How to Be an Involved Father in the Teenage Years
All kinds of things influence your teenager's behavior: family, friends, the media, teachers, and your child's unique character and personality. Your influence, the role you play in your child's life, is enormous. Even though your teenagers will never admit it, he or she needs you now more than ever. Your teenager learns from you what it means to be an adult in our society and how to treat others with love and respect, in family relationships and relationships outside the home.
These can be tough years to be a parent. Your teenager will seem to be pushing you away. It can be tempting to take the easy route and withdraw. But now more than ever it's important that you stay involved as a father.
Staying involved - Being an involved parent strengthens your relationship with your teenager and reduces the chances that he or she will engage in risky or dangerous behavior. Here are some ways to be the most involved father you can be:
- Be there. Teenagers want to know that their dads care about them. Your physical presence -- at home, at school events, at sports events -- is incredibly important. Make a point of having dinner together. If your family schedule doesn't make this possible every night, try to make it a regular event two or three times a week.
- When you're with your teenager, be completely there. Turn off the TV and let an answering machine take phone calls during dinner. Don't check your email. You can get to your messages later.
- Make sure your teenager is engaged in supervised activities after school. Not many dads can be there when their teenager arrives home from school every day. But you can take on the task of making sure your teenager is engaged in supervised activities -- at a Y or at a sports, music, or arts program -- or at a home where a parent is available.
- Don't forget the hugs. Your teenager is likely to crave that reassurance even if he's too embarrassed to ask for it. Don't be shy about hugging your son -- just respect his feelings and avoid doing it in front of his friends if it makes him feel uncomfortable.
- And don't be afraid to hug your daughters, either. Some dads back away from almost any physical contact when their daughters are going through adolescence, fearing that someone will think dad is behaving inappropriately. But your daughter may be confused and worried about her changing body and the way she looks and she needs your love and reassurance now more than ever. Compliments and hugs go a long way in boosting self-esteem at all ages.
- Have reasonably high expectations. Let your teenager know that you expect her to do the best she can do in school, music, sports, and homework. She will know that you care enough to want her to succeed.
- Pay attention. Do you know how much time your teenager spends watching television? Surfing the Internet? Do you know how well he's doing in school? What kind of CDs he's buying? This doesn't mean sneaking around looking for private letters and diaries -- just that it's important to be aware of what's going on. Dads who stay actively involved in their teenagers' lives have children who are less likely to drop out of school, abuse drugs or alcohol, or become teen parents.
- Keep harmful and tempting stuff out of the house. Model the behavior you expect from your teenagers -- if you drink, smoke, or do drugs, it increases the chance that your children will, too.
- Encourage physical activity and good nutrition. Teenagers need to exercise for at least a half-hour a day for strength, flexibility, and to build bone mass. This is especially important for girls, who are at risk for osteoporosis.
- Unfortunately, during the teenage years exercise time declines while television, computer, and video game time increases. That, plus unbalanced meals and frequent snacking on high-fat snack foods, explains why teenage obesity has increased by almost 50 percent over the past two decades or so. Obese children are more likely to be depressed, lonely, nervous, have low self-esteem, smoke, or drink alcohol.
- So make regular physical activity mandatory, and set a good example by being physically active yourself. Encourage any kind of physical activity, whether it's team sports or individual sports. If your teenager is interested, invite him or her to join your softball team, swim or run with you, play racquetball together, shoot baskets, or even tag along to your karate class.
- Encourage reading. Reading is an essential skill and you should do everything you can to promote it. Books expose adolescents to present and future possibilities that we can't give them. Books help your teenager learn about other cultures, find additional role models as she moves away from home, and help her start putting together a philosophy of life.
- Encourage your teenager to spend time reading every day and make sure she sees you with a book in your hand often. Subscribe to a daily newspaper and make a point of talking about articles.
- Support your teenager's interest in art and music. Make sure he has the right equipment (including good quality instruments) and the right teachers. The same goes for painting and drawing. Show your teenager that you take his interests seriously by tracking down high quality materials, taking him to galleries (or, if he doesn't want to go with you, by letting him know where they are), and finding professional instruction.
- Wake up! Many parents aren't fully aware of what's going on in their teenagers' lives. To find out what your teenager is really doing, talk often about issues like alcohol, parties, the risks of smoking marijuana, stealing, cheating, and other important issues.
- Help your teenager learn problem-solving strategies. Let your teenager know that when he or she is dealing with any kind of problem, the following four-step approach can help: (1) identify the problem; (2) brainstorm about all the possible solutions -- even the ones that sound silly; (3) identify the best and the worst options; (4) implement the best one. Just having a strategy in hand can make problems feel less overwhelming.
- Give your teenager some financial independence. Instead of buying all of your teenager's clothes, give her a clothes allowance. Calculate what you've spent on clothes for her over the past year, then give her that money in monthly installments and let her make the purchases on her own. You might start out with a three- or four-month payment before the start of the school year. Then step back and let her make the decisions. If she blows the entire amount on a designer gym bag, she may end up wearing the same tattered jeans for the next six months. This strategy can teach your teenager about money, give her a feeling of control, and reduce the number of arguments over who's paying for what or whether a particular item is really needed at all.
- This is also a good time to help your teenager set up a checking/ATM account and to require him or her to start saving a certain percentage of earnings or allowance for the future.
- Give your teenager more responsibility and encourage independence. This can mean everything from letting your teenager baby sit for younger siblings or neighborhood kids, to letting him drive your car, to setting him up with resources to plan a summer working away from home or volunteering in the community. Let your teenager make his own decisions (within reason) and don't bail him out unless you really need to. Teenagers, like the rest of us, learn a lot from making mistakes.
- Have clear expectations and limits. Some things, such as keeping a clean bedroom, spending time with friends, watching television, curfews, and so on may be negotiable. Other things, such as drugs, alcohol, risky or self-destructive behavior, are not negotiable. Get your teenager involved in coming up with the rules and setting the consequences. Then enforce them.
- Choose your battles. Some things -- hair and clothes among them -- just aren't worth arguing about. Other things -- such as working hard in school and avoiding risky behavior -- are worth arguing about. If you don't "choose your battles," you may end up arguing all the time.
- Support your teenager's friendships. Your teenager's friends mean everything to him or her. Accept and welcome your teenager's friends into your home and family life. Unless your teenager is hanging out with a crowd that's engaging in risky behaviors, back off and avoid judging.
- Try to get to know your teenager's friends, however strangely they may be dressed. We hear a lot about the evils of peer pressure, but it's important to remember that peers can be a good influence, too. One national survey found that kids think the following people understand them best: 42 percent said "friend"; 28 percent said "parent." Keep up-to-date on what's cool, but don't go overboard: the last thing your child wants is a dad who acts like a teenager.
- Encourage community involvement. Volunteering at a recycling center or serving meals at a homeless shelter on Thanksgiving are important ways of helping teenagers know that they're citizens of a larger world. Set a good example by participating in the community yourself.
- Respect your teenager's feelings. A few years ago, when your child was younger, she probably thought you were the coolest person around. But now, unfortunately, you're probably more of an embarrassment. If your daughter (or son) has four or five friends over to watch a movie, don't even think about trying to hang out with them. If you're driving your teenager to an event and he wants you to drop him off around the corner, do it (as long as it's safe). And don't let your feelings get hurt if your teenager doesn't want to go to the movies with you any more. No self-respecting teenager wants to risk being seen with a middle-aged chaperone.
- Don't take things too personally. Your feelings are going to get hurt during this time. You'll be challenged, made fun of, even called names by your child. Fortunately, you aren't alone in this, and eventually your teenager will come around. As Mark Twain put it, "When I was 14, I couldn't believe how ignorant my father was. By the time I turned 21, I was astounded at how much the old man had learned in just seven years."
- Know when to listen and when to talk. Try not to lecture about what it was like when you were a kid and how perfect the world was then. It's important to keep unsolicited advice to a minimum. Your teenager may get furious when you make a well-intentioned offer of help -- not because he doesn't need the help, but because he doesn't want it rubbed in his face that he can't do without it.
- Keep in touch with your child's teenagers, coaches, counselors, and other important adults in his life. Though she may act offended at your "snooping around," deep inside, your teenager will appreciate your involvement and concern.
The pushes and pulls of adolescence can make this a trying time to be a father. But if you persist, in a kind, firm, and non-intrusive way, in involving yourself in your teenager's life, there will be long-term rewards for both of you. Your child can approach independence secure in the knowledge of your love and support. And you can look on with pride as your teenager approaches adulthood.
Written by Armin Brott, author of Father for Life: A Journey of Joy, Challenge, and Change, and several other books on fatherhood.Developed with funding from the IBM Global Work/Life Fund and the AT&T Family Care Development Fund.
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