Letting Your Teen Take the Lead

As parents, we are programmed to care about our children's health. Instead of deciding what that goal is for them, we need to let them choose.

I'd been hired to help Jill learn to cook and make healthy decisions, but as we moved along the trail I began to realize that this wasn't what she needed.

Jill was 22 years old. She had just graduated from nursing school, was studying for her certification exam, and was recovering from a back injury. She was staying with a relative near me and her parents had hired me to "get her healthy". What this really meant to them was that she needed to lose weight.

Jill's mom was insistent on the phone. Jill had picked up some bad health habits in college, despite being a collegiate diver, she explained. She had no idea how to make healthy food choices, and no desire to better herself. Now that she was venturing into the world of independent adulthood, her parents wanted to make sure that she had a foundation of health below her.

Part of me was instantly brought back to my own journey in college and those first years afterward. I had also been a collegiate athlete, and my senior year I had struggled with disordered eating as I tried to make weight for my rowing team. At 22, I made the transition from college to Boulder, CO. It was the first time on my own and I also had to learn to balance everything that was a part of that transition. Some of it I did OK, some of it… not so much. So, the opportunity to help a young woman and the beginning of her own journey was appealing to me.

I was expecting this meek woman when I went to meet Jill and was completely unprepared for who was waiting for me. From what her mom had told me, I was expecting a shrunken flower, but what I encountered was a rose just ready to bloom.

Many of our coaching sessions happened in person. We alternated between cooking in my kitchen (she did need help with some basic skill here), and finding a nearby trail to hike as we talked. The biggest shifts came during the hike. As we moved along the trail, Jill would open up and share more of her story.

What I learned was that Jill had been adopted as a baby from Korea into a well-off family in the States. She had a passion for nursing, and shortly before we began working together, she had completed an internship in Africa working at a clinic in a small village. The clinic was primitive. There wasn't a lot of access to medical care or convenient food. She ate what she could and when she could, but all of that was secondary as her passion to bring medical care to those who didn't have it is what drove her.

She moved back to the States after the internship because her parents had told her that she needed to get a job working as a clinical nurse. That's where people started - that was the path for nurses. Going to Africa was wonderful volunteer work, but to be successful in a career, you had to follow the outlined path.

But Jill had bigger plans.

As we hiked, Jill shared her dream with me. She wanted to build an organization of nurses and other healthcare professionals who could serve more and bring more medical help to Africa. She wanted to take advantage of the new grads with passion and drive, and pair that with experienced professionals. She wanted to have something where a career in nursing could be paired with a philanthropical mindset. I thought it was brilliant.

As a coach, what came to me was that Jill could care less about how she looked and what meals she was prepping each week to help her healthy habits. Of course, she knew those were important, but her career dreams outweighed anything else. And to be clear, Jill was not unhealthily. Jill was a typical 22-year-old girl just out of college. She was eating as healthy as she could and could afford, she was growing her social network and going out at night, and she was trying to start her adult life. Just as I did. Just as we all did.

The problem was, she didn't feel that these dreams were heard by her parents. Well, they were, but not being taken seriously. The response she was getting was they this was a beautiful dream, but it was something to table until she was more established as a nurse. She was a good girl and kept quiet. She was trying to stick to their plan and not rock the boat.

Jill and I brainstormed ideas of how she could still explore this dream while working towards her certification and gaining experience as a nurse. What relationships could she cultivate now that brought her closer to this dream? What job opportunities might allow her to serve in a similar way to bring that kind of fulfillment to her professional work. We had a lot of ideas.

A few months after we started working together, Jill had the opportunity to go back to Africa and she took it. By this time she had returned to her parents' home and was trying to put some of the health habits I had taught her into practice. It was going OK. As she made plans to go to Africa, the plan was that I would send meal plans to her (based on what was available there) and we would try to chat once a week. This is what her parents had asked for, and since they were paying for my services, it is what we did. I sent the plans. I sent check-in texts. Over the course of the two months that she was back in Africa, I think we only talked a few times. But when we did, she was having the time of her life. She wasn't using the meal plans, but she was being nourished by her work.

As our contract came to a close, I received an angry email from Jill's mom.

"She hasn't lost any weight!", her mom wrote.

I wasn't surprised.

I explained that I had done what was asked of me. I had made meal plans, I had taught Jill how to boil and peel an egg. I had taught her how to cook and prep. We had talked about a balanced fitness plan. We had done all of the things that you're supposed to do in health coaching, but there was one thing missing.

There was no buy-in from Jill regarding the weight loss goal. Instead, her personal goal was focused on the identity and career domains of health, and not so much on nutrition.

She had not asked for nutrition coaching. Her parents had signed her up, and like a good girl, she had gone along with meeting with me. I knew this was the case from our first conversation, and also why I made sure that our coaching sessions included those outdoor hikes where she could allow herself to explore the journey that she wanted to be on - physically moving along a trail and verbally planning her route. She needed support and guidance around these wellness goals, which factors into our overall health as much, if not more, than what we put in our mouth. The fact that we paired her mental exploration with physical movement and play is just such a great way to bring the different pieces of health - physical, mental, and social - together in a memorable experience. Sure, I taught her all about nutrition and cooking, but what I really gave her was a place to finally be seen and heard.

Jill's mom asked me about renewing our contract and continuing the work, but I did not accept. Instead, I told her that she needed to talk with Jill first. If Jill wanted to continue our work together, then Jill could reach out and I would coordinate with her parents.

I also sent Jill an email at that time explaining the same thing. That her parents wanted to continue, but that I wasn't buying it. I told Jill that I loved working with her and would be happy to continue, but only if it was on her terms. When and if she wanted to move forward, she simply needed to reach out with an idea of how we could work on her goals, and we would go from there.

Jill decline that offer from her parents, and I'm so happy that she did. Because, in her saying "no" to it, she was taking that next step on her path to being seen for "Jill" and owning her goals. It's like the song "This is Me" from The Greatest Showman:

I am brave, I am bruised

I am who I'm meant to be, this is me

Look out 'cause here I come

And I'm marching on to the beat I drum

I'm not scared to be seen

I make no apologies, this is me

As parents, we are programmed to care about our children's health. Often this comes in the form of worrying about what they are eating, or looking for those red flags that signal that their mental health is being stressed. And these are all good things, but we need to do more.

We need to see our children for who they truly are and find ways to support them as they shift into their unique identities. Sometimes we let the triggers from our journeys get in the way. We become the side-seat driver when our kids are meant to have the wheel.

For Jill's mom, I'm guessing that weight and appearance were personal values for her, as it is for many of us. We grew up in a world where we were judged for how we looked, and even though our parents told us that we could be anything, often that 'anything" only applied if we fit the mold. 

The message our kids are receiving is changing, but, as parents, we fall back into projecting our triggers onto our kids. We fear them not being accepted. We remember conversations that our parents had had with us, relive those triggers, and project our responses onto our kids.

Regardless of why Jill's mom asked for weight loss coaching specifically doesn't matter. It was not Jill's goal, and her mom didn't fully understand what Jill's goals were. That conversation between mother and daughter of each sharing their personal concerns and goals was skipped, and this is such a necessary conversation to have.

We all do it and we all have had it done to us. We need to have conversations with our kids, starting when they are young. We have to open those lines of communication and allow our kids to share their voices, especially in the tween and teen years.

The key now is to step into that support role instead of a navigator. We need to allow for the wrong turns and backtracks. We need to allow for failure and to let our teens figure out the solutions. As parents, we can suggest different paths or places to stop along the way, but we need to make sure that our teens' ideas regarding the endpoint of this trail aligns with where we think we are going. If it doesn't, then we need to shift our vision and bit to better see theirs.

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