In every family around the country, every single day, parents and carers will give many messages to teenagers about many different things.
Some of these messages are really helpful, while some are not.
In fact, some messages can be quite destructive; others are very necessary indeed for healthy teenage development. In this short article, I want to share some thoughts about five healthy messages that I originally wrote about many years ago (Ward 2009). These five messages are:
- You can go
- We believe in you
- We will miss you
- We will cope without you
- Let’s stay in touch.
Let’s look at these one by one.
1 – You can go
By this I mean the parents give the OK for the teen to leave the family nest without any strings attached. This could mean departing on their first job while remaining at home, or leaving the home completely when the time is right. The message you can go means the teen has a ‘pass’ to leave the family nest, while being able to return should they need to.
Some parents find it hard to let their children go. Sometimes it’s because one parent gets their companionship through their child, rather than their spouse. Other times it’s difficult to let them go physically or emotionally because they get some other need met via their child. In family therapy terms, it might be what we call ‘enmeshment’ and can be unhelpful for the teenager’s development.
2 – We believe in you
This message declares that the teen not only has the blessing to go, but that the parents believe that their teen will do just fine in the outside world. The family is not threatened by the teen leaving home, and is cheerleading from the sidelines.
This is a message of encouragement; one that lets the young person know that as far as the parents are concerned, they are more than ready to face the outside world with all its various challenges and trials.
3 – We will miss you
This message lets the teen know that the emotional attachment with them will remain despite their physical absence. Regardless of geography, they will always be a part of the family, and there will be a note of sadness as they see their teenager move more and more in the outside world.
4 – We will cope without you
This message is the important twin to the previous one. If “we will miss you” is given too strongly, it can turn into subtle manipulation. This message then, balances the previous one by giving the message that, “we are grown-ups; we’ll be okay, and you don’t need to worry about us”.
5 – Let’s stay in touch
This message offers the young person an invitation to remain connected to the family system and declares that an open door will always be offered should they wish to return, as well as to remain in contact. This message is a gentle offer; not a stern demand. The parents trust their child enough to not only leave the family nest, but to give them choice about re-contacting after they have left.
Finally, there are four other important points to remember with the above five messages.
- Each of the messages needs each other. For example, “we will miss you” must also be balanced with “we will cope without you”. Otherwise, the teenager will not hear “we will cope”, but instead hear, “we need you here at home, please don’t go”.
- Each of the messages must be relayed to the young person in a genuine, non-manipulative way. For example, it would be wrong to say “yes you can go” in one breath, while in the same sentence explain that if they do, the family business will collapse, or Dad’s health will suffer.
- Each of the messages represents a fresh negotiation of the parent-teenager relationship. The teenager and young adult are no longer children and therefore need to experience a fresh and “up-to-date” relationship with their carers. In other words, if you treat your 17 year old the same as a 14 year old, you are asking for trouble. Likewise, a 22 year old is treated differently than an 18 year old.
- Lastly, the emotional health of the family itself is absolutely crucial in order to deliver these messages appropriately. A family that is ‘good enough’ (no family is perfect!) will encourage the adolescent or young adult to develop as an individual where they are separate to the family, yet still connected. This means that the family structure needs to have healthy boundaries, such as the parents getting their emotional needs met via each other and other adults, and not using their child.
The above messages can also be modified to suit the various cultural differences between families. For example, “let’s stay in touch” means many different things for many families, and every family is different with diverse rules and culture. The key thing to remember is that like the potted plant that has outgrown its pot and needs to be re-potted, families change over time and need to make adjustments.
Some of these adjustments can be stressful and occasionally need someone from outside the family to suggest how to do this. If that is your experience, please contact me and I’d be happy to be a part of your family’s journey.
Author: Dr David Ward, BSocWk, BA., Grad Dip (Couple Thpy), M.Couns., MPhil., PhD.
Dr David Ward is a psychotherapist with over 20 years’ experience, providing therapy to adults, adolescents, children, couples, and families. His areas of professional interest include the use of EMDR therapy to help with recovery from domestic violence, child abuse, PTSD, depression and anxiety; family therapy; and working with victims of spiritual and ritual abuse.
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- Ward, D. (2009). Five messages every adolescent needs to hear. Psychotherapy in Australia, 15(3) 48-54.