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The Invisible Rope of Parenting A Teen

When a baby is born, a doctor cuts the umbilical cord. From that moment on, they’re physically unattached to a parent. They are free, so to speak. Most parents immediately attach an imaginary rope from themselves to the child. This invisible rope needs to be short and taut for the baby’s protection. Otherwise, they fall or starve.

As our children develop, we lengthen the rope to allow for more mobility. Toddlers explore within a few feet of parents. Parents stay close in order to catch or stop their little ones if necessary.

This process continues. When the child starts playing at friends’ homes and attending school, the rope is extended but still attached. Parents monitor movement, adjusting the length of the rope as they trust their child to make wise decisions. And when the child fails, the parent tugs on the rope a little until the child understands their new boundaries. Then they try again.

The objective is to help our children navigate life. We want them to take appropriate risks and learn as they go. A five-year-old wants to help in the kitchen. They stand on a step stool while reaching for an item on the top shelf. We point out which stools are sturdy and which aren’t, hoping they learn from us and apply this skill in the future. We watch as they climb, and we stand by their side to catch them if they slip.

The end goal is to let go of the rope completely. We want our adult children to live independently from us—to have the skills and wherewithal to make mature, healthy decisions. Eventually, we won’t have any say over their choices unless they ask for our advice. That’s the way it should be. And we want them to be prepared.

But what happens when we’re doing life, slowly letting the rope out, and our teen takes one too many risks? They don’t see the pitfalls and get entangled in an unhealthy behavior. We catch them watching pornography. We see an inappropriate post on their social media or notice their friends are bullying other kids. We hear they are vaping in the bathroom at school. Or they confess to an addiction—drugs, alcohol, vaping, gaming, etc.

By the time our children are teens, their rope should be fairly long. We should trust their judgment and allow them to make most of their decisions with minor monitoring. However, if they fall prey to unhealthy behaviors, we need to re-evaluate the length of the rope.

When my son was fourteen, we learned he was watching pornography. So I pulled on the rope, shortening it. At age sixteen, we learned our guardrails weren’t working, so I tugged on the rope again, reeling it in tighter. For his protection. Because I love him and want what’s best for him. That was a rough time period for our household. But we made it through, and our son is better off because we helped him.

What does a shorter rope look like? It depends on the infraction and on how steeped into the behavior your child has become. It also depends on your relationship with your teen.

Consider household rules regarding curfew, time on screens, and going out with friends. Do you need to limit their exposure to certain types of books, videos, or music? Is there a particular time, place or group of friends that trigger their behavior? Do you need to adjust your schedule to be available to your teen? You may need to take your teen with you on errands so they are not home alone.

Communicate as you journey through the healing process. Check in with your precious offspring. Ask open-ended questions. Remind them how much you love them and that your motive is for them to be their best.

Is this inconvenient? Yes. But, is it worth it? Definitely.

Parenting can be difficult, but the rewards are worth the effort. Remember, your end goal is a mature, healthy adult who can function well in society. Without a rope.

Barb Winters

Barb Winters is a Sexual Risk Avoidance Specialist, author of Sexpectations: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Healthy Relationships, and founder of Hopeful Mom.