There have been times when I’ve been frustrated and, I’ll admit it, a bit hurt over my inability to connect with my teens. I’m guessing my frustrations are shared by other parents who are trying so hard but going about this relationship in all the wrong ways. I’ve worked hard to figure out when and where I was getting off-track in relating to my teens. Along the way, I confronted several pitfalls worth passing along.
Do you speak to your teens as if they are still little kids? Parenting must change if you wish to keep your relationships strong. This includes not only the content but also the tone of conversation. “You need to treat them more like adults than children. Truly listen and heed their point of view, even if you disagree vehemently,” says John Duffy, clinical psychologist and author of the “The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens.” “We all want our point of view respected, and your teen is no different.”
Tough as it is, welcoming disagreement in a spirit of humility is foundational. “Mutual respect is so important to teens,” says adolescent psychiatrist Meg van Achterberg. “If you are frustrated that your teen is rolling her eyes, using bad language and talking back, ask yourself if you are treating her with respect. Are you talking to her with the tone you would use to talk to one of your friends?” It’s a critical posture change for parents to make, one that can be disorienting.
However, it’s crucial, Duffy says, because teens are keen and highly aware people.
Are you treating conversation with them as if it’s a chore or obligation? If you are, your teens know it, and it hurts. Teens sniff out adults who pander to them and suffer through dutiful conversation before turning to other adults in a room.
Conversations also shouldn’t center on lecturing. “The occasional conversation may be a chore, a bit of a lecture, or a focus on behavior we as parents do not favor. But the lion’s share of the discussion has got to be connecting, talking, laughing and sharing,” Duffy says.
Maria Coyle, associate head of school for George Washington University Online High School, reminds parents that even after they’ve built a solid foundation for their kids and prepared them to handle the outside influences of peers and social media, they still have an important role to play in their teens’ lives. “Being present for your child, talking with them, noticing things and encouraging them continues to positively affect their growth and development,” she says.
The hard work of parenting has changed, but it’s certainly not over. Intentional, proactive engagement in our teens’ lives is more important than ever, Duffy and Coyle say.
Do you multitask while listening to them? When you’re multitasking while your teens are talking to you, it’s communicating that they don’t warrant your full attention. Van Achterberg, founder of Capitol Hill Child Psychiatry, urges parents to drop everything if their teens want to talk. “Put down your cellphone, computer, laundry or whatever pressing matters you have, because nothing is more important than hearing out your teenager when he wants to talk.”
She points out that evenings and car rides are times when teens are most eager to communicate.
Do you interrupt them? Do you finish their sentences, laugh before they are finished or react in any way before they are done talking? In parents’ desperation to relate to their teens, to be cool or to demonstrate energetic engagement, remarks and reactions may easily come out forced and unnatural. Relax. View your teens as good friends, van Achterberg says. She acknowledges that although a relationship between adult friends won’t have the boundaries and consequences present in a parent-teen relationship, “showing respect and kindness toward [your teen] is as essential as it would be toward a friend.”
Duffy suggests parents remain silent as much as possible. “My strong bias is to listen more, speak and interrupt less,” he says. “Getting to know their world will diminish your parental anxiety.”
Do you press them into activities of your choosing? Or do you give them permission to pursue their passions?
Coyle, a licensed school counselor and adolescent behavioral researcher, gets to the heart of it: “This is the time when adolescents question: ‘What do I want to do? What do I want to be?’ Offering space and support for this exploration allows for a healthy identity to grow. When that space is not offered, an adolescent’s identity may not have the room to fully develop.”
Instead of mirroring your own hopes and dreams, let your teens take responsibility for their own pursuits. And for teens who lack motivation? Duffy suggests pulling the parent card and insisting that they be involved in something. “Kids need this to balance out the social and academic stressors in their lives and may find their passion through the trial and error of being involved.”
Do you try to force the conversation too often? Sometimes, parents try too hard. They want to get kids talking but don’t really know how. One idea: Try sharing something from your own day, van Achterberg says. “ ‘The weirdest thing happened at work today, and I couldn’t figure out what to do about it’ can lead to a conversation in which your teen may be empowered to share advice with you, a wonderful state of affairs for their confidence and your connection. A little vulnerability on your part (‘Mom just admitted that she didn’t know what to do?’) can go a long way.”
Look for moments, such as when your younger kids are in bed, to invite your teens to join you in more complex conversations or TV shows that can lead to deep discussions, van Achterberg suggests.
Coyle says that dinnertime is always a great time to talk, too. There are fewer distractions allowed, permitting conversation to move through the highs and lows of the day. Gathering teens around the dinner table provides an easygoing, nonthreatening setting to get them talking, Coyle says.
Try questions that are open-ended and nonjudgmental. For instance, Coyle suggests: “What was the best thing that happened today? What happened today that you did not like?” Forget the “why” questions or those that can be answered with a yes or no.
Get into their world. Listen to music with them, watch a show they like, or ask them about their favorite social media apps or video games, Duffy suggests. “These conversations provide the goodwill and leverage you will need when things are not going so well. And this is also the good stuff of parenting: truly getting to know and appreciate your kids.”
Do they leave the house with you calling out behind them: “Remember, drive slowly! Be safe! Text me!” I tend to worry about my teens, and I know I’m not alone. But when messages of safety are the last thing teens hear every time they leave home, it begins to sound as if you don’t trust them.
Offer basic human respect to your teens in these moments, van Achterberg says, though this doesn’t mean allowing your teens to drive if they’ve demonstrated irresponsibility or to hang out with friends you don’t trust.
The point is, timing is everything. Lobbing safety phrases at teens every time they leave the house only dilutes the well-intentioned meaning behind them. The time to discuss road safety, for example, should not be when teens are flying out the door. “Teachable moments will arise. Utilize those opportunities to have more in-depth conversations,” Coyle suggests.
So, bite your tongue. Instead, tell your teens you love them, and, after they depart, murmur your prayers and send positive vibes in their direction.
In contrast to when your teens were children, the way you relate to them may be fundamentally uncomfortable. Providing your teens with greater autonomy as they grow essentially means learning a new way to care for them. The learning curve will be well worth your time and effort, however, rewarding you with natural camaraderie.