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For Your Marriage

Josh and Stacey Noem have been married for almost 20 years and have three children in middle school and high school. They blog about parenting and their adventures as a family.

Teenage Murder and Parental Love

I’ve only been parenting a teenager for a little more than a year, but some things are becoming clear already.

The first is a statement I once heard a speaker deliver years ago, when Oscar was but in his terrible twos. It shocked me because it seemed so incongruous with my experience of parenting a toddler. The speaker said that it is the job of every teenager to murder their parents.

She was being hyperbolic, of course—her point was that the task of adolescence is to separate one’s self from one’s parents, in a sense, and to begin to define life on one’s own terms.

I’ve taken strange comfort in those words many times. They come to me during hormonal outbursts, or when a conversation suddenly turns tumultuous. I take a deep breath and just remember that it feels like torture because that’s what it is, and that context gives me a new frame of reference to offer more compassion. (We’ve all been there, right?)

Second is a conversation I had with my oldest cousin, who is on the tail end of parenting teenagers. In their family, one parent stayed at home to raise the children, which is a similar career and lifestyle choice that Stacey and I have made. When his daughters reached high school, it seemed that my cousin and his wife would appreciate the new freedom that came with children being able to take care of themselves. I asked him about that freedom and what he said surprised me.

He told me that it is actually more important than ever that someone is home for children in their teenage years. Yes, they can care for themselves in terms of basic necessities—completing homework and getting their own food, for example—but they are also able to get into deeper, more dangerous kinds of trouble without parental oversight. Their family found it very important that a parent was present to hear about their daughters’ day, to track what was going on in their lives, and to be around as a dependable accountability measure.

This gets to my third point, which comes from sociologist Christian Smith, who has been doing some very enlightening work studying what he calls emerging adults. In his work, “Souls in Transition,” he challenges the cultural myth that during the teenage years, children are more influenced by peers than by parents, and that it is the parent’s job to withdraw from teenagers to give them the space to develop their own autonomy.

While it is true that teenagers become more independent of their parents, and more absorbed in their peer groups, he writes, this does not mean that their parents have become irrelevant. “Most adolescents in fact still very badly want the loving input and engagement of their parents—more, in fact, than most parents ever realize. They simply want that input and engagement on renegotiated grounds that take seriously their growing maturity and desired independence.”

Smith studied factors that determined religious engagement among emerging adults —their attendance at religious services, or the importance of faith in their lives, for example—and discovered that parents have a significantly larger impact than peers. Parental involvement, he reports, trumps everything else.

In short, it is during the teenage years that adolescents need parental guidance and input the most because the scope of their questions and issues are so much broader. They are determining what they believe and think—they are figuring out who they are going to be—and often parents disappear from their lives just at this crucial point.

The key for parents is to see and understand that teenagers want to renegotiate their relationship with us in a way that respects and even values their growing maturity and development. So, in the end, while a teenager’s job is to “murder” their parents, it is the parent’s job to continue to love their teenager, even—perhaps especially—in moments of turmoil and crisis.

I have found that parenting a teenager is calling from me a deeper kind of love—one that respects freedom while keeping boundaries, one that seeks to bond without clinging, and one that teaches and leads by example more than words.

This task should not surprise us—this same deepening love shapes marriage and grounds parenthood. It is nothing new—it has hung on a cross for millennia.