Adolescence is a tricky period.

It has been described as that period in a young person’s life when they refuse to believe that some day they will be as dumb as their parents. As Mark Twain so eloquently put it: When I was 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around. When I got to 21, I was astonished at how much he had learnt in seven years.

It is a time when everything changes and those changes happen not only without warning, but with debilitating speed. It is the Pearl Harbour type assault which devastates our defenses and unleashes a mayhem all of its own. Pimples erupt on innocent and unblemished skin, wreaking havoc with social standing and self-image. Body parts operate with a mind of their own. New skills, like shaving, have to be learnt and mastered. Voices go south and consistently function only with alarming inconsistency. Relatives irritate with variations on that annoying stock phrase, ‘Gosh, how you’ve grown.’

The world they have left behind seems too small, yet the world that has dawned doesn’t quite fit. It’s too old for some, too young for others. The constant feeling of being caught between; of almost – but not quite. It is a time when adolescents know more than their parents think they do, but are regularly reminded that they know less than they ought. It is a time when boundaries are rearranged and where space (‘it’s my room Dad’) clashes head-on with ownership (‘but it’s my house’).

It is also the time when ‘wants’ differs markedly from ‘needs’ and where the former is usually prohibitively expensive. It is a time when what makes perfect sense to the young person remains incomprehensible to their parents, and the converse also holds true.

It is a confusing time and most certainly a frustrating one. It is a time of experimentation and choices. It is a time of transition and contradiction. It is a time of great insecurity. Yet it remains the inescapable star gate though which all must pass on the way to adulthood, whatever that may be.

I once read that adolescence was God’s gift to parents.

At the same time as the teenager is encountering this season of confusion and endeavouring to forge his or her own identity, so the parents are encountering their own challenging territory, more usually called ‘mid-life crisis’. This, it seems, is no accident of design and for those parents willing to do so there are rich parallels to be explored between the two happenings. Both periods, adolescence and mid-life, offer learning experiences to be entered into, rather than problems that need to be solved. The shared invitation here is that of ‘growth’.

A word of caution. A problem could arise if parents think that they have done with ‘growing’ and fail to engage this period in both their life and that of their teenager, as a learner. They will then run the risk of missing out on the creativity, the energy, the stimulation that is on offer, settling instead for a detached, remote-control type approach that will fail miserably.

And herein lies the point: parents of children encountering adolescence need to master new skills and make other adjustments. It is a common mistake to look for these skills as a sort of off-the-shelf kit, neatly packaged and complete with easy-to-assemble instructions.

Parenting doesn’t work like that, and nor does leadership.

Parenting, as with leadership, is about being a person. The tags ‘parent’ and ‘leader’ merely denote roles and responsibilities. What both sets of ‘followers’ want is to see and connect with the person behind the tag. This remains the critical core of parenthood and leadership alike.

Parents who have neglected to gaze inwards and acknowledge the issues that shadow them throughout life’s seasonal changes are ill-prepared to serve as reliable guides to their adolescent explorers. It isn’t so much about doing and saying the right things as about exploration and growth. It is about choosing to be vulnerable, honest and real. It is the realisation that the internal agenda is more important than the external agenda and dealing with the latter, without paying attention to the former, is like trying to eat an ice cream cone under the unforgiving blaze of the sun on a sweltering day.

Parents and leaders who don’t get this waste time and energy on preserving authority and masking appearances. They busy themselves with the unimportant, the non-essentials, denying the cracks that are all too apparent to astute observers around them.

It is a pity – in fact, it is a tragedy – because it could all be so different.

Perspective is so important. And nowhere more so than for parents negotiating their children’s adolescence, and of course in almost all aspects of leadership.

In 1945 two popular show business figures were denounced in the US Congress for turning the youth into ‘juvenile delinquents’. The two offenders? Frank Sinatra and the Lone Ranger! Perspective is important! And sometimes it just takes time.








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