This article is aimed at providing parents with some practical tips for staying connected to their kids through the ups and downs of the teen years. Before getting into these tips, however, it’s important to keep in mind that almost all teens struggle with their parents at some point. In our highly individualistic culture, teens often go through a process of distancing themselves from their families in order to discover who they are as individuals and as emerging adults. The good news is that many if not most of these teens come back to their family relationships in young adulthood, ready to reconnect. Christian counseling can help parents and teens navigate the trials of these years in a way that maintains relational bonds and paves the road for reconnection both now, and once a teen reaches adulthood.
The following are some general “do’s” and “try-not-to-dos” that can help parents bridge the gap with their teens. In every case, take these tips with a grain of salt, as every teen-parent relationship is different. Nevertheless, keeping these tips in mind when interacting with your teen may prove to be the first step in shoring-up your connection.
Some Parental Dos
Do negotiate with your teen. In order to remain healthy throughout its lifetime a family must adjust and redefine itself in the face of major life events. The same is true when kids transition into their teens. It’s important for parents to realize that as their children mature the rules of the household will likely need to adjust from the black-and-white rules of childhood to a more flexible world of guidelines and negotiations. It’s important for teens to feel they have a voice in the guidelines set for them, and often having this voice will help them feel more connected and committed to those expectations.
Do be available when your teen is ready to talk. Often teens will close off when parents approach them directly, asking questions about their day and wanting to hear all that’s going on in their lives. Instead, teens tend to open up better when a parent is in the middle of cooking dinner, paying the bills, or reading a book. In these times the conversation feels more casual and less threatening, and your teen has more control over the conversation because you’re in the middle of doing something else. Your best bet to keep the conversation going may simply be to keep stirring the chili.
Do listen for the positives. Find something in what your teen is saying that you can praise or respect, and share that with your teen. In her book Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher encourages parents to take every opportunity to “congratulate their daughters on their maturity, insight or good judgment. It’s important to validate autonomous, adult behavior and support their barely emerging maturity” (p. 284). Pointing out the things you respect and are proud of in your teen not only benefits your relationship but can also help a teen recognize their own strengths and continue to foster them.
Do keep calm. Every teen goes through hard times and makes decisions his or her parents won’t agree with. If your teen comes to you in a panic or having made a big mistake, your job is to keep your cool, be reassuring, and help your teen calm down enough to think clearly and gain some perspective. Keeping an open mind, looking for those positives, and refraining from making hasty judgments will go a long way in these high-tension times. And perhaps more importantly, if you can show your teen you’re able to handle their problems without overreacting, they will be more likely to come to you again the next time they’re struggling.
Some Parental Try-Not-To-Dos
Try not to be the fixer. Many teens don’t want to be told how to fix their problems. You can help your teen think critically about a situation and brainstorm some different ideas of how to handle it. But stepping in and telling your teen exactly what they need to do may not be the most helpful approach. Besides, teaching your teen to think critically and examine different options will serve him or her better in the long run than if you simply provide an answer for them.
Try not to tell your teen that he or she is being “immature” or “childish”. These are hot-button words for teens as they are in the midst of struggling to find their adult selves, and comments such as these will likely only increase your teen’s resistance to anything you might say. It’s ok to disagree with your teen’s decisions or behaviors and to have consequences for those. However, while it may be important to point out something your teen could have done better, try to do this in a way that affirms rather than undermines your teens emerging maturity.
Try not to get caught up in “hot cognitions”. Meaning do your best to catch yourself before you react out of frustration. Part of this also includes recognizing that what a teen does and says on the surface may not accurately reflect what they’re really feeling underneath. For example, if your teen tells you she hates you there’s a good chance that’s not truly how she feels. Instead she may be angry at you or at a situation at school and not know how to handle that in a better way. The ability to stop yourself before reacting out of anger and ask yourself what your teen may really be trying to communicate is an invaluable skill.
Try not to take everything your teen throws at you too personally. While it’s good to have clear standards of behavior and consequences in the household, you’ll be much better off if you can maintain some distance from any harsh words your teen may send your way. This goes back to recognizing that teens often say things that feel true in the moment, but that they later regret or change their minds about. Learning to gain some distance will spare you some hardship and give your teen the benefit of the doubt that they may not mean what they say.
A Final Note
If you are a parent trying to shore-up or rebuild a connection with your teen, a Christian counsel or can help you navigate this process. Mary Pipher describes the role of a counselor this way, and I whole heartedly agree: “Therapists can be most helpful when we support parental efforts to keep adolescents safe and at the same time adolescents’ needs to grow and move into the larger world. We can help by teaching teenagers that they can individuate from their parents without separating from them” (p. 253). Supporting teens in their growth without separating them from their parents, and supporting parents in their desire to protect and stay connected to their teens. If that sounds of interest to you, be sure to let us know.
Pipher, M. (1994). Reviving Ophelia: Saving the selves of adolescent girls. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Images: Freedigitalphotos.net – bridging the gap between parents and their teens by tongdang and mother daughter stockimages