Teenagers Are Awesome - Part Two | How To Handle Decision Fatigue in Parenting Teenagers

When my kids were 1, 3, 5, and 7, I thought my life was at an all-time level of crazy.  My floors stayed in a constant state of disaster...eerily resembling the status of my hair.  My car looked like someone lived in it...also a lot like my hair.  And every crevice of my day was covered in baby spit-up and snot...again, a very fair description of my hair.  My twenties could easily be titled "Jurassic World, Bad Hair Version."

But, friends, I was wrong.  With kids who are 14, 16, 18, and 20, my life is just now at an all-time level of crazy.  Yes, it's true that my floor, my car, and even my hair are clean now, but it turns out, there are other things besides spit-up and snot that make life messy.  Because right now, every crevice of my day is covered in questions.  So many questions.  And all of them leading to decisions that have to be made.

In and of themselves, there aren't many that are life-altering, but put them together, and you have one major case of decision fatigue.

Can I go hang out with this friend?  How about that friend?  Can I download this app?  How about this other app that has the potential for a stalker, but is probably fine, no worries?  Can I buy this?  Can I wear this?  Can I get in my car and drive with my friends three states over to go to a an outdoor concert for a really cool Norwegian band that is so speaking to me right now (don't worry, mom, they have metal detectors at the entrances)?  Can I go to this party?  Plans changed, can we move the party over here?  Can I watch this movie?  Can I make a movie?  Can I dye my hair?  Can I get a tattoo?  Can I get five tattoos?  What's for dinner? 

But, that doesn't mean there aren't still some life-altering ones thrown in there, right alongside the daily list of the more low-key variety.

Which school should I go to?  What should I major in?  Nope, nevermind, can I change my major?  Is this the right person for me to spend the rest of my life with?  What's my purpose?  How do I know for sure what the next step is?  How do I heal from a broken heart?  What's the meaning of life?  What's for dinner?

And with four living, breathing, human beings all having needs at the same time, on top of work and husband and dog and hair, all the questions pile up.  And they start to weigh on you.  And the weight of it can create a sense of being overwhelmed that can lead to either apathy or micro-management as dueling defense mechanisms.  Apathy on its worst day says, "If this decision's probability of rehab or jail is less than 50%, than I don't care, do what you want."  And micro-management on its worst day yells, "No.  The answer to every question is no.  Go to your room and don't come out unless there is a fire, and in that case, you can only go to the designated safety spot across the street, but make sure you walk and don't run, and if you happen to be holding scissors, carry them with the point down."

And both of those defense mechanisms may bring some sweet relief to the endless asking of questions, feeling good for a moment, but neither of them will get you closer to the goal.

And the goal is to help your teenager learn to hear the voice of God.

Because the truth of this whole parenting gig is that the questions will eventually stop coming.  There really will be a day when your kid doesn't need, want, or ask for your approval or even your input.  And it's supposed to be that way.  Because if you're asking your mom what's for dinner when you're 37, there has been a major failure to launch.  Yes, it's true that every grown person needs some counsel from time to time, but there has to come a time when you are one of a "circle of elders" that speaks life into the adults that were your children.  And there has to come a time when even the voices of those counselors take a backseat to the intimate, individual, specific, present, loving, directional, and kind voice of the God who loves them more than anyone else ever could.   

And if you are working yourself out of the job of "Chief Question Answerer," it means that in the answering of the questions, there has to be somewhere you're headed with each and every one, a slow weaning from your voice, and an ever-increasing leaning in to His.

It means you have to stay engaged with the questions, but take the harder, more time-consuming route of engaging the heart of the question, the reason for your answer, and the prayers that get prayed to help you find the answers in the first place.  

I'm going to offer some practical suggestions I've found that help me do these things, but I'll be honest with you up front.  I don't always get this right.  I've been know to say, "Go ask your Dad" because I just can't decide one more thing.  (I will, however, warn you moms not to do this with a swimsuit choice, or your daughter will come back in tears wearing the garment selected for "Amish Illustrated.")  But, after almost 8 years into this teenage adventure, I've learned a few things that have helped me navigate the questions and the decisions in a way that gets us moving closer to the goal and still lets me keep my hair washed.  Give them a try if you're in this season, and have some grace for yourself in the meantime.  The same God that helped you survive the spit-up and snot is still here to help you navigate these waters, too.

Decision Making with Teenagers:

  • Tell your teens that you will not be rushed in making decisions.  They often want an answer right away at this age, but it's ok for them to learn good decisions usually come after some thought and after inviting God into the answer.  Let them know that if they press you for an answer before you're ready to give it, it will be a hard and fast no.  They'll learn to give you some time.
  • Remind them that as important as they are to you, they are a part of a family, and everyone has something they're needing.  Make sure they learn to let you make decisions based on the level of need, and not just their desire to get a response.  I have had to remind my kids to literally not ask me things all at the same time, especially not the first moment I walk in the door or in a flurry of texts.  Instead, one at a time, sitting on a couch, looking into each other's eyes works best.  And my kids have also learned that if Mom eats dinner first, it will go better.  Hangry does not lead to yeses.
  • Ask a lot of questions in return.  Teenagers have rarely thought through everything.  They need help in learning how to analyze a situation.  But, rather than saying, "Are you crazy?  That's going to be way too expensive and insanely dangerous and you could die," try, "What are your thoughts on transportation...budget...and how you're not going to die?"  If you keep it at a conversation instead of an interrogation of someone's sanity, they will feel the respect level rise and will better engage you at an adult level of thought.  Some more good questions are, "What does your heart tell you about this?"..."What do you hope to gain by doing this?"...and "Are there any problems you think you might encounter if you do this?"
  • Say yes as often as you genuinely can come to peace about.  The teenage years are an amazing season of exploration.  They help us learn what's inside us and what we're here for.  Your teenager's request may be outside your box, but it could be that it's the start to a perfect, brand new box for where they are headed in life.   And if you allow them to try the smaller, new things that stay within your value system as a family, it could turn out to help them answer the bigger questions they are really mulling over about their purpose and what they bring to the world.  
  • If you're feeling stuck and don't know how to answer the question, be honest and tell your teenager that.  It's ok to say, "I have mixed feeling about this.  On one hand, I can see this.....but, I'm concerned that this could happen if we do that...."  This is also the part where I've often needed to remind my kids that I've never parented this situation, for this kid, with these variables before.  Helping them to see I am growing and searching right alongside them hasn't made me less in their eyes, it's actually helped them to see me having to depend on the Lord over my own reasoning.
  • If it's a big one with potentially big consequences, pray together with your teen.  Then, tell them you'll be listening for the Lord's voice and you want them to do the same.  Set an appointment to come back and talk about it again.  Then, make sure you pray and listen.  God is a better parent than I am every single time.  He really does have an answer.
  • If you feel like you made a bad decision and there were consequences you didn't like, own it in front of your teen.  Tell them you wish you had made a different decision and why.  Let them know that next time, your answer may be different.  This interrupts the "precedent" factor, while creating a sense of understanding that you're doing the best you can, but you're not perfect, which in turn creates dialogue and causes growth in both of you.
  • If you feel like your teen is manipulating your emotions to get the answer they want, point that out gently.  Let them understand what manipulation looks like, sounds like, and feels like.  Make sure they know they need to recognize this, both because you don't want them to manipulate or be manipulated by others in the future.  And then, make sure you keep a tight watch on this in your own life.  Moms have often been notorious for emotional manipulation, so make sure you can receive the same correction if it comes your way.
  • Sometimes, every tactic seems to fail, and I never come up with the answer, and neither does my husband.  In those situations, I've been honest with my teen that there are times when you just don't know what to do as a parent.  And, it's in those times I've told them that if it comes down to erring with too much freedom or not enough, I'm going to land on the side of possibly being over-protective.  This might not sound like a "win," but it does help to explain this to them, so they can see the heart behind my decision.  I recently said these words, "If I say no, the worst that's going to happen is that you don't get to do something you want to do, I might stifle your growth, and you could be put out with me.  But, if I say yes, the worst that could happen is that you could be hurt in ways that would take years to recover from.  We can recover from the first one, we don't want to have to recover from the second."    
  • Don't forget to laugh.  When your 19 year old asks if he can spend the summer in the Faroe Islands painting houses and slaughtering goats with a friend of a friend who doesn't speak English and knows someone who has a hut they could probably borrow for a couple of months (yes, true story), do all of the above while holding your laughter inside until you hang up the phone.  And laugh.  Laugh for the sheer joy of parenting and the roller coaster that it is.  And then make sure you don't forget you were a teenager once, too, and there was a time you would have thought that plan really might work.

NOTE:  This is Part Two of a four part series.  Check back soon for the next post, "How to Create Meaningful Opportunities for Dialogue With Your Teen."