It’s not easy to raise a young teen. Many outside influences distract our children and complicate our efforts. In a 1996 study of 220 tweens and teens between 5th and 12th grade, the proportion of waking hours that those kids spent with their families dropped from 35% to 14%.
While it’s always been challenging for families to navigate the choppy waters of adolescence, today’s parents face an additional challenge of raising teens who have grown up as digital natives.
Family psychologist Michael Riera reveals that in every teen there are two very different people: the regressed child and the emergent adult. The emergent adult is seen at school, on the playing field, in his first job, and in front of his friends’ families. Unfortunately, his parents usually see only the regressed child-moody and defiant-and, if they’re not on the lookout, they’ll miss seeing the more agreeable, increasingly adult thinker in their midst.
“So, what can I do to be a good parent for my early adolescent child?”
To answer that big questions, we suggest some ideas for parents to reconnect with their teenager and keep that connection even in today’s often-crazy world.
1. Listen. Empathize. Keep advice to a minimum.
It doesn’t matter how good your advice is. Every time you offer it, you’re giving your teen the message that he can’t solve his problems himself. Be a sounding board, not a prescriber, and you’ll find your teen coming back for more. Don’t take it per-sonally if your teen isn’t always in the mood to talk, or if he or she wants to be alone with his or her friends. Teens have the right to privacy (within safe limits), just as you do.
2. Be available when your teen wants to talk
For most teens, that means late at night over a snack. You’ll be amazed at how much more your teen will open up in the wee hours. Most kids don’t keep an agenda and bring things up at a scheduled meeting. And nothing makes them clam up faster than pressing them to talk. Kids talk when something is up for them, particularly if you’ve proven yourself to be a good listener, but not overly attached to their opening up to you. (If you push them to open up, they feel they have to defend their independence by keeping secrets from you.)
Find ways to be in proximity where you’re both potentially available, without it seeming like a demand. This may seem obvious, but stating your availability invites contact that might not otherwise occur: “I’ll be in the study working if you want me” or “I have to run to the grocery store, but don’t hesitate to call my cell phone if you need me.”
The most important part of staying available is your state of mind. Your child will sense your emotional availability. Parents who have close relationships with their teens often say that as their child has gotten older, they’ve made it a practice to drop everything else if their teen signals a desire to talk. This can be difficult if you’re also handling a demanding job and other responsibilities, of course. But kids who feel that other things are more important to their parents often look elsewhere when they’re emotionally needy. And that’s our loss, as much as theirs.
3. Have a teen-friendly house
Make their friends welcome in your home, even the friends you don’t particularly like. Teenagers often see their friends in a different light when they see them in their own homes. As you get to know the youngsters who visit your home better, you may come to like those about whom you first had doubts. Most importantly, if your teenager feels comfortable asking friends to hang out at your house, they will tend to spend more time there. You will find it easier to know what interests them, what they talk about and, hopefully, to be part of the conversation.
Most teenagers prefer working with other teens on almost everything, including homework. If your home is a comfortable place for teenagers to work together on homework, your teen will be more apt to complete his or her homework. Invite them in, provide a place for them to study together and give help when asked.
4. Place a premium on relationships in your family by spending some time together every single day
Constantly look for opportunities to do things together, such as shopping, attending sport events, travel, or movies… Whether it’s five minutes at bedtime or washing the dishes together after dinner, make sure you have time to connect with your teen every day.
If your teen is resistant to spending time with you, develop routines where you share something that your teen enjoys doing: play a game of ping pong or have a cup of tea together every night, take a walk for ice cream on Monday evenings, make brunch together or play some basketball on Sunday mornings. Kids often wait for these routine times with their parents to bring up something that’s bothering them. Don’t expect your son or daughter to invite closeness or volunteer vulnerable emotions at each interaction, or when you expect it. But if you set up enough regular opportunities to be together, it will happen.
5. Last but not least, remember that your teen’s fierce need for independence doesn’t mean he can’t stay connected to you
If you can let your teen exercise his own judgment and be himself, rather than who you want him to be, he’ll be able to grow into age-appropriate independence without cutting you off. If, on the other hand, you insist that he plays the sport you love or that she agrees with your political views, your teen will have to choose between a relationship with you and his or her integrity.
Your teen is constantly squashing his dependency needs so that he can function independently in a demanding environment. Your presence, with all of its comforting reassurance and warmth, signals to him that he can relax and let down his guard. You’re not “encouraging dependency.” You’re “allowing” the dependency that is there anyway, and will otherwise go undercover.
“As we well know, a hallmark of adolescence is resistance. Just as crying exercises a baby’s lungs, resistance exercises adolescents’ abstract reasoning skills… No longer able to physically contain or comfort them, our only hope is to stay in touch… rather than trying to prevail or curtail, we need only strive for connection itself.” – Jennifer Marshall Lippincott, 7 Things Your Teenager Won’t Tell You