I was chatting to my sister about disciplining teens and the old chestnut came up about giving them barriers to kick against. “Yes” my sister said, “but what if those barriers don’t work?”
It came to me that there are different types of barriers and then this analogy popped into my head. Imagine your teen in a cardboard box. Firstly, imagine that they are screwed up into a ball. They have no leg space to unravel themselves and they are struggling for air. It’s uncomfortable and oppressive and they can’t talk because their face is pushed downwards onto their chest, with their knees digging into it. They are getting hotter and more frustrated as they literally cannot move. It’s dark in there. Their parents are sitting on the box, preventing them from opening the flaps.
Now imagine the scenario of the same teenager, but they are in a bigger box. There is room in there for them to stretch out their legs. They can breathe freely and when they want to talk to someone, they can open the flap. Their parents are standing just outside the box. When the teen stretches out their legs, their feet touch the sides. They feel secure in their box, as the cardboard walls make them feel safe.
One thing I’ve learnt over the past few years, is how important it is to parent outside that big box, rather than sitting on it. Teenagers want to know you are there, but not too close. They need to feel trusted, but they also need to know what the parameters are. They need rules so that they can argue against them, whilst knowing you care and have certain expectations of them. In short, they need a box, but they need space in that box to move. If we don’t give our teens space to explore, to make mistakes then they will never learn what to do when they fuck up. If we are always on them, rescuing them when they fail, they will never learn resilience. If we don’t give them the space to be able to kick the sides of the box, they will most probably eventually explode out of it, catapulting us far away and abusing their new found freedom, because, like a kid in a toy shop, they want all the toys they were never allowed.
So back to my sister’s point: what if those barriers don’t work? Well, if the big box isn’t strong enough, and this could be for a multitude of reasons: poor friendships, incident-induced anxiety, perhaps some nature and a little nurture, then we will watch them fuck up. That’s ok. We did and we survived. But we will be there, standing right outside that box, to help them get back on track.