A modern word from the adolescent counseling world. That growing sense of self, apart from the parent, that adolescents or teenagers, grow into as they become independent from their parents. Or as we often receive it from our teens: “You’re not the boss of me!”

Darlene Unrah gave a super helpful lowdown on engaging the mental space of an adolescent at the recent spring homeschool conference.

Because teenagers are ‘individuating’, or becoming their own person, they tend to want to do other than their parents might do. What do you do when your kiddo, I mean young adult, doesn’t want to do something that you expect her to do? Like follow house rules or manage their familial interpersonal relationships in a kind way?

Can’t lock them in the basement. Well, not in mine anyway, because the stairway is open to the upstairs. (Oh, and also because that won’t work.) Can’t ground them till their first child is born, because… What’s the reason we can’t do this?

Apparently these things don’t work. And hey, I’ve tried my hand at controlling the outcome of my child’s behaviour. I’ve not always realized that what they were doing in the moment was doing something different from me; rather, I just took offense, took it personally. Apparently they’re not doing something personal. Hard to see that sometimes. (Oh, and by the way, I may have done this in the last week or so).

So when I came across my notes on this seminar in my iPod, I got a bracing reminder of how I might effectively engage the individuating adolescent.

Here’s my reminders from this fabulous Unrah instruction:

Don’t use contempt to sway your child: “What were you thinking?” Come on. Really? I ask that question like my lungs want to take another breath of oxygen. No ‘shoulds’, ‘don’t evers’, ‘make sure’, ‘I’m disappointed in you’, or advice of any kind… If that ain’t the advice to deal with a teenager, then my default instincts are off kilter.

Their friends influence them for the rest of their lives. They can be friendly, funny, exciting, accepting or lacking internal rules; ultimately though, your kiddos connect with their friends because they accept your child. Your kiddos will seek out friends based on where the love is. So we parents need to be the love.

What the above doesn’t look like is judgment and shoulding and criticism–they want discovery, questions, and encouragement. Not unlike our adult desires for engagement. We want someone to take an interest in our lives, we want someone to encourage us, be curious about us and be our cheerleader. Not tell us how we’re doing it all wrong.

Know that the drive-thru window is closed right now. They are in a phase of their adolescence where they just aren’t listening eagerly to their parents like they were as a child cuddling on our laps. So wait–one day the door will be opened again. Be hesitant with your abundance of ‘ought tos’ and wait for more opportunity for connection. That drive-thru window will open again, one day.

At the core, though they don’t readily reveal it, they have needs for security and significance. Girls want to know: “Am I desirable? Am I captivating?” Boys want to know: “Do I have what it takes?” We parents are still the people to answer those questions. So we answer those questions even when they’re not asking.

As Gordon Neufeld, in his attachment parenting approach, reminds us: Collect before you direct. Get their hearts first, then direct them. Boy is this advice difficult to follow. Kids understand quickly when we act out of fear-based parenting. When we’re worried they’ll make a mistake. When we’re worried their doomed to disappointing relationships because they are engaging their siblings wrong. Lots of fears we put upon our children. Ms. Unrah directs us to keep on our poker face on so we can be the most influential person in their lives (and practice that poker face in front of the mirror). We should help them to see that you love them more than all their friends put together.

I might have to read and reread this advice, meditate on it even, and let it digest till it manifests in the practice of my parenting. Every day, I’ll continue to practice parenting.