Blog Post Sponsored by Northwaters Wilderness Program
Navigating the Murky Waters of Adolescence
By Jen Zahorchak
I am fortunate to have a view of both sides of the coin. I am both a mother and a camp professional.
We play outside as a family and help parents provide empowering wilderness experiences for their teenage children. For the past 15 years I have been working with young people in the outdoors-- camps, nature centers, school field trips, and backcountry expeditions. When we began having kids of our own, I moved out of the woods and behind the scenes. At home my husband and I are doing our best to raise resilient kids. At work, we are helping parents of adolescents choose experiences for their children- whether it’s that first little flight out of the nest or a more impactful personal growth experience. Can you guess which work is “easier”?
Parenting is the most difficult, most rewarding job we’ll ever have. The hours are grueling, the pay is lousy, the job description is infinite but the benefits are exquisite. Of course the conundrum of good parenting is that if we succeed at our jobs, we will ultimately have to let our prodigy go. Raising our happy, healthy family off the beaten path a full day’s drive from where I grew up, often leaves my dad wondering if he’s done his job too well.
When your kids are wee, those needs are as instinctive as they are intuitive. Babes are so helpless, so dependent on us to meet their every need. In retrospect, the sleepless nights and hazy bubble of infancy seem pretty easy (milk, snuggles and a dry bottom solved almost anything back then). Even through early childhood it is clear to see what they need- more milk, more snuggles and a little bit of room to stretch their I CAN DO IT ALL BY MYSELF wings! Middle childhood is shaping up to be a repeat of those toddler years, I hope we can remember what we did right the first time around.
As our children enter adolescence, however, their needs become quite a bit more complicated and nuanced. Not even they may know what they are asking for, so how can we interpret without misunderstanding? How can we provide and empower? Many of us can see that our children yearn for adventure. Even the most introspective child hungers for something to call her own. But how can you create room for her to fly, without being petrified that she can’t or won’t? Or perhaps even more frightening, that she will!?
Our job as parents is to challenge our children, so they might grow to be resilient; both strong and flexible. Often this is where we need help. There are so many important gifts we can’t actually GIVE our children; we can only guide them in what we believe is the right direction (sometimes by not being the guide at all).
Despite our current population density, modern families tend to be smaller and live in greater isolation. We no longer have an immediate inner network to draw from. The pool of trustworthy adults is often shallower, with fewer appropriate role models at our disposal.
Historically children have filled a purposeful niche in the home -- to help around the farm, to help raise younger siblings… the family’s well-being had something directly to do with them. Our modern society has allowed for a lack of purpose. Today’s world feels like a “scarier” place, and we hesitate to let our kids struggle or have consequences. How many times have your parents or grandparents started a story with “when I grew up… (enter hardship here)”.
We naturally don’t want our children to face adversity but by doing too much for them, we are overshadowing and underestimating their capacity to grow. As a result we often try to fill that purposeful void with seemingly more i
nauthentic activities like screen-time and over scheduled lives.
Our job as parents is to foster independence.
One thing we can be certain about in life is change. Change often brings with it fear of the unknown, but it is also an opportunity for growth, a celebration, and a rite of passage. Adolescence is a threshold we have all walked through, ripe with choice and mired by hormones. It is defined by risk taking and the need for acceptance. I remember looking so forward to adulthood but (with 40 years of perspective) can see that I lacked the tools, resiliency, and experience to navigate the murky waters in which all adolescents travel.
As a parent, part of our job is to know when our children are ready for these growth experiences. If we surround them with a village of caring, worthy adults, give them freedom and boundaries, love and acceptance, we will succeed in raising resilient young adults. We will be better able to translate their language, hear what they are asking for, and provide for them the opportunities to start to experience life on their own terms.
As a camp professional, part of my job is to help other parents find the appropriate growth experience to fit their child’s given stage of development. When our children tell us they are ready, when they ask for these chances, it will be clear that it is time to do what may perhaps seem counter intuitive… let them go.
- Jen Zahorchak
Mama/parenting student of three
Program Administrator at Northwaters Wilderness Programs
Related article: The Need to Be Known in Adolescence by Camp Director Jodi Browning
Sponsored by Northwaters Wilderness Programs: At Northwaters Wilderness Programs we provide challenging experiences for adolescents throughout their voyage toward independence. We consider a backcountry canoe trip a metaphor for life’s journey. Within the context of a safe, loving community, young people are encouraged to take risks and be challenged to grow into the best version of themselves. Please contact us for details. 866-458-9974
“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life… I can’t wait to go back!”
“He came back confident, realizing the difference between spending one's day doing things that "other people" think are important (i.e. school), and spending a meaningful day engaged in work that has a direct bearing on your survival in the short and long term.”