Author Dr. Brad Sachs and his book, "The Good Enough Teen"

There we sat, a couple hundred parents, many with pen and paper in hand, hoping to hear the answer to the question: How do we and our children survive the teenage years?

Clearly, lots of us have doubts about how we are doing or we probably wouldn’t have driven to Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda on Wednesday night to listen to psychologist and best-selling author Dr. Brad Sachs.

Sachs’ talk, “The Good Enough Teen: Promoting Resilience, Responsibility and Self-Reliance,” was based on his book of a similar title and sponsored by the PTSAs of Whitman, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and Walter Johnson High School. A show of hands before the talk began made clear that all three schools were well represented.

Sachs, who has a practice in Columbia and is the father of three young adults, confirmed that we’re all in the same boat as parents of adolescents.

“I don’t care how educated you are, how bright you are, how much you wanted to have a child, they’re going to bring you to your knees and humiliate you,” he said.

The key to surviving is to try to understand teens’ inner landscape and realize that we have to be supportive, yet begin to let go. “It’s no longer the time to impose on them all the things that we think they should be doing,” he said.

So if your son decides to quit hockey after 11 years of driving him to early morning practices – and just when it’s time to pursue that college scholarship – you have to let him. Recognize that he probably kept playing over the years to please you and now it’s time for him to decide what he really enjoys doing, Sachs said.

“They’ll never feel like it’s their own unless they unplug and come back to it on their own,” he said.

Here are a few more things to remember:

Teens are constantly looking to see how we see them and will internalize our opinions.

Teens need us most when they’re the least pleasant to be with. “Ironically, those are times they really need us to hang in there with them. As unhappy as we may be with them, they’re 10 times as unhappy with themselves,” Sachs said.

Our nurturing must conform to our teen’s nature. So suggesting that an introverted student should join a bunch of clubs to find her place in a big school just because that’s what we’d do is not a great idea. Likewise, we can’t expect our children to be the second coming of our perfect selves.

“We can’t expect our children to be our narcissistic ambassadors to the world,” Sachs said.

And this: The person of the parent must come before the person as the parent. That means we need to let our teens know that our lives don’t revolve around them. So don’t cancel your dinner plans just because your son doesn’t have a ride to the basketball game.

One of Sachs’ most important messages was that we need to recognize that adolescence is a time of mourning for our teens. They’re reluctantly saying goodbye to their childhoods, to the kids they used to be and yet still want to be. And they say they hate us when they realize that we can’t protect them from all the pain and discomfort of growing up.

“Teenagers hate us because we’re not all powerful,” Sachs said. And yet they’ll defy us in order to define who they are. “What we call defiance and disrespect may actually be a sign of growth,” he said.

Coupled with that is a masterful ability to assign blame to anyone but themselves. And that’s due to unfamiliarity and discomfort with assuming responsibility, he said.

Above all, we must remember that our job ultimately is to be left behind and that we should act as both a beacon and a mirror for our teens. Teens will “only feel secure, only feel safe” once they know they can handle disappointment and failure. 

“It’s not usually firm action, but the lack of it, that pushes teens to extremes,” Sachs said. “Your job is to lead, not to be liked.”

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at julie.rasicot@bethesdamagazine.com