Years ago I had the opportunity to create and teach my own parenting class based on my experience working with troubled teenagers in a residential treatment setting. It specifically focused on teenagers and I had 6 specific topics and lessons each week. Even though I felt like all of them were important, I always looked forward to the night when I talked to parents about enabling versus empowering. Out of all the things that I have taught to parents and worked with them on, next to building and keeping a good relationship, this is probably the most important factor that can have the greatest effect on a child’s success or failure in life.
When I talk about enabling, I always refer to the behavior of parents in which they attempt to make life smooth for their kids, usually by doing things that remove natural consequences that result from their teen’s choices and behavior and thereby enabling bad or less effective behaviors. When parents enable their teens, they hope that their kids will understand and appreciate the help and advantages that come from doing so but this is just not in the nature of human psyche. People need to experience the ups and downs of life to appreciate what they have or don’t have. Teenagers aren’t going to grasp these concepts without having the powerful opportunity to learn through experience.
It would be nice if teenagers just understood how nice it is to have certain advantages but honestly, don’t count on it. Enabling behaviors can spare kids from day to day heartaches and hassles but unfortunately it sets them for much bigger problems down the road. When parents enable them, they often remove the opportunities that kids need to learn how adult life works. They won’t just pick it up on their own, they have to learn the vital lessons that help them understand it and unfortunately, sometimes parents find themselves on the disappointing end of finding that their enabling produced a spoiled, entitled and unmotivated teenager. To be fair, this is often true for most teens, don’t expect them to be grateful or particularly sensitive to your time. It’s frustrating but to a degree it’s also completely normal.
Teens who have a high level of enabling from their parents can develop highly rebellious and dysfunctional behaviors and by the time they turn 18 they can be completely unprepared for adulthood. I highly recommend for to parents to decrease and minimize their enabling behaviors, especially when their teens are young. They’re not too young to develop the knowledge and skills needed to successfully traverse into adulthood. If you want to stop enabling your child, you may need to do some emotional work on yourself first. I know many parents who I would consider to be very good parents but what holds them back is this overwhelming shameful feeling that they are bad parents. Many of them have a case of confirmation bias in which every mistake they make only confirms the negative belief that they have about themselves being a bad parent. There’s also this pervasive belief in today’s society that I see a lot in parents. They seem to think that a struggling teen means that they have failed as a parent. I’ve written an entire article on this, I’d invite you to check it out if this rings true.
As I write this article on enabling versus empowering, I think it’s fitting for parents to empower themselves by rebuilding the framework of what they think is and is not an indicator of a good parent. I recently read a thread on an online forum, asking parents of older children what they wish they had done different. Overwhelmingly, many parents stated that they had wished that they let their kids fail more and let them learn from their own hardships growing up. I believe that a good parent loves their children and does their best to help them grow into a happy and healthy adult. I believe that the best parents aren’t afraid to be the bad guys, let their kids stumble and fall while helping, supporting and teaching them along the way. I will get into more detail to what this looks like in more detail later so stay tuned. I’ve already stated this but I really want to drive it home: a struggling teenager does not equate to bad parenting. I also want to confront the idea that it’s the parent’s job to prevent their child from going through hardships. I’ve heard parents say “I don’t want my kids to have to go through that.” While I understand the reasoning behind that, there is literally no other way for them to learn some of life’s most important lessons.
Let me lay out some basic principles of enabling versus empowering:
- Teens who are enabled tend to develop a victim mentality. This basically means that they don’t learn that they can usually choose what life gives to them by making certain choices. Enabled teens develop the idea that life is just going to give them what they give them, good or bad. Empowered teens learn that they can create the things that they want in life by making certain choices. The teenage brain needs to learn to associate choice with consequence and when they believe they are victims, they struggle to make this connection.
- When a teen is enabled, there is little to no distinction between the parent’s problems and the teens problems. The most common example of this is school grades. When kids get bad grades, I frequently see parents make this their problem. This is actually your teenagers problem. If they fail classes then they are the ones that have to make up the lost credits. Already I can hear parent’s making the arguments, “but then they won’t graduate and then they will have to graduate later or get a GED and then they won’t get a good job…” etc etc. All of these things are your teenagers problems. They will be far more likely to deal with them and get to work fixing these issues when they realize that they are one the ones receiving the biggest impact and not their parents. Here is an example from a real situation. A parent complained to me that they had to nag their 16 year old to get out of bed in the morning so that she wouldn’t miss the school bus. At least 2 to 3 times a week, the parent reported that they had to drive her to school because she missed the bus. This parent is enabling the teenager when missing the school bus is more of a problem for the parent than the teen. When the teen misses the school bus, that needs to become their problem. Why would this teen want to get up on time and catch the bus when her parents will just drive her when she does miss it? But if that same teenager ends up walking to school instead, she’ll make more of an effort to get up on time in the future. I’m not asking you to stop caring about them or their problems but when make their problems their problems more than they are your problems, you are helping to motivate and teach them as well as decreasing your own stress.
- Enabled teens aren’t given options or choices. Empowered teens are given options and choices. When I worked with troubled kids, my job got way easier when I learned how to give them choices. When you think about it, every circumstance has options and choices. The options aren’t always good ones but I learned that teens are more likely to take the hard road if they think I’m trying to force them down the road that I want. Teens want their independence, autonomy and freedom of choice. You can make your life exponentially more simple if you give it to them. In the example above, about the teen that wouldn’t get up on time and would miss the school bus, giving this kid a choice looks like this. “Hey you have two choices, you can get up and ride the bus or you can stay in bed or walk. It’s up to you.” I seriously cannot understate how useful this is and how it helps kids learn about choices and consequences. Every situation has at least two choices, give them the choice and let them experience the results. This can come in handy when you want or need something from them. Giving them choices can even look like something like this, “you can do your chores now or you’ll be grounded over the weekend and will have to do the chores while you’re grounded. It’s up to you.” This is a case in which doing the chores right away is a much better options and it can also help teens learn to think more critically about the future and consequences.
For parents who decide to change their pattern from an enabling one to an empowered one, the process can usually be difficult and complicated mostly because teenagers don’t take the changes easily. They, of course, prefer a system where they don’t have to take accountability for their choices and behaviors; they much prefer a home where their parents do it for them. But this is the bottom line. Accountability. While it can be a harder road, it’s one of personal empowerment, when people really start to grasp what they are capable of. Teens won’t naturally pick up on the fact that their reality will eventually be a direct reflection of their own choices; they need to learn it. I always recommend to parents that when they’re making any changes to rules and structure in the home, they should talk to their kids first so they know what to expect. The dialogue is fairly simple and I find that it is effective to be direct.
Every family and every set of circumstances is different and every teenager needs their own tailor made approach for their own individual set of issues. If you find this information helpful but need more individualized help, I hope you will give me a call. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out my website for more articles on parenting, teen issues and many others. Be sure to subscribe as well.