Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
My fourteen-year-old son admitted he is going through his existential crisis (my words, not his). What is an effective way to guide and support him through this time in his life while enabling him to find his own meaning?
First, with a tone of caring curiosity, ask him to clarify to you as best he can what he is going through. Your term “existential crisis” is vague and could have many meanings. Perhaps he is pondering questions such as “Who am I, what am I, what is life, what do I believe, why am I here, what is my meaning or purpose?” Whatever is the crossroad he has reached, the effort of helping you to understand it will help him to understand it.
Then tell him exactly what you’re saying here; that you want to guide and support him, yet leave him free to find his own meaning. That is very well said.
On this particular matter, treat him as a partner rather than as a pupil or as your child. Play the role of an interested elder equal, someone with experience and knowledge, but not an authority figure who has all the right answers and who will approve or disapprove of his ideas. Be Socratic, asking him questions that will stimulate clear, critical thinking rather than providing him with answers. Then step back, and let him ponder it all.
This of course does not mean that you completely abandon parenting him. Most fourteen-year-olds are not nearly complete in their cognitive and emotional development, and they still need plenty of strong boundaries set for them. So there will still be other areas in his life where you’ll have to be much more parental and directive. (“No, you can’t have beer at the party,” “Yes, you must pay for the broken window,” “Treat your girlfriend’s father with respect,” “Stop putting your sister down,” etc.)
But by approaching his “existential” concerns in this non-parental way, you will be affirming and supporting his budding self-image as a freethinking adult. Giving him the dignity of being an independent agent will both promote its reality and emphasize its importance.
The challenge for you will be to find the balance between guiding him and giving him free rein. The challenge for him will be to see that freedom is always accompanied by responsibility. You cannot help but have your preferences for what he might think and decide, and perhaps you should honestly acknowledge them to him when the context is appropriate. But at the same time, you must also acknowledge his right to find his own preferences.
Be genuine and frank. When you don’t know what to say, say that. You don’t need to fake being wise and well informed in all things. If he says something that surprises and impresses you, say so. He might teach you as much as you might teach him. Keep a relationship with him where he knows that you are the parent, but he can also approach you as the interested elder equal with his deeper questions. Show him that you care about him and respect him during this time of self-questioning, and the two of you will probably be able to sort out when to relate to each other as child-and-parent, and when to relate as adult-to-adult.
At fourteen, some decisions that seem casual can last a lifetime, and some decisions that seem terribly important and final can end up lasting only a few months. It’s very hard to predict which will be which. Worrying about it all will only exhaust you, so try to relax and enjoy watching the fascinating journey he’s embarking upon.
He’s a lucky young man to have so thoughtful and conscientious a father. As he grows his way through all the drama and trauma that is adolescence, he might sometimes forget this, but I think he’ll always eventually return to that appreciation.