When our children are young, we must constantly intervene to keep them from pulling the dog’s tail, touching a hot oven, stumbling down the stairs, etcetera. A big part of our job at that point is to save them from danger because they are incapable of protecting themselves. This interventive form of parenting should, over time, give way to a more guidance-oriented approach as our children develop the cognitive and physical ability to recognize and avoid hazards. Ideally, when our children reach their teen years, we recognize that they are at the last developmental stage prior to independence, so we allow them to increasingly make their own decisions and experience the consequences—positive or negative—of those decisions. This can be a scary and difficult practice after so many years of rescuing your child from danger, but it’s a critical practice to master if your child is grow into healthy adulthood.
Unfortunately, this open-handed parenting approach can get derailed when we are raising a teenager who is struggling behaviorally or emotionally. In these cases, many parents resort to rescuing behavior that is no longer appropriate. When a parent attempts to rescue their teen from his or her own poor choices, the short term result is the avoidance of painful consequences. But this short-term evasion of discomfort is poor compensation for the long term problem of continued—and sometimes exacerbated—destructive behavior. In this case the destructive behavior is actually being “enabled” by the parent since the teen is not naturally deterred from that behavior by the discomfort of natural consequences.
Raising a teen is no easy business because the rules, so to speak, of good parenting must change very quickly to keep pace with the developmental changes occurring within the teen. These developmental changes are all geared toward preparing the young person for healthy independence. As a parent, you can help with this important developmental task by transitioning from rescuing to supportive parenting. Sometimes, though, this is much easier said than done. If you suspect that your relationship is more enabling than it should be with your teen, especially if behavioral, emotional, or substance abuse issues are present, you may need outside help to make this difficult parenting transition. A local therapist or twelve-step support group can be a great first stop for checking on and correcting this well-meaning but potentially destructive parenting style.