Leading Your Teen Through Terrible First Times

“There is a first time for everything.” So goes the overused cliché’.

Your teen has the “privilege” of experiencing lots of first times. This is a normal part of adolescence. This is a normal part of growth. Your teen is in the midst of both. There are hundreds of terrible first times your teen is growing through. Some you many never see.

You also go through terrible first times. We all do if we are growing.

Terrible first times for anyone are awkward and vulnerable. Every time.

Are you thinking about trying out a new small group at your church? Awkward. Are you thinking about trying goat yoga? Awkward. Maybe enjoyable. Maybe worth the risk. Definitely something that is easier to try because the risk of laughter is high and laughter helps the awkward.

Your perspective helps you try the terrible first time thing. Perspective is a function of experience. Your teen doesn’t have the experience yet to have your perspective or any perspective. Just when your teen is in the midst of hundreds of terrible first times to grow through.

To grow your teen must have terrible first times. All the awkward ones and even the scary ones.

We all have a choice about what to do with our terrible first times. We can embrace the awkward or we can armor up.

When we armor up about something being new and awkward, we stop growing. When we no longer feel the discomfort of exploration, we stop growing. Being that awkward rookie again can either grow us or keep our worlds small.

Your teen gets to feel like that awkward rookie hundreds of times in just a few years. This is why so much growth is happening (hopefully). This is why you are living with an armored up emotional creature who sometimes is also adorable. Because you are seeing this growth and cannot be prouder. As for your teen though, he/she is deep in the suck and is still bravely trying. Your teen is only beginning to learn perspective.

Imagine what it would be like to know that you can get through something vulnerable and awkward. That you have what it takes to survive the cringy moments. This is the how of becoming brave and of strong character. Your teen is in the thick of these moments–with little perspective to comfort and guide.

But he/she has you. How can you help? I’ve got three ways that really will. Three things you can do (and may have already been doing them but didn’t realize how important they are.) I learned them from Dr. Brene’ Brown.

Let’s use your teen becoming a driver as an example. This is a big growth time. This is vulnerable. This is awkward. This has failure. This is why your teen is so snarky and armored up with you as you are practicing driving. You are not as afraid of the driving practice as you are about the attitude and how to handle the attitude that you are driving with, right?

First, name the terrible first time. Teach what a terrible first time is and use something in your life as an example. This feeling of vulnerability and awkwardness is not something you outgrow but something that gives you growth. Give your teen words to the anxiety he/she feels about driving. Give emotional vocabulary to the unspoken awkwardness. Giving words does not give the fear any power. It actually gives your teen the power to try.

Normalize the terrible first time. Put the realities of learning how to drive in perspective. Again give words that this is exactly how you are supposed to feel. Growth is uncomfortable. Brave is uncomfortable. Having the power to drive a 2-ton vehicle which can damage property and people’s lives is uncomfortable. Should be uncomfortable so you can grow. Sitting on the couch playing video games is comfortable.

Thankfully this discomfort is not permanent and your teen eventually won’t suck at it. This is normal for growth. It just means that you are in the middle of a terrible first time. Congratulations! You are normal while you are growing. Yes, this is scary. You will survive your mistakes. Trust me as I guide you. Trust my learned perspective that you will become a responsible driver.

Meanwhile, be patient. Don’t be quick to anger. Your perspective—with your voice—is such a gift to your teen. Eye rolls are included but know you are being heard and appreciated. Trust my nearly 40 years of working with teens that this is true.

Do you know what comments from parents are not helpful? False praise. Statements of certainty. If everything is awesome through the suck, you are not believed. If your kid is told “you’ve got this” when he/she knows they don’t, you are not believed. Plus you are stressing your kid and increasing his/her doubts in him/herself.

Thirdly, use the growing perspective to reality check expectations. If your teen thought he/she was going to be a good driver the moment he/she got behind the wheel, disappointment and failure are going to keep his/her world small.

This probably won’t happen during your teen’s terrible first times of driving. But this false expectation may happen when your teen tries out for a school play or tries to make a new friend or applies for a job. Incorrect or lack-of-perspective expectations of terrible first times set anyone up for shame and disaster.

Use words again to reality check expectations. This is such a gift. Because you do know so much. Or at least you do know so much about your teen. Your teen needs confirmation that you “get it” so you can give realistic expectations. You believe in your teen so much you are willing to recognize that he/she is struggling through a terrible first time.

You are a gift to your child. But the gift does come with eye rolls and other armored up behaviors. The hundreds of cringy moments your child feels equals the eye rolls. Keep on.

A wonderful truth about growth is the more we are willing to embrace the suck, the more new things someone is willing to try. This is why failure is survivable. This is not because trying new ever gets comfortable. We have just learned that this discomfort is part of the process. This is perspective and one you want your teen to learn.

(photo credit: Blake Barlow on Unsplash)