Psychologist Dr. Kenneth Wilgus offers parents a strategy of "planned emancipation" whereby they can help prepare their teens for adulthood by carefully and progressively withdrawing their control over key areas of their teen's life. (Part 2 of 2)
Kenneth Wilgus: Now, with freedom always comes responsibility. So by letting go of one thing, you also lead them to their own consequences of the things that they’re not doing.
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John Fuller: That’s Dr. Ken Wilgus describing how you can help your teen grow up and successfully make that important transition from childhood to adulthood...
Jim Daly: Yay!
Jim: Aspiring parent.
John: Well, aspiring, launching parent, right? I mean, your boys are right there.
Jim: Yeah. And so you have a couple of kids at that same point, don’t you?
John: I do. Yeah.
Jim: It’s gonna be good. John, calm down. You’re gonna launch well.
John: Thank you, Jim.
Jim: Hey, we had an excellent conversation last time with Ken about dealing with those teen years and all the unique challenges that go with that period in your family’s life. That’s normal. And I think it’s wonderful to start talking about this. First as a couple, be talking about how we’re going to launch successfully and have a plan. That’s part of what we’re talking about last time and today.
Kenneth: Hey, thanks.
Jim: Okay. I’m serious. You’re an expert in adolescence. You can actually attain expert-hood in teenagers...
Kenneth: There is such a thing. Yes, there is.
Jim: That’s the position of envy for all parents. You really understand how these young people think.
Kenneth: You know, I actually tried to get away from adolescence when I started, but there was just a logic to it that I couldn’t ignore.
Jim: Let me ask you that. You know, often I think, why did my dentist want to become a dentist? Why did you want to do this?
Kenneth: Well, I was trying to work with adults. But when you’re a male in psychology training, like in Chicago I worked at Michael Reese Medical Center, and if they had - they had an intensive adolescent unit. And man, you got to have a guy in that unit because it can be intense. So I ended up getting thrown in there. This is how the Lord works, you know, I’m complaining that oh, no, that’s not what I want to do.
Jim: So if you, you know, coming off of what we talked about last time, and we’ve said it already two or three times - if you missed it, get it because the content was so good.
Kenneth: Okay. That is an unfair question. But I do think that that’s, again, it starts with our faith, knowing that we don’t blow stuff. Jesus is never going, “Oh, no, this is too much of a mess for me now.”
Jim: Is it ever too late for the restart button? I mean, if they’re 23, 24?
Kenneth: No. I don’t think so. I think, again, if you count the restart button as let’s talk about what I may have signaled to you as disrespect. Because you can definitely - I know adults that are, you know, 50s with their own adult parents that are still trying to teach and control and manage, and that can be tense. So there’s - it’s never too late for that conversation.
Jim: Well, and the interesting thing is healing that relationship is what God would want...
Kenneth: Oh, absolutely.
Jim: ...Fundamentally, whether your child is 30 or 40, if you haven’t had that healing in that relationship, that is what the Lord’s after, is that you have that good communication.
Kenneth: Planned emancipation is getting ahead of the adolescent’s primary need. You need to know when and how you’re going to arrive as an adult, and here’s the answer to that. And it is a parent’s, basically, road map from wherever you start to the end, which for the vast majority of parents, the end is the end of high school, pretty much. You need to be prepared for them to pretty much be making their own decisions by the time they’ve finished high school.
Kenneth: But the step to do that is I suggest you make a freedom’s list, which is actually on a sheet of paper, left hand side is a list of freedoms that say we think you should use your own judgment in the following areas. And there’s a - on the left side of the paper should be freedoms, like in our house at 13, you got the freedom to listen to whatever music you felt you needed to, you could keep your own room as clean or dirty as you see fit. That always freaks mothers out. I’ve gotten literally photos of, “Do you mean this room?”
Jim: Well, so if they choose to have it dirty, is that okay?
Kenneth: Well, again, it comes down to with freedom always comes responsibility. And responsibility means and here’s the washer, here’s the dryer. You don’t want us wandering in taking care of your clothes for you.
Jim: Fine, I like this. Now we’re going a good direction.
Kenneth: ...Cost you money...
Jim: Twenty bucks?
Kenneth: ...And with freedom, that may be high. I don’t know, depends on how you want to do it. I did have a couple whose son makes quite a bit of money and they’re charging 10 bucks for a cup or a glass. So depends on your kid...
Jim: A cup or a glass. I’m starting to like this emancipation idea.
Kenneth: See, it scares me that you get all excited about the restricted part.
Jim: Well, I’m just thinking of how many dirty dishes are around the house.
Kenneth: Well, there’s a big difference between saying that your freedom - we want you to have freedom versus your freedom shouldn’t mess with us. It should not cause us a problem.
Jim: Yeah. I might be able to make 200 bucks tonight.
John: What’s the balance there, Ken, between your freedom as a teen and my home and your responsibility in that?
Kenneth: Well, most teenagers understand that.
Jim: So that’s all laid out, so it’s understood.
Kenneth: It’s all laid out.
, you lay these out so well. Let me go a little deeper philosophically because you talk about the importance that parents need to understand this idea to trade control for influence.
Jim: Okay. That’s a panic button for many parents. You know, “Control is the tool I have, Dr. Ken.”
Kenneth: That’s right. Right.
Jim: Which, you want me to give that up for influence, which is not concrete, it’s only something I suggest?
Kenneth: Again, it’s a matter of recognizing that from 13 to the end of high school, you are having - whether you want to or not - you are having less and less control.
Kenneth: So it’s really not giving up as much as you think to acknowledge that freedom for what is, again, so commonly not there, which is real influence...
Kenneth: ...Relational, communication influence that says, “Listen, I’m not here to tell you how to keep your room anymore, but can I just ask you, this is really depressing in here,” which is almost a conversation I had with my son one time, who asked me twice - this is Mr. ADD boy - who really - he’s living in regular life. We do - we do hard launches in our family. They’re gone. But my son and his wife and two kids, you know, there were some points where his room got pretty bad. And twice he asked me, “Could you come help me clean my room?” So I was like, “Sure.” Now in all fairness, it lasted about 15 minutes. He got too ashamed with my questions of, “How long have you had this out here,” he was like, “Never mind, never mind.” So we’d stop. But you know, he had much more ability to talk to me about that than he would have we had done that usual yelling thing that goes on for years just to try to get a clean room. And then if you visit any freshman dorm in this country, you’ll see that, you know, that it’s not exactly working.
Jim: Right, no. But the irony is we keep coming back to the same methodology.
Kenneth: Exactly, which is the most common problem of parents using childhood parenting techniques with teenagers. And it just doesn’t work.
Jim: This concept of not knowing what your kids are really all about or not really being able to control their decisions, I mean, that comes home at about 15, 16, 17. And we’ve even had that discussion with one of our boys, you know, who really was honest and just said, “You know, mom and dad, you can’t - in the end, I will decide these things.” And that’s a good thing.
Kenneth: That’s a good thing he felt comfortable saying that.
Jim: Correct. You’re not always comfortable with the decisions, though. And that really is the crux of the issue, right?
Jim: Especially if those things aren’t lining up to spiritual truths that you want your kids to abide by.
Jim: I don’t think parents connect with this. What is this desperate need to feel grown up? And then how does that express itself in unhealthy ways and then in healthy ways?
Kenneth: Well, that’s a good question because
Jim: And that takes, uh, you know, fortitude and thinking that through in terms of the paces. I
Jim: ...To others. Explain why. And I think this fits in with this area of identity.
Kenneth: I think you’re right.
Jim: Because they’re seeing - they’re kind of in this fishbowl.
Kenneth: This fishbowl. And I’ve talked with a lot of pastors’ kids about that very thing - that it’s extra difficult for a pastor because of what can be seen as the expectations of everyone else, that they expect this pastor child, no matter what the age, to be a sort of goody-goody essentially.
- is that relinquishing of your fear and your control. It seems counterintuitive...
Kenneth: It really does.
Jim: ...Because you want to protect, you want - they’re not ready yet, you know, just like the opening - you know, 35 and still at home.
Kenneth: I loved that.
Jim: And some parents, I’m afraid to say, might find that comforting to them. So we’re actually using that relationship to soothe our own fears.
Kenneth: And I want to be real clear - I mean, fear is part of the air that I live and breathe. I mean, it’s hard, and I don’t expect parents to not be fearful.
Kenneth: But what I think is hard is...
Jim: It’s natural.
Kenneth: ...That it can be sometimes lifted up as almost a virtue - that, uh, a parent that is letting go is the one that really doesn’t care as much or...
Kenneth: ...Or isn’t informed. “If you knew what I knew about the suicide rate, you wouldn’t allow these” - whatever.
Kenneth: ...That - so fear masquerades as, uh, authority, as, uh, some more passionate. And that’s the part that I think has to be pushed...
Kenneth: ...Back against.
Jim: You say that teens want freedom, but they also want their parents to give them that freedom.
Kenneth: That’s right.
Kenneth: I’ll always remember it - we had an adolescent day hospital. It was a - and we’re having a group therapy of teenagers, which you can imagine is filled with a lot of “My parents don’t get what - or they don’t let me,” you know. And there was this one really depressed girl. I think she was about 15. And she finally looked up, and she said, “You know, I have everything you guys wish for. Uh, I wish someone would ask if I’m coming in at night” - but her family had pretty much exploded. There was not - uh...
Jim: So she...
Kenneth: ...It was a divorce.
Jim: ...Desired it?
Kenneth: She had the freedom, but she did not have the message from someone who cared: “It’s time for you to have this freedom.”
Kenneth: And it’s really important - because parents will say, “Hey, we - Dr. Wilgus, we do fine until we say no. He just wants us to leave him alone.” That’s not exactly true.
Kenneth: Which can happen overnight.
Jim: It does.
Kenneth: It’s like, I thought we were talking just last week, and now...
Jim: Yeah. It used to be, you know, Q and A all the time. “Hey, look at that dog, Dad. Isn’t that a cute dog? I’d like a dog like that, Dad. Can I take a - that dog home, Dad?”
Kenneth: No, that was years ago.
Jim: To where, “You want a dog?” “Yeah.” “Okay.” So what’s...
Kenneth: Most of the time...
Jim: What’s happening there with communication?
Kenneth: Most of the time, it’s a control battle. You have a young adult who feels like instead of your questions being good-natured, you’re a cop asking, “How was your day? Let me just check and see if there’s anything I need to intervene.”
Jim: That’s so true.
Kenneth: And check in. And so unless you make that really clear - like, why am I asking this, uh, what are my purposes, which is really about planned emancipation, stepping back and saying, “Listen, at your age, you don’t really have to talk to me about these things. I miss us talking together, and I’d like to know. But you don’t have to answer all these things if you don’t want to,” can very often pretty quickly open up a lot more communication.
Jim: So you’re saying too in the book that teenagers really want to communicate. It doesn’t feel that way for a parent so often.
Kenneth: It’s really true. And if - being a psychologist is a rare opportunity to get to talk to teenagers wouldn’t - you can really be open. And it’s not unusual, uh, for parents to assume that their teenager does not want to. They really do if they can trust what they say to their parent.
Jim: Well, and that’s the key question. How do you create that bedrock of trust that it’s not gonna be the lecture, it’s not gonna be the ticket from the policeman, it’s gonna be a conversation? And then how - what kinda triggers do you use as a parent not to fall into that trap of the lecture?
Kenneth: Well, I think that’s a hard task. I think it starts by really recognizing you have a young adult. It’s really recognizing that they are thinking for themselves. And sometimes it means taking ownership of what you’ve done before and recognizing that, “Listen, I’m sorry yesterday I blew up again just because you said that you didn’t do well on a test. I’m really trying to back off in that. That’s not about you. That’s about me” - taking ownership of that, and then pursuing forward with really, uh, what the teenager really is wanting to talk about and really listening to what are the things that are important to your teenager and trying to process that, uh, with them. And so taking ownership is important, but also respecting and recognizing the, uh, stage of development that your teenager is in.
Kenneth: Because families that are really close especially have the hardest time with this. Because in the past, we’ve had, as you mentioned, kind of groupthink. We’re all sorta - it’s great that we all kind of like the same things. We’re about the same things. And we’re used to being able to talk to this one child or more that doesn’t seem to quite get it. We explain, and then they’re back in line.
Jim: You and your son had a good example of this. What happened with your son?
Kenneth: Well, it was actually the point that I really knew he was a teenager. And this is what’s so rough. You know, it’s hard on my - my children have worked out well. They’re good kids. But I’ll be honest, they were not bad kids to start with. They were not that hard. But m
Jim: Yeah, right.
Kenneth: ...This is the weird part. And I realized that - I said, “We’re just gonna have to agree to disagree.” And this is what’s so weird about being a shrink. I started to choke up because I got tearful ‘cause I knew this is my adolescent. He’s my oldest. So now we’re in adolescent stage. Well, you can imagine my kid is going, “You okay, Dad? Is something...”
Jim: “I’ll mow it! I’ll mow it!”
Kenneth: “It’s just a lawn mower, what’s your problem?”
John: “Just a lawn, come on.”
Jim: It’s critical.
Kenneth: You need to pray for my poor kids. But - but it was a real moment of recognition that, you know, his thinking had changed, and he really could think for himself. And he fully - his experience was way different from mine. And I needed to accept that, even though, I - the end of the story is I did say, “Look, I think I told you. And if you don’t, there’ll be this consequence for it.” So didn’t work out great for him, but we didn’t get into a big argument either.
Kenneth: Equals rebellion. Yeah.
Jim: ...End in rebellion. And that’s been the story in this hypothetical case that I’m painting. How does a parent reach back to that adult child now and say, “Hey, we’ve got some things we gotta talk about?” What can they do that makes it real, makes it beneficial, doesn’t turn into another lecture opportunity?
Kenneth: That’s a great question. And this may surprise you. But if reaching out to that 24-year-old means walking down to your own basement and getting them out of there because that’s where they are, then there’s a first step that needs to be taken anyway, which is - need to set a point where you’re gonna let ‘em know, “This is it. You’re gonna be out of here.” Not immediately, but you need to set a point where you let them know - it’s respectful to let a young adult know that you’re not welcome to live here, you know, without limits.
Jim: Now one reason why this topic is so important is because we sometimes hear from families who are struggling with this transition from childhood to adulthood. And I think many families do. We do. We have 2 teenagers who are right in that space, right now, where we’re trying to launch Trent and Troy. For some parents, it’s hard to let go and let your kids make their own decisions - maybe decisions that you don’t always agree with - and that’s especially hard if your adult child turns away from the faith. And young adults struggle too. They’re trying to figure out what life’s all about and may have some financial burdens, student loans, all those kinds of things. Or maybe other reasons why they may need to stay with mom and dad for a little while until they can get out on their own. Those issues can lead to some serious tensions between you and your children.
And if that’s a challenge for your family and you’ve got any other issues you’d like to discuss with us, I hope you’ll contact us here at Focus on the Family. We have lots of resources for you, whether you’re going through a crisis or simply need some practical tools to get through the day. One of those resources is our counseling team. Call us or go online to set up an appointment with one of our Christian counselors, who will listen to your story, pray with you, and point you in the direction of help. Don’t hesitate. Don’t delay. Contact us today.
John: Our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY - 800-232-6459 - or you can find details about our counseling team at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. And one resource we have for your family is certainly Dr. Wilgus’ book,. We’ll send a complimentary copy of that when you make a generous financial gift of any amount to Focus on the Family today.
Jim: And please give generously to Focus, especially this time of year because some friends have provided us with a matching gift, which will help us end the year fiscally strong and in a wonderful position to help even more hurting families in 2019. That means any donation you send today is going to be doubled, enabling us to rescue more marriages, empower more parents, save more pre-born babies, and so much more. So please, partner with us and let me say thank you in advance for your support.
John: Again, our number is 800-A-FAMILY, or you can donate online at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
And coming up next time, you’ll hear from one couple whose relationship seemed doomed until God brought healing and reconciliation.
Melody Westbrook: I realized I was in a battle. We were in a battle to save - to save our marriage.
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