Here at ATXCatholic I don’t often write about my job as a therapist, but today I’d like to delve a little bit into it, through the lens of good theology and a Christian understanding of the human person. I’d like to delve into the concept of boundaries in relationships, specifically between parents and teens.
Tricky for both sides
It’s sometimes tricky to navigate the transition of a child-to-adolescent, on both sides of the parent-teen relationship. As children grow into teens, and parents are no longer parenting young children, there can be some really tense moments.
Parents may find themselves asking “How much is too much, or too little?” when it comes to things like limitations, responsibility and talking with their teens about difficult issues. And teens may find themselves pulling away from parents to get some breathing room, or struggling with the new weight of understanding adult themes (like that your parents aren’t perfect, relationships require hard work, you bear the main responsibility for charting your life path…etc). In tense times, doors can slam, consequences can be slapped down, and conversations can devolve into shouting matches that neither teens nor parents feel good about. In tense situations like these, the emotional boundary between parent and teen can become blurred at best, or even non-existent. In other situations, teens and parents may resort to being disconnected or distant just to stay comfortable.
Faith, like any topic that comes up in a family, is subject to these same tensions and boundary struggles. And perhaps, since so much of who we understand ourselves to be is rooted in faith, perhaps such tensions might intensify around matters of faith. I’d like to consider a conceptualization of boundaries from a Catholic perspective. Perhaps that sounds odd – track with me and see if this makes sense to you (I’m quite open to comments and feedback).
Budding Free Will
Often tensions arise between teen and parent when there is a disagreement about something, or a limit has been broken. Tensions also arise when teens aren’t experiencing success, like when he/she gets bad grades. As parents, a natural reaction to any of these things would be to get anxious or upset. And most likely if the parent is upset, the teen is upset, too.
Is it possible to lead as a parent in these times of tension? Our understanding of God and of His creation, the human person, may light the way. The most fundamental aspect of God is His infinite, merciful love towards us (Fr Joseph Kentenich). And as a friend of mine likes to say, if it isn’t free, it isn’t love. These two aspects, love and freedom, will always go hand in hand in the higher realms of love. What do love and freedom have to do with tense moments between parents and teens?
You know, I could probably go on for pages with thoughts on that question, but I’m going to try really hard to just stick to one thought:
Parents are tasked with the difficult challenge of inviting their teen to step into the teen’s own budding free will and responsibility. It’s like that existential responsibility gradually dawns on teens throughout these formative years – Will I amount to anything? Will I stay faithful to who I am? What will I do when I “grow up?” Does what I do make a difference in the world? It’s not uncommon for teens to run from this responsibility, or anxiously overreach it, rebel against it, or just totally fold in front of it.
Faced with such possible tensions on the teen’s road to becoming an adult, it’s natural for parents to resort to just telling their teens what to think, what to do, who to be or how to handle different problems. And while that’s natural and would possibly resolve tensions in the immediate moment, how much will that teen learn about exercising their budding responsibility and growing sense of self?
Loving respect for God-given freedom
I think the highest form of love mirrors that of God for us – a total respect for our free will. I think that this difficult challenge for parents of inviting their teen to step into the teen’s own budding free will and responsibility requires an ever increasing amount of sacrificial love. And perhaps oddly enough, that’s what I mean by boundaries. The parent makes room for the growing teen by holding on themselves and lovingly respecting the space of the teen to think for his/herself, to make mistakes and learn from them, to wrestle with difficult situations and sufferings. And the parent helps make this room by giving themselves room to hold onto who they are, and minding their own boundaries (ie, working to calm self in the middle of the tense conversation with the teen and acting out of thoughtful discernment of who they are as parents).
This loving respect for the teen’s budding freedom does not translate into distance, however. Loving respect for freedom does not mean “you do you, and I’ll do me.” I think it means something more like “I will sit here with you, present, listening and attentive while you work to figure you out.” A helpful way to show this connected, loving respect is asking the teen questions. And in such an open environment where thoughtful responses can be given to respectful questions, I think the parent is in the best situation to offer their own wisdom, and that teens are also perhaps in the best situation to hear it. It seems that this may be especially true of tense situations where parents and teens disagree, such as sometimes happens with faith, values, relationship choices, politics, or any sensitive issue. This environment of loving respect, freely given, and given out of a parent’s own sense of self (with no strings attached) may be the most fruitful place of real conversation with teens.
I’ll close with a quote from Pope Francis, “The Joy of Love,” his letter on family life. So in the original quotation, he’s actually talking about we, the Church, and the faithful. But as I read it, I couldn’t help seeing how his wisdom was really applicable to parents and teens! Here’s the original quote:
We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them. (#37)
Applied to parents and teens, it might read…
“Parents often find it hard to make room for the (growing) consciences of the teens, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. Parents have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
Sounds like loving respect of budding freedom to me! One last thought (I know I said I’d close…). I hope that loving respect for freedom is not taken to mean “no limitations.” Since teens consciousness (and prefrontal cortices) are still forming, they absolutely need stable, reasonable limits. And I think these limits will also be more effective in so far as they also come from a place of loving respect and discernment, and will be less effective when they are born out of anxiousness and reactivity.
I welcome your thoughts and comments, from both parents and teens!