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 constantly rescue them from danger because they are incapable of protecting themselves. This interventive form of parenting slowly gives 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. At this stage, the direct experience of positive or negative consequences of their choices becomes a much more powerful developmental tool than any instruction or intervention we might provide. Parenting a teen or young adult is largely about helping debrief, rather than interfere with, these experiences.
Unfortunately, this need to allow natural consequences 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 not longer appropriate. The use of the term “rescuing” in therapy was popularized by the substance abuse recovery industry to describe parenting teens or adults in a manner that is developmentally more suited to young children—parenting that can backfire by exacerbating destructive behaviors. When a parent attempts to rescue their teen from his or her own poor choices, the short term outcome is that the teen does not experience the painful but real consequences of his or her risky behavior. But this short-term evasion of discomfort is poor compensation for the long term problem of continued—and sometimes escalating—destructive behavior. In this case, professionals say that the destructive behavior is being “enabled” by the parent since the teen is not 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. Is your parenting characterized by potentially destructive rescuing behavior? Here are some questions to help you know:
- Do you offer unsolicited help to your teen?
- Is there an end point to the help you are offering?
- Do you feel okay about the help you are offering or are there feelings of doubt, regret or ambivalence?
- In areas where you help your teen, who is doing most of the work?
- Does your teen express thanks for your input or help?
Remember that the job of the adolescent is to prepare for independence. Parents raising a teenager can help with this important developmental task by transitioning from rescuing to supportive parenting. 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.