Emotional Wellness The Seven Tasks of Adolescence: Task 5 - Planning for the Future

As our kids get older, we start to expect that they’ll begin to become more involved in the planning and construction of their own future. So, why are so many teens so resistant to our help?

In her book Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood, psychologist Lisa Damour has identified seven tasks that adolescents are all trying to work through in order to reach adulthood. She says that adolescence is a period characterized by rapid and uneven development. When one or more of these tasks get interrupted, it may suggest that this is a child who needs a little more attention, and could possibly use some formal intervention. Understanding these seven tasks can help parents know what kids are going through, to know when kids are being normal and need our support as they do their job of becoming an adult, and to know when it really is time to worry.

Over the course of this year, I will be writing about each one of these tasks, exploring what a child looks like as they are moving through the tasks; why the task is so important; what kinds of behaviors might suggest that a child is really struggling with a task; and what a parent might need to do about it.

TASK 5: Planning for the Future

Your teen has been doing well enough in school for you to generally feel pretty good about how she’s been doing.  She’s been getting good grades, she gets her homework done on time, and she has a nice group of friends that you generally like.  

That is, until this year.  She started high school a few weeks ago, and suddenly you see her spending time with different kids -- older, kids who are “more fun.”  She’s dressing differently, and now her grades are starting to slip.  Where she used to get mostly As and Bs, she’s now getting some Cs, and currently has a D in social studies.

Stop for a minute and answer this question honestly: how would you parent this?

Confronted with something like this, most of us would try to rescue this kid from her own bad choices.  We might ground her until her grades get better.  We might try to limit her time with these new friends.  We might lecture her about making good decisions, trying to impart our years of hard-earned wisdom in an effort to get her to understand how important it is for her to study more, to commit more to that sport, to work harder at that job.  

We do all of this because we know how important these decisions are to her future.  

So why is it then that sometimes, this stuff doesn’t work?  Why do teens roll their eyes when we start to give brilliant advice about how to pick a college?  Why do they suddenly want to hang out with their friends when just last week they were telling you how worried they were about the test they have coming up, no matter how much you try to get them to understand?  Why won’t they just listen to what we have to teach them?  Wouldn’t it be so much easier and logical if they did?

Of course.  But we’re not dealing with logic and reason here.  We’re dealing with the emotional experience and developmental path of a teen.  

What’s really going on here?

Lessons for the Future

As our kids get older, we start to expect that they’ll begin to become more involved in the planning and construction of their own future.  In fact, that’s one of the developmental milestones that we expect to see in teens, that they begin to have an increase sense of self efficacy, the sense that one’s own actions lead to outcomes that one has a certain amount of control over.  That’s what we want -- we want our kids to take ownership of their futures, to start to think about who they want to be and what they’d like to do with their lives.  

And it’s fun to watch them figure this stuff out.  We love our kids and we want to see where they go, who they become.  So, we get invested in their future by paying for their french horn lessons, or driving them to soccer practice three days a week, or showing an interest in their friends and hobbies, or asking them about their grades and what they’re learning in school.  We try to encourage them and support them because we love them; and also because we want to help them learn how to think ahead and make the most of their time.  So, why do so many of us parents run into that brick wall of annoyance and resistance to our help?

To answer that question, we need to look at what it means for a teen to tackle this task.  To really begin to plan for their own future, kids will need to learn two important lessons along the way:

  • Learning how to plan ahead, to think about what their goals are and how they might go about trying to achieve those goals.  This is the more obvious of the two lessons that teens must learn to take charge of their future, as this is where teens will begin to think about what kind of job they might want to do, what college they are interested in attending, and what they’ll need to do to get there.  
  • Learning what to do with short term impulses.  This lesson is more complicated, and is directly linked to the first lesson.  There’s an awful lot of fun stuff to do out there in the world, and every teen has their fair share of internal impulses that pull them in a thousand directions.  Playing Fortnite will always be more fun than finishing math.  Going out with friends on Saturday night and staying up too late is infinitely more interesting than researching colleges for scholarships.  Teens are faced with a constant struggle: to do what all of these adults keep telling them to do because of “the future”, which might be hard or uncomfortable; or give in to those impulses and enjoy this moment instead, and put the future off for another day to worry about.

Who’s Driving the Bus?

In the first article in this series, you learned that normal teens begin to pull away from their parents as their drive for autonomy and independence kicks into gear.  Well, this comes into play here as well.  Teens often want to make decisions about their future on their own, or at least feel like they are the ones “driving the bus,” so to speak.  They want to be the ones choosing their path because it helps them to feel that sense of self efficacy, that they are choosing their own destiny.  As a result, sometimes when well-meaning parents begin to offer guidance as a way to coax their kid back on track, a teen might refuse, or even do the opposite of what the parent is suggesting.  And, this can happen even if that thing the parent suggested is something that the kid wanted to do in the first place.  

This can be maddening for parents, watching your teen who knows better make decisions that seem to send them careening backward in their development.  But, this is normal.  Frustrating, yes.  But normal.  It doesn’t matter how great your advice is if you’re working with a teen that is wanting to, or needing to sort it out for themselves.  That means that sometimes, depending on where your teen is at in this developmental path, your efforts to help your teen make good choices will do nothing but set up a battle for control.

Power Struggles

Remember that example from the beginning of this article, the kid whose grades are beginning to suffer as a result of spending more time with friends and less time with homework?  Let’s walk through a common scenario that’s played out in so many households:

  1. The parent becomes concerned about their daughter’s future, fearing that her worsening grades might impact the choices she has for college and beyond.  So, the parent decides to try to convince the teen that her homework is important, to “get her to understand” what she clearly doesn’t get.  
  2. The parent then starts to lecture the teen about the value of doing her homework when she doesn’t get it done, and even to begins to monitor her while she’s doing homework just to make sure she’s getting it done.   
  3. This teen, who is right in the midst of wanting to feel a sense independence and autonomy in the world, gets annoyed with the lectures.  She rolls her eyes and checks out during the big talks.  The teen isn’t feeling like she has choices about her homework; rather she is feeling like her parent is making her choose between friends and homework, and in her frustration she is more likely to choose her friends, simply because her parent is “being so annoying.”
  4. The parent feels like their message isn’t getting through, so they double down, providing more lectures and more oversight.
  5. The teen begins to push back hard.  She becomes angry with her parent, again not feeling like she has the room to make her own choices.  In an effort to exert her control over the situation, she starts to sneak out to be with their friends.  She even starts doing her homework less than she had been.
  6. The parent, increasingly worried about what this might mean for their grades at the end of the year, begins to become angry as a way to control the teen’s behavior.  They begin to threaten to take privileges away, like her cell phone or time with the car, now demanding that she get her grades up, or else.
  7. The teen then escalates, exhibiting even more dangerous and impulsive behaviors, simply because she is trying to feel some sort of power in the situation.  Notice that the only place she has any power here is how she behaves.  Her parent has control over access to the phone and the car, but she still retains the ability to be in control of what she does.  So, if she is wanting to feel autonomous and independent, why wouldn’t she exert the only power that she has?  What does she have to lose?

This is what is known as a power struggle -- the parent and the teen battling over who has control of her choices.  Power struggles often don’t really work to control a teen’s choices, but parents are often so concerned about their child’s behavior that they resort to power as a way to control the outcome of the child’s choices.  If a teen is needing to feel independent, however, they will usually continue to battle, finding ways to exert any control they can in an effort to prove that they can make their own choices.  

The issue here is that parents and teens are approaching the situation from different vantage points, with different priorities.  The parent prioritizes wanting to ensure that the teen makes “good choices” as a way to guarantee that she will have an easier and more productive future.  The teen is prioritizing independence and feeling like she can make her own decisions, and that is more important to her than thinking about her future.  But, all too often the parents are not willing or able to recognize what’s important to the teen; and the teen is also not willing or able to see what’s important to the parents.  And so, in an effort to get their concerns addressed and needs met, both parties end up in a power struggle, one where each sees the other as the problem.

What Parents Can Do

Dr. Damour has a line in her book that I love so much I use it nearly every week when working with parents of teens, and I try to remember it daily when parenting my own kids:  

“Never get into a power struggle with a teenager in an area where she holds all of the power!”

Think about homework: who really has the power there?  Your teen actually has complete control over whether or not she actually does her homework.  She’s the only one that has to sit down and work on it, the only one that can turn it in.  Sure, you can do things to try to make her do it, but she ultimately has control over whether or not she complies.

When a parents goes to battle over the things that a teen has total control over, the battle becomes all about autonomy (whether the parent is aware of this or not).  And your teen might want to feel independent and autonomous more than she wants to please you, or do the right thing.  This becomes a never ending battle of wills.  Not much fun.

So, instead of fighting against her need for autonomy, why not work with it?  Consider using your teen’s drive for independence to allow her the chance to actually feel the impact of her choices without your emotions or pressures in the way.  Let them be her choices, and not yours.

Assuming that you have a teen who is in the throes of demanding their independence, here are a few ways to begin to get out of your kid’s way so that they can start learning how to make their own choices about their future:

  • Start by paying attention to your own motivations, so you can get them out of the way.  The more that you are attached to a specific outcome that you would like for your child, the more likely it is that your kid will buck against what you are trying to get her to see.  Try to remember that these are your teen’s choices to sort out, not yours.  Let them be hers.  You pressuring her to practice basketball more so that she can be the awesome point guard you know she can be may not be what she wants; it might be what you want for her.
  • Get curious about what’s most important to your teen.  I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve met with over the years who tell me, “Well, I know my kid wants to be successful, so I can’t understand why they won’t get change.”  Do you know for sure what your teen wants?  We often make assumptions about what they want based on what’s important to us, or what we want for them.  So, if you’re not sure what they want, ask them.  And then listen, even if what they tell you isn’t what’s important to you.
  • Next, take the emotion out of it.  As parents, we often get emotionally attached to our kid’s outcomes, and of course we do.  We love our kids and we want the best for them.  But sometimes we may use our emotions as tools to control our teen’s choices.  Again, try to remember that these are your teen’s choices, not yours.  This is her path to go down, and these are her lessons to learn.  Your job is to support her and provide a safe environment that helps to foster learning.  She won’t learn anything if she has to keep reacting to your feelings.
  • Provide clear and consistent consequences, and then allow them to make the decisions themselves.  If your goal as a parent is to help your teen learn how to think about their behavior and, at least at times, curb those short term impulses, then our job is to help structure their environment so that they have a good reason to think about their behavior.  Provide clear consequences that are directly linked to their behavior choices, and don’t forget to include talking about those consequences that might lead to a positive outcome.  Show them that they have a choice in everything that they do, and that they ultimately have the power to decide how they want a situation to play out for them. 

    Example: A few weeks ago, my son and I had planned on going to a movie that we were both excited about.  We like to go to these movies the day that they come out, which is usually on a Thursday night.  On this particular day, I knew that he had a paper due the next morning.  Knowing this, I had a chat with him on Tuesday about the movie night, and let him know that he had to decide what he wanted to prioritize this week: getting the paper done before 6:00 on Thursday night, so that we had enough time to go to the movie; or to wait until Thursday to get started, in which case we would have to wait until the weekend to see the movie.  He was totally in agreement with this, and told me that he could get it done in the time that he had. 

    Now, I could have been the homework monitor and pushed him all week, pushing him every chance I could to ensure that he got his assignment done so that we could see the movie.  But, if I had done that, then he would not have had the opportunity to feel the consequences of his own choices.  The paper might have gotten done (short term gain), but only because of my pressure and not because he decided to do it. 

    As it turned out, he did in fact wait until the last minute to get started.  When I walked in the door at 6:00 on Thursday night, he said to me, “Hey, dad!  I got a lot done, but I have three more sections to write, so I can just finish it tomorrow before school.  Let’s go to the movie!”  As tempted as I was to go along with this (because remember, I really wanted to see the movie that night as well), I knew that this was an opportunity for him to learn from his choices.  So, without being heavy handed or punitive, I mustered up as much calm as I could and just said, “Well, what we talked about was that you’d either work on it before now so we could go to the movie, or you would wait until now to finish it.  So, sounds like you prioritized other things this week, which is fine.  Looks like we’ll be going to the movie this weekend.”  He was very bummed, but he knew that this was what we had decided.  He let out a deep sign, and then turned back to his paper and started working on it again.
  • Remember: Consequences teach lessons much better that lectures ever will!  The goal is to have your child learn how to make difficult choices between their impulses to do something fun and their knowledge that they should probably finish a task.  The more that they make that choice themselves, the more likely it is that they’ll learn their own lessons.  The more that you lecture them about what they should be learning from every little life lesson that shows up, the more likely it is that they’ll get defensive as a way to protect their need for independence and autonomy, thereby focusing their attention on you being a big jerk and thus avoiding learning anything of value from the incident!

    Example: Let’s use the same story from above, where my son didn’t get his paper done and we couldn’t go to the movie.  I was annoyed that we couldn’t go to the movie, and I easily could have said something punitive as a way to really drive home his mistake.  “This is the kind of thing that I’m talking about, Ben!  If you had just done what you said you would, then you’d be going to this movie.  Instead, you ruined both of our plans!”  What do you think Ben would have done at that point?  Most kids would start to become defensive at that point, and either start arguing with me about all of the reasons that they didn’t get the paper done as a way to protect their ego from my verbal barrage (eg., “I didn’t have enough time to get it done!”).  I would likely then get dug in with my need to make him “learn a lesson,” so I would then try to tear down his flimsy excuses (eg., “You had plenty of time, but you played Fortnite all week, didn’t you?!”).  He’d become more defensive, and I’d probably feel like he wasn’t listening to my wisdom and keep pushing.  Meanwhile, he’s not writing his paper, and he’s thinking that I’m the problem.

    However, by trusting that the consequence itself will teach the lesson, I just matter-of-factly pointed out what we’d agreed on and what was going to happen as a result of his choices, without any aggression or snark in my voice. He had nothing to be defensive about, and so instead was left sitting with the disappointing reality that resulted from his choices.  
  • Don’t take credit for their successes.  This seems obvious, but it’s actually surprisingly easy to inadvertently take credit when our kids make choices that produce positive and exciting results when we are trying to be supportive and encouraging.  Have you ever said anything like: 

    "See?  If you hadn’t listened to me, you wouldn’t have gotten that done!"

    "It’s a good thing you ran those extra miles we talked about!  It got you in great shape to run that race."

    “Look what happens when you listen to your parents!” 

    “You’re just like your mom!”

    Those all sound encouraging, but each one of them takes credit away from your child and assumes that they couldn’t have achieved what they did without you.  So, what you end up teaching your child is that they need you to achieve.   Instead, why not just say something like "your hard work there really paid off."  Even if it was your suggestion, they still had to decide to do the work.  Let that be their win, not yours.

When to Worry

As is the case with all of these tasks, there is a wide range of behavior that falls under the heading of “Normal Adolescent Behavior,” even when they’re acting in ways that drive us crazy.  But, if you’re child is hanging out on either extreme end of this spectrum, there may be a need for more formal intervention.

  • All plan and no play.  These kids often go unnoticed.  They are the teens who work very hard, who know what they want in life, and who are doing everything “right”.  Except that they aren’t spending time with friends, or trying new things, or making mistakes.  Remember that teens need to learn how to plan for their own future, and often these kids have taken on a set of rules that adults have laid out for them and are following them to the letter.  That may mean that they don’t know how to make their own decisions, but rather have simply learned to rigidly follow instructions in order to get good grades.
  • No plan in sight; no drive to get there.  These teens do often get identified as struggling, and often they are targeted by teachers and parents as needing assistance.  However, they sometimes get the wrong kind of assistance, as their behavior may result in adults doing things to control their choices rather than try to figure out why they aren’t taking any responsibility in figuring out their future.  This behavior could be an indicator of a host of complicated psychological concerns, from anxiety to abuse.  

If you are an MSU employee and are concerned about your teen, and would like to have a conversation with someone to sort out whether or not your teen is engaging in behaviors that you need to worry about, feel free to contact MSU’s Employee Assistance Program. You can set up an appointment to talk with a licensed counselor about your concerns, who will be able to help you sort out your concerns, and explore any options you have to get your child the help that they need. Contact MSU’s EAP at 517-355-4506, or eap@msu.edu.

Next article: TASK 6 -- Entering the Romantic World!

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