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Making the most of teenagers

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Many kids don’t ‘get it’ until their 20s. Ten rules to follow until then.

By Ellen Frankenberg

Recent research supports what you and I have long suspected: The human brain isn’t fully developed at age 16 (when your darlings may legally drive 5,000-pound vehicles at 65 miles per hour), nor at 18 (when they’re entitled to choose the leaders of the Western world), nor at 21 (when they can legally purchase alcohol).

Even though our children mature physically earlier than previous generations, and their hormonal development seems increasingly precocious, the human brain isn’t fully mature until about age 25.

The synapses in the brain—those complex connections that link one tidbit of information to the next, that organize information between cause and effect, or between risk and consequences—continue to develop well into the 20s, according to Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health.

Teenage brains blossom with new brain cells and neural connections, something that formerly was thought to happen only in the first 18 months of life. Their frontal lobes—responsible for “executive” functions such as self-control, judgment, emotional regulation, organization and planning—undergo wholesale renovation, according to a recent report in Newsweek.

One inescapable conclusion: Our teens need more structure and guidance from their parents—not more freedom at younger and younger ages.

They need limits: setting curfews, cutting off abused credit cards, linking work to spending money, withholding alcohol, requiring their presence for at least some family meals. And they need nurturing (listening, comforting, teaching, sharing, making popcorn together, hanging out until they’re ready to talk).

Especially in an entrepreneurial family, the process of allowing teens time to sort out thoughtfully who they are as individuals will pay great dividends in the future. Better to do it in the teens than in the 40s.

Here are ten practical suggestions for teenagers’ parents—especially parents who run family companies.

1. Encourage them to do something independent.

Especially in business-owning families, teenagers mature by doing something that doesn’t depend on the family name or fortune: hiking the Appalachian Trail, taking a summer job in another industry, volunteering to rehab low-income housing in the inner city.

2. Don’t keep secrets from them.

Adolescents sense what’s happening long before they’re told, like lightning rods picking up the electricity in the air long before the storm hits. If you want them to be honest with you, you must be honest with them, even about topics that are tough to discuss.

3. Catch them doing something good.

The teenage self-doubt that most of us remember (Am I too tall? Too shy? Not in the right crowd?) can be challenged by the observable facts that only a parent can recognize. Find the unique gift in each child—and, without fake flattery, tell them the truth about their goodness.

4. Schedule time to share their dreams.

Your teenagers will be ready to talk at unpredictable times, and their quality time may not be yours. But sometimes you can create opportunities to talk one-on-one on a camping trip, a long drive to visit a college or a church mission project in Nicaragua.

5. Tell them the family stories.

Part of figuring out who you are is knowing where you came from. Busy families sometimes lose the stories that define the family’s values—especially for the youngest children. Knowing how Grandpa built the company or how the family survived the 1937 flood can still inspire teens, because they own this history too, in their bones.

6. Make time for grandparents.

In some mysterious way, personalities seem to skip a generation. Sometimes a child will have more in common with the grandfather he never met—his gestures, his choice of a hammer for a toy, his sports ability—than with his parents. Grandparents can support the parents’ decision-making while offering a more mellow love, perhaps manifested by baking cookies or playing a game of Hearts.

7. Don’t rush them into the family business.

Why not let some other company challenge your kids to mature? One business-owning family I know required each successor to work elsewhere first—but if they wanted to join the family business, to do so before age 30, so their siblings would know where they stood. Another complex, multinational corporation decided not to hire any family members until they turned 30. What norm will work for your family business?

8. If it’s not immoral, illegal or harmful, don’t even bring it up.

Some family rules strike me as non-negotiable: violence, drug abuse, skipping school illegally. But many are negotiable (bedtime, when to be home after the prom), because they depend on the child’s maturity and on the circumstances. How often does conflict erupt in your home over issues that are essentially matters of taste: how they wear their hair, where they put earrings, what music (beyond the obscene) they play? Choose the battles that will matter in the long run, so your home becomes a place where the hierarchy of values is clear.

9. Enjoy their sense of humor.

In my previous career as a high school English teacher, I noticed that an adult sense of humor emerged in most teens about the age of 16 (which is probably related to cognitive development). Their humor is no longer quite so corny, and their imaginations can recognize the incongruities of human experience. Sometimes the joke may be on you, but it will probably be quite funny, especially if you can laugh, too.

10. Remember that some day you’ll be former parents.

Most 18-year-olds can’t function independently as “adults”: You still co-sign the car loan, wash their laundry, comfort them after a shattered romance. But at about age 25, most former children decide to write their first rent check and begin making commitments in love and in work. Then it’s time to stop giving advice unless asked, because they’ve become responsible for their own lives. Now they can become your friends, sharing in ways you never could when they were 13 or 18 or even 21.

Teenagers are designed to be enjoyed as wonderful and surprising works in progress. They can add new vitality to the family business—especially if, after age 16 or so, they join other stakeholders in the family forum to help define the family’s future. They bring fresh enthusiasm that more tired participants may miss. They represent the future in blue jeans, and they’re worth every minute you invest in them.


Ellen Frankenberg, Ph.D., heads The Frankenberg Group in Cincinnati, which advises business families. She is the author of Your Family, Inc., published last year by Haworth Press.
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