracurricular activities they participate in. They need to be given the opportunity to make choices that they view as important in different areas in their lives. Parents can find many ways to safely empower teens without allowing them to make dangerous choices. Teens can make safe choices when buying clothing, planning family trips, or selecting their birthday presents. Most of the time the significance of the choices does not matter; even small decisions can make a difference and allow them to feel that they can fulfill their desire for control in a healthy way. Whether to eat chocolate or vanilla ice cream, what time to have a get together, or which days are best for a family outing are equally important. Although some choices seem inconsequential, what matters is the overall feeling teenagers will have when given the power to choose.
I once counseled family whose oldest child had trouble sitting for a long period of time at the Shabbos table. As the first born, he seemed to have a strong desire for control and felt too old to be sitting with his younger brothers and sisters. I suggested to his father that he make his son a partner in running the Shabbos meal and turning over some responsibility, such as giving out treats to the other children for good behavior. Almost immediately, this teenager felt empowered at the table and was more willing to participate and enjoy the family experience. He was provided a way to fulfill his need for control in a healthy manner, which reduced the power struggle at the table that had been going on for some time.
Control may also be given in return for a teen accepting increased responsibility. Here are some suggestions for safe levels of control parents can allow their teenager:
- For teenagers who want to use the car: Make a list of necessary maintenance activities, like buying gas, changing the oil, and checking the pressure in the tires. Explain that when you see that they are responsible for taking care of the car, you will discuss ways of letting them use it more often.
- For teenagers who want to buy their own things: Open a bank account with them and set target dates for saving money to buy the items they want. You can also deposit an allowance into the account on a weekly basis according to their behavior in the home.
- For teenagers who want to have more fun outside the house: Make a list of chores around the house that they are responsible for. Reward their performance monetarily or by taking them to do fun things.
- For teenagers who want to buy a lot of clothing: Create a monthly clothing allowance, a budget, and a list of prices of the clothing they want to buy.
- For teenagers who don’t like school and want to work: Arrange for an after-school internship in a local business or profession.
- For teenagers who don’t like eating with the family: Buy an easy cookbook and have them make a weekly menu of the foods they prefer. They can also help cook the meals they have chosen.
When parents empower teenagers with a healthy modicum of control, they are giving them the strength to step into the adult world and take responsibility for their own actions.
How often do you give your teenager the opportunity to make his or her own choices?
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Never Rarely Constantly
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, is the Executive Director of Shalom Task Force and author of “At Risk – Never Beyond Reach” and “First Aid for Jewish Marriages.” To order a copy, visit www.JewishMarriageSupport.com. For more information about Shalom Task Force, please visit www.shalomtaskforce.org. You can e-mail questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.