Dear Dr. Degler,

What is up with my 18-year-old child? She’s a good kid overall but she is making choices that upset me, like saying she isn’t sure if the Bible is true or saying she might not go to college or that she thinks nose rings and tattoos are cute and that her dad and I are old-fashioned and uptight. When I try to explain why the Bible is true and college is important, she just tunes me out like I don’t know anything. What happened to my sweet child who was eager to please?

Dear Mom of an 18-year-old,

You have my condolences. It is quite a shock when a formerly eager-to-please child goes through the identity formation stage. She’s trying on identities and opinions, many of which will be the opposite of what you have personally chosen.

For example, it’s common for college-bound teenagers to roll their eyes and declare, “I can’t wait to get out of my hometown! I’m never coming back here to live. I hate it, and there’s nothing to do here.” During freshman year, when children are infatuated with their new city and college friends, they may continue to disparage their hometown and the people there. I remember when our daughter, Josie, came home for Labor Day weekend after loving the first two weeks of college in a bigger city 90 minutes away. She hadn’t even been home 12 hours before she told me, “I hope this won’t hurt your feelings, but I wish I was back in Louisville. It’s much better than Lexington. I miss my new friends. They’re just more fun.” Then she proceeded to sigh for the remaining 36 hours, making sure we were completely clear on the sacrifice she was making in spending the weekend with the Lexington Losers. 😉

Fast forward to the end of her junior year when the proverbial bloom had faded off the college rose. While Josie still wanted to find a job in a bigger city than Lexington, she enjoyed her visits home more and would comment on how good it was to get away from the drama and pressure of college life. She found a great job and a future husband in Charlotte, NC, and now she’s wondering how the two of them could eventually move back to Kentucky to be closer to family. My, my, how what she says she wants has changed!

Your child is likely to ride the same roller coaster of changing opinions, wants, choices, and dreams throughout their teen years and into their twenties. Want to save yourself a lot of time, energy, and gray hair? Don’t get in the roller coaster car with your child.

Your job as a parent is to stay grounded, watching from a comfortable distance as your child rides the identity roller coaster.

You’ll know you’ve slipped into the side car if you find yourself overreacting (also known as freaking out) when your child announces she’s switching her major for the 4th time or is considering quitting college to battle human trafficking or wants to dye her hair purple or isn’t sure she believes in God anymore.

You’ll know you’re staying grounded and at a healthy distance when you can respond by saying “That’s interesting. Tell me more.” Then you listen with compassionate curiosity, being truly interested in how your child came to this decision or opinion without trying to talk your child out of it. This is how you are likely to listen to someone else’s children which is why kids often say they can talk more easily to other people’s parents than their own parents. So, imagine your child is someone else’s kid if that helps you to not overreact.

It also helps parents to not overreact when we consider that our teen and young adult children are trying on identities much like they would try on clothes at a store. They may bring a wildly varying stack of clothing into the dressing room to try on, but they aren’t going to buy everything they try on. Some identities may push the panic button inside of us, but we won’t help matters if we react with fear, anger, impatience, condemnation, or rejection.

In fact, when we overreact, we may inadvertently push our child toward that choice. There’s something in every teen and young adult that wants to assert to parents “you are no longer the boss of me!” So, when we panic and get heavy-handed and controlling while our child is trying on a temporary viewpoint or style of dress, we nudge the temporary toward possibly becoming permanent. Our child might then hang on to the choice long past its expiration date just to prove the point that she or he can’t be controlled anymore.

All of the above parenting advice can be boiled down to “Don’t freak out.” Stay calm (at least on the outside) and listen with compassionate curiosity. Doing so will greatly increase the chances that your children will let go of unwise choices and opinions on their own and come to see you as a valuable resource.