Nikki Mingledorff is the owner and managing director of Learning Through Play, the program director of the Family Mediation & Divorce Center, and soon will be launching her new business, Resilient Living. Her background is in marriage and family therapy, but Nikki found her true calling as a parent educator and coach where she helps families become more resilient. A graduate of Tulane, Nikki has called New Orleans home for over 25 years. She and her husband Jason live in Algiers Point with their three boys (ages 15, 12, and 9), a dog, four cats, and plenty of plants. A consummate traveler, voracious reader, and lover of all things tea, she firmly believes fest season is the best season.
“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
—E. E. Cummings
We’ve all heard the horror stories about parenting teens: out of control hormones, mood swings, eye rolls, slamming doors, yelling, sex, drugs, rock’n’roll—the whole shebang. I’m not going to lie, parenting teens is tough work, but I actually think it gets a bad rap (I feel the same way about parenting toddlers too—but more on that later). I realize that my training as a marriage and family therapist gives me a parenting edge that most parents don’t have, but I’ve seen many parents who are not remotely in my line of work totally rocking the parenting thing. So, what do all these people have in common?
First things first: Going through any major life transition is hard. We as a society typically don’t like dealing with things that are difficult, messy, and uncomfortable. Change, or really any unknown, is often exactly that. Knowing the best way to weather hardship is a skill I believe everyone could greatly benefit from, and those people who do have this skill tend to have similar characteristics: They’re reasonable, able to empathize with others, communicate well, display good self-control and emotional regulation abilities, are proactive problem-solvers, and usually have a good support system. These people demonstrate resilience, confidence, and adaptability which serve them well in all areas of life, including parenting teens and successfully launching them into adulthood.
A Solid Foundation
So, what’s the key to surviving the dastardly teenage years? In truth, resilience work begins long before that. Remember those pesky toddler years? Well, you survived them, and in many ways, the teenage years are similar. One of the reasons the toddler years are so hard is because babies go from having their parents do everything (feed them, change them, burp them, put them to sleep) to toddlers learning to do these basic self-care skills themselves. Same concept, but instead of teaching the basics, we’re focusing on major life skills to raise a fully functioning, responsible—and hopefully also kind and decent—human being. No pressure, right? Well, that’s why the work must be foundational, adding layer upon layer of helpful guidance and self-work well before the teenage years.
These years—when kids are seeking more independence, but are nowhere close to mastering the skills it takes to be independent—are the years that the majority of parents consider to be the most challenging. Recent research shows that the tween years (ages eight to 12) are the parenting years most fraught with stress, mistakes, irritation, dissatisfaction, and frustration. These feelings can certainly carry over to the teen years as young adults also begin to learn how to navigate more mature friendships, romantic relationships, more healthy independence (often while learning to drive as well), and burgeoning career-building. Add in the fact that teens are still working to find their own identity, values, and self-care practices, and no wonder parents and teens have trouble balancing it all.
In my role as a parent and certainly in my role as a parenting educator and coach, I’ve found that the foundation boils down to one very important thing—connection. Why do we as parents provide rules, discipline, boundaries, consequences, and take the time to be involved in our kids’ lives to begin with? It’s because we care. If we don’t share that sentiment with our kids though, parents can certainly come off as unfeeling dictators, or at the very least, nitpicking micromanagers.
Great Parenting in Action
It’s a tricky balance walking the fine line between tyrant and pushover to find your way to being a guide. I’ve never really been keen on punishment, but I’m pretty big on consequences, both positive and negative. Words and messages matter, and whenever we can give our children a healthy sense of autonomy, it will help greatly during those trickier tween/teen years. Developing a strong starting point of confidence and esteem-building from a young age sets the stage for your teen’s ability to manage responsibility (confidence is the belief in yourself and your abilities, while esteem refers to whether you appreciate and value yourself). When your tween/teen shows maturity and trustworthiness, a natural consequence is more freedom. If that freedom is abused, privileges are taken away until they can be earned back. It’s their actions that determine the outcome, not the parents. After all, in the adult world, if you don’t do your job, you get demoted or fired. If you excel at your work, you may get promoted. Finding ways to mirror adult life in age-appropriate ways during childhood is excellent practice.
On the flip side, if I had a boss that demeaned me and was unreasonably critical, I’d be looking for a new job ASAP. It’s not enough to empower your kids, you also need to respect and actively listen to them. If kids feel disrespected, constantly criticized, compared to others, or just plain not heard, how long do you think it will be before they completely stop coming to you?
Sometimes as parents we get so consumed with how hard it is being a parent that we forget how hard it is to be a teenager. Think about your teenage years—social awkwardness, pimples, cracking voices, anxiety about fitting in, and awkward chalkboard moments (well, for boys). Now add to that increasing academic pressure, hours of homework, constantly changing technology, social media, active shooter drills, actual school shootings, and a pandemic! We forget that despite the very real problems we had as teens, the problems of today’s teens are just as difficult, and some may even argue they’re greater.
Every Child is a Reflection
For me, the hardest part about parenting teens and tweens is the mirroring that occurs. To be clear, some mirroring is great. Calm, reflective responses, especially in a heated moment, connotes understanding and encourages healthy communication. The mirroring I’m talking about are those oh-so-familiar moments that trigger negative memories of my own upbringing. Seeing your actions (even sometimes your facial expressions) looking back at you—and seeing that your child may be feeling the same exact way you felt, but it’s now because of you and your thoughtless reaction as a parent—can be weird and unsettling. It not only gives you a taste of how your parents may have felt when you were younger, but it also reminds you that you made a mistake, and you’re acting in a similar way that hurt you as a child. That’s hard, and it’s hard because breaking patterns is hard. The experience can be very cathartic, though, because the truth is, you do have a choice. You can continue the patterns shown to you as a child or choose to parent differently. Walking off the beaten path and forging your own way takes a lot of work, and parenting teens and tweens often reminds you of your own inner child’s feelings. The key, I’ve found, is empathizing and recognizing your own biases and experiences. Although your child may be similar to you, this person in front of you in actuality is not you, and may, in fact, feel very differently from you. We, as parents, have the power to end unhealthy patterns that may have cycled through generations. We are not bound by the past, and instead are very much in control of what we do in the present, and in shaping the future. It is our choice to keep our triggered emotions in check, grow, and be better… for us and for our kids.
Respect, care, and connection is the foundation for all healthy relationships, including parenting. If we want to remain a healthy presence in our teen’s life, we need to give them the room to learn and make mistakes, to fall and to let them get back up on their own to properly prepare them for adulthood. We may be scared and even feel helpless about the choices our young adults make, but that’s the price of parenting and watching our once little kids come of age. There’s no such thing as perfect parenting. You’ll make mistakes, and so will your kids, but it’s never too late to be better and do better. How you handle those mistakes is what separates good parents from great parents.
Parenting Rules to Live By
- Focus more on your relationship with your kids, rather than the problems. Growth comes more easily by nourishing healthy roots.
- When you mess up, apologize. This models vulnerability and learning, and shows that you respect them.
- Be encouraging. How you talk to your kids becomes their inner voice.
- Calm yourself before having important conversations. Respond thoughtfully rather than reactively.
- Set clear rules and consistent boundaries.
- Make time to connect with your kids on a regular basis. Have fun with them, play games, eat dinner together, talk about shows and movies.
- Keep an open line of communication. Consistently let them know you’re here for them through actions and words. Establish trust.
- Have the hard talks about uncomfortable subjects. If they don’t learn it from you, they’ll learn it from someone else.
- Support their interests and passions. Even if they don’t make a career out of it, it’s an excellent coping skill.
- Learn who your kids are. Figure out their love language(s), Myers-Briggs Personality Type & Tendencies (Gretchen Rubin). They’re different from you. Accept them for who they are.
- Encourage balance and self-care. Lead by example.
- Teach your kids how to problem solve and push through failure.
New Orleans metro area parents! Want to share your experience with ANTIGRAVITY readers? We’re always looking for a wide variety of parenting voices and circumstances to explore each month. If you’re interested, please get in touch with Erin Hall or head to our About page to fill out a contributor form.
illustrations by Victoria Allen