The importance of being available for our teens (it’s okay to have limits)

May 1, 2024 • 8 min
Friendly optimistic mom woman with laptop and teenager girl with mobile phone sits on sofa

In 1543, Copernicus published his seminal work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, in which he formulated a model of the earth orbiting the sun, rather than vice versa. He had completed the work years earlier, but didn’t publish it until he was on his deathbed for fear of the unconventional (and to some, heretical) claims it contained. It changed the world of astronomy and the way we understand the earth’s place in the universe. 

We now readily accept that the moon rotates around the earth and the earth rotates around the sun. Laws of gravity and mathematics (that are way over my head) have continued to prove the validity of Copernicus’s disruptive theory. 

These planetary understandings offer a helpful image in my mind when I think about availability in parenting. As parents, we’re like the moon, a faithful light in the midst of darkness for our teens. We’re there, but we’re not actually generating the light—the sun does that. We’re simply reflecting a bigger and better light as we shine. We’re dependent on the sun’s light, and we’re not the ones actually generating the warmth. And it’s the power of the sun’s gravitational pull that keeps the earth on track, not the moon’s strength. 

Our availability as parents is reflective of God’s, but it’s not God’s. While his presence is limitless, ours has limits. We need to consider those realities so that we can live with wisdom (and not guilt) as we parent our teens. 

Availability with Boundaries (It’s Okay to Have Limits)

Being available to our teens doesn’t mean that we don’t have necessary boundaries on our time. It’s okay if you can’t drive every carpool and be at every game. Many parents are balancing multiple kids’ schedules and their own work schedules. Our presence at one kid’s game means we have to miss someone else’s flute lesson. Life doesn’t always fit into tidy buckets. 

We want our teens to know that they are important to us, but they’re not the center of our universe—only God can be that. 

Some teens seem unaware that their parents might have anything else going on in their life other than being their parent. 

It’s okay to say, “I can help you with that assignment in 30 minutes, but right now isn’t a good time.” 

Our availability doesn’t have to be only when it suits our teen. It’s a conversation that’s happening in our homes each and every day. I’ve told my kids that I need them to ask me for help with any “deep thinking” homework before 9:00 p.m. My brain stops being able to process math equations and other complex information later in the evening. It’s not that I’m unwilling to help, I just know that I’m no help that late at night. 

Having boundaries sets expectations that your teen will take into all of their future relationships. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Some people need more sleep than others. Some people have energy that seems to go on for days. Some people can organize quickly and confidently. Others struggle just to clean out the junk drawer. Everyone is dealing with a finite amount of time, resources, and abilities. Our teens need the safety of knowing we are available, alongside the awareness that we have limitations. 

Availability with Independence (Have Your Own Life)

It’s also important for us to distinguish the difference between availability and over-involvement. We need to be around, but we don’t need to be overly fixated on everything our kids are doing. We want to be an available presence, not a controlling one. Kids don’t want to be smothered by our presence or involvement. 

As a parent, it’s important to cultivate interests independent from your teen. Over-involvement doesn’t always lead to emotional closeness. In her book The Price of Privilege, author Madeline Levine (PhD) notes, 

Parents can be over-involved and children can still feel isolated. Controlling and over-involved parents typically leave kids feeling angry or alienated, neither of which is conducive to emotional closeness. 

Kids understand the difference between being a warmly welcomed member of the home versus the center of the universe. (And, honestly, it’s somewhat overwhelming to be the center of anyone’s universe.) They’re not able to bear up underneath the pressure. If your teen thinks that your happiness rests on their grades, social standing, appearance, or athletic success, they’ll want to avoid talking with you about those topics. 

There’s a worldly adage that says something like, “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.” Truthfully, that’s a lot of pressure on your teen. Don’t let it be true of your parenting. Our joy and happiness need to be rooted in God’s love for us, not our teen’s performance or happiness. We can ask thoughtful questions, but we want to avoid being an anxious, fretful presence (which is probably rooted in one of our own idols). 

As we develop interests apart from our teen, we may find a surprising outcome: we actually become more interesting to them. I’ve spent years gardening in the backyard. It’s simply something I love to do (primarily because eating a fresh ripe tomato is something I really love to do). A few years ago, my teenage son began helping me. He would haul dirt, dig holes, and pull up weeds. Then he decided he wanted to plant some of his own seeds. Now we have corn, carrots, and potatoes growing in garden plots that he created. It’s our thing we do together. We talk about what to plant, where to plant, and get excited when we see our gardens growing side by side. Having my own interest ended up providing opportunities for us to spend time together.

Availability with Expectations: Don’t Do for Them What They Can Do for Themselves

Have expectations of your teens. It’s a rule to live by: Don’t do for your teen what they can do for themselves. You’re not helping them if you’re still packing their lunches, making their beds, checking their homework assignments, and doing their laundry in high school. Our teens want to be treated like adults, and letting them take on the responsibilities of adulthood is important. 

I began working full time when my youngest was in middle school. Often, I felt spread thin because there wasn’t enough time to do all that needed to be done. My biggest concern about my work was that my family would feel neglected. Over time, I realized that my inability to get everything done on my own was actually a blessing to my kids. They learned to do their own laundry and help with dinner. They did their own homework and managed their own schedules. Their rooms…well, their rooms were a complete mess. Beds weren’t made regularly, but at least all of them know how to make a bed. My limitations allowed them to rise to the occasion. They could do a lot more around the home than I was giving them credit for. 

As kids learn to do things for themselves, they grow in confidence. Levine notes, “Kids who learn early in life that they’re capable of mastering activities that at first feel a little stressful grow up better able to handle stress of all kinds.” It’s not good for a four-year-old to be making their own dinner— that’s probably a sign of neglect. However, it is good for your 14-year-old to try to make dinner. Yes, they’ll have questions. They won’t know how to manage all the details at first. They will probably overcook the chicken or burn the biscuits. We’ve all burned something or other in our lives, and I’ve eaten plenty of tough chicken. It’s okay for your teen to feel a little overwhelmed when learning a new task. It’s not okay for them to enter adulthood unprepared to take care of themselves. 

Be available and have reasonable expectations. Don’t write their papers or do their homework or keep checking their grades. Let them do their own laundry and make their own beds. Allow them opportunities to cook a meal. Don’t be afraid to let them use an ax or hammer a nail. Be available to help, but don’t do the work for them. 

I’ve found that as my kids have grown more independent in these ways, they’ve actually been more appreciative of my help. When I know they’re in a busy season with tests or sports and I offer to fold their clothes for them, they thank me more than if I always did their laundry for them. They correctly view taking care of their belongings as their job. So, my help is seen as a welcome gift, not an entitled right. 

Having expectations of our teens communicates to them that we know they are competent and able to do the job. Having availability for our teens communicates to them that they are valued and loved. We want to wisely combine both so that our teens can be blessed to be a blessing to others. 

Consider a few extra resources:

About the Author:

Melissa Kruger

Melissa B. Kruger serves as Vice President of Discipleship Programming at The Gospel Coalition. She regularly teaches women in her community and speaks at conferences around the country. Her latest book is Parenting with Hope: Raising Teens for Christ in a Secular AgeShe is the wife of Michael J. Kruger, president and professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary-Charlotte. Together they have three young adult children.

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