Strategies for Parenting the Older Adolescent

Steering Versus Fueling

By Dan Fox, LPC

Let’s use the metaphor of life as a car.  If your daughter’s life was a car, when she’s little, it’s your job to steer.  We’ve got to keep them safe, provide a rational structure, help them when they are stuck emotionally or with one of life’s many challenges.  Still, by the time they are truly adults, they need to be able to steer their own car, to pick a destination and know how to get there, to stay safe despite the dangers of the road, to keep their car running in a healthy way.  By the time your daughter is an adult, your days of steering are long over.  Your role has changed.  It’s time to focus on fueling.

Steering is trying to control.  Steering is checking to make sure that they’ve made a doctor’s appointment.  Steering is giving them money if they get good grades.  When you call with a list of concerns that you hope to make them aware of, that’s steering too.  So is telling them that you won’t pay for any more classes if they fail again.

Steering isn’t inherently bad; but as your child gets older, it just does more to support perpetual adolescence than to support a launch towards adulthood.  And if you are like many parents, you know from hard earned experience that it’s hard to steer someone else’s life very effectively.

When we steer older adolescents, the tendency is for our kids to feel a little judged or a little inadequate.  It’s like we don’t trust them to be able to handle life’s challenges.  Or we create conflict.  We come across as being too alarmist or a nag.  We can end up unsure whether or not we got our point across, and whether or not it was worth it even if we did.

Rather than trying to figure out how best to steer, the parent journey at this life stage is more about how to fuel.  If you are like many parents, sometimes contact with your son or daughter is strained.  To fuel is to be able to have contact with them where they leave less stressed or anxious, not more.  Fueling is about believing in them, keeping the faith in whom they are and whom they will become, even if they don’t feel confident.  Fueling is about being able to hang out and enjoy the time together, without any particular agenda.  If they don’t call you back, if they give one-word answers, if you feel like you’re being avoided, let’s face it – these are all signs that despite our best intentions, they are not feeling fueled.

Most parents do a pretty good job of fueling.  But at this life stage, it’s worth becoming an expert fueler.  Two skills to work on:  (1) being able to identify your interactions as either fueling or steering, and (2) deliberately practicing communication that fuels rather than steers.

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