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Are you too buddy-buddy with your teenager?

Figuring out the fine line between parent and friend

Contributing writer

Was I a friend to my teenagers? I like to think I was, of course. They now are a bit older, but I wonder: Was I too friendly, as opposed to being too “parently”?

It’s a razor’s edge, fraught with challenges.

Too lenient? If so, your teen likely will do as he or she pleases.

Too strict? Same – out of a sense of rebellion.

How to make sense of this apparent contradiction?

First, let’s define “friend” as someone who listens and supports, but does not attempt to set limits or change behavior.

A parent, on the other hand, is one who does set limits and imposes consequences in an effort to influence behavior.

A parent, however, also can be a friend – to a point – with his or her teen. But there should be limits.

Matt Meseke of Huntington Beach and his wife, Dawn, have two teens – Hunter and Caitlyn, both 16 – and a third child, Matthew, 8. 

Meseke also is president of the Booster Club at Huntington Beach High School, a position that puts him in a lot of contact with parents and teenagers, and he sure knows how to act as a friend with his kids, particularly his boys.

“I’m pretty easygoing with my kids,” he says. “My sons and I spend a lot of time camping. When we’re camping, I’ll let them set off some fireworks, or burn sticks in the fire. I’ll let them shoot their BB and Airsoft guns. Last New Year’s Eve, I let my youngest son and his cousin light our Christmas tree on fire with a sparkler. We were in the desert with nothing around.”

As a dad, Meseke sure sounds like a blast. But he knows where to draw the line.

“We don’t have a ton of rules in our house,” Meseke says. “The main reason I discipline my kids is for being dishonest. Many times, my kids will do something “wrong” and get caught, such as trying a drink at a party or not being where they are supposed to be. When this happens, I expect honest, complete explanations and for them to take responsibility. When this doesn’t happen, that’s when I will discipline.”

Meseke related the time this past summer when his daughter was spending most of her days at the beach or at the house of a friend who has a pool. He says he trusts her and her friends and their families.

One night, around midnight, she asked him to pick her up from a friend’s house, telling him she didn’t feel well. So he picked her up.

Back home, around 3 a.m., Meseke woke up and found his daughter sitting on the couch crying. She told him she and her friends had tried some alcohol and got caught, and that’s why she had to be picked up.

“You are at the age where things like this are going to happen, but because you came to me and you were honest, we will let it be at that,” Meseke told her.

But there ended up being more to the story, and she ended up losing her phone and getting grounded.

“She went from honest to deceitful, and that changes everything in my book,” Meseke says.

Julie Orris, PsyD, specializes in dialectical behavior therapy and cognitive behavior therapy for adolescents and adults in Newport Beach. Meseke’s story about his daughter underscores one of Orris’ core beliefs when it comes to parents being “friends” with their teens.

“Parents need to focus on what is effective given their desired outcomes, and always draw the line at safety,” Orris says. “By focusing on what is effective – what actually works – rather than what ‘should be,’ many parents learn that imposing consequences and attempting to influence so many behaviors at once is futile.”

Orris suggests that parents be selective about where they set limits and focus on safety.

“That will leave some room for a more open relationship,” she says. “The more accepted kids feel – the more they feel they aren’t being judged – the more they will be willing to share.”

Orris says she has met many parents who want to set limits on things like what kind of language their teen uses, who their friends are, what kind of music they listen to, and what their hair looks like. 

At the same time, Orris says, these parents want their teen to openly share their thoughts, feelings and life experiences.

“I think that’s unrealistic,” Orris says. “Finding the balance that allows you to set limits where you need to, while also allowing your teen room to make mistakes and share without being judged, is the goal. It’s not easy, but being aware of this as a goal can provide a bit of a compass for parents.”

Meseke believes that parents who try to be more of a friend to their teens end up with teens who go down the wrong path. Most parents he interacts with, however, act as parents first and friends second.

“These parents are looking toward their children’s futures,” Meseke says. “They want them to enjoy being a kid, but they are giving them the tools to succeed.”

Meseke recalls something his father told him that continues to resonate. “My dad said to me when I was a kid, ‘It’s your job as a kid to push as far as you can. It’s my job as a parent to tell you when you have hit the limit.’ I try to parent all three of my kids this way.”

Adds Meseke: “I think that if you can find that balance with your kid that allows them to be open with you, but also shows them you are there to catch them when they fall, you are winning the parent game. We as parents have a responsibility to send our teens out into the world as hardworking, respectful, honest young adults.” 

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