For years I have watched tweens and teens getting dropped off for school. Many of them exit their cars as though their parents barely exist. This is an act. Your adolescent children desperately need you. They need your love, your attention, your advice—even though they may profess to want you as far away as possible.
As our kids evolve, so do our relationships to them. Contrary to the popular belief that parents should get out of the way when their children reach adolescence though, it is vital that parents stay connected. Adolescents still have much to learn, and important growing to do. For instance, research demonstrates that adolescents count on parental input, attention, and guidance in identifying values and making important life decisions. These same connections lead to better decisionmaking with academics, relationships, parties, and more.
However, in movies and on television, teens often reject their parents outright, with the notion that this is a necessary precursor to a healthy adult parent-child relationship. Author and psychologist Michael Riera challenges this assertion, suggesting that parents replace the concept of separation with one of “extension”: “During adolescence,” Riera writes, “teenagers need to extend away from their parents, all the while staying connected to their parents. Their job is to extend; your job is to connect.”
How do we stay connected to our children as they move through adolescence? How do we maintain relationships that seem to be so fragile? While parents of adolescents are limit setting, enforcing consequences, helping children to learn from mistakes, and keeping them safe, these jobs can also place tension on relationships. The following are ideas drawn from research and experience to support you in nurturing a strong, positive relationship with your child as he or she moves through adolescence.
Relinquish Some Control and Acknowledge Change: Adolescence as a time of change is cliche—and yet, what does it mean to truly acknowledge that a child has changed? For nearly a dozen years, we make nearly all significant decisions for our children. We decide what our child will eat for lunch, where she will go to school, and what time she needs to go to bed. Relinquishing control of some decisions may feel unnatural in light of this long reign of parental power. And yet acknowledging your child’s growing independence, and letting go of some decision-making control, is a vital step in preserving your relationship and staying close. As with all aspects of parenting an adolescent, this process is a balancing act. Provide too little autonomy, and you are setting the stage for years of tension and conflict. Provide too much freedom, and your child can be headed for trouble. If you recognize that this is a fluid process, that it will require lots of negotiation, and that, perhaps most importantly, things have changed, you will be on the right track.
Show Respect: Adolescents can tell in a heartbeat when adults aren’t paying attention to them. And this matters to them. Oftentimes they just want us to listen—not to give advice, not to solve their problems, but just to hear them in an open and respectful way. If we listen to our children, they will be far more likely to listen to us. Adolescents hate few things more than being patronized or being dismissed. Conversely, showing genuine respect is the quickest way into the life of an adolescent.
Be a Model: Our children watch our every move. It is not our words of wisdom, but rather the model that we provide for them, that ultimately helps them understand adult behavior, and decide who they will be as adults, what values they will embrace. It is worth asking ourselves periodically, who are we when we are with our children? Do we treat people with respect, even if we disagree with them? Do we follow rules? Do we run stop signs? Do we take phone calls during dinner? Adolescent children are acutely aware of adult hypocrisy. If we tell them one thing, and they see us doing another, we will quickly lose their respect.
“Marinate the Chicken”: One parent I know, a mother of four boys, hurries home from work and spends the early evening in the kitchen, getting dinner ready, or “marinating the chicken,” as she calls it. Her sons do their homework, play outside, talk on the phone—all while seeming to barely notice her. “I think they just like knowing that I’m there,” she says.
While adolescent children don’t always directly engage with their parents, and may even seem to ignore them, they are completely aware of them being nearby, and this is comforting. Of course not all of us have the luxury to come home from work to “marinate the chicken.” However, when we do have time with our children, it is important to know that it needn’t always be “face time.” Being nearby can be valuable as well.
Many working parents have developed a variety of creative ways of being present to their children, even when they are not home. Some parents I know will text with their children in the afternoons, checking in to see how homework is progressing. Others will place an hourly phone call to ask what’s happening. Keeping these conversations light and non-threatening can be critical to their success. Our children want to know that we are available and interested in what they are up to, even if they suggest otherwise.
Keep Perspective: I hear variations on the following from parents: “Why is she acting like this? She thinks everything I say is wrong. What did I do to deserve this?” Most adolescents will say or do things that are perplexing or infuriating to their parents. When parenting an adolescent, few pieces of advice are more important than to try not to take your child’s adolescence personally. Much of the time, your child’s moods have nothing to do with you, but rather are rooted in something that happened at school, a troubling phone call or text message, or some inner frustration that even they don’t understand. By making their distress about you, you will only be fueling whatever is bugging them, and will make it more difficult for them to reconnect with you when they are ready.
Given the drama of adolescence, a sense of humor can be vital to a parent’s mental health. If you can laugh at some of the crazier moments, you are far more likely to get through them happily. One important way to maintain perspective and keep a sense of humor is by talking to other parents. Sharing your particular challenges can prove tremendously comforting, and is a great way to develop strategies for how you might best proceed with your child. Parents can be each other’s best allies during adolescence, both by reassuring each other and agreeing on mutually acceptable limits for shared activities (i.e. “Yes, there is a party at my house—but don’t worry, I’ll be there to chaperone.”) In the words of one psychologist, “parenting in isolation invites a struggle where perhaps no struggle is necessary.”
Your adolescent child needs you. There will be countless days when this will be hard to believe—but it is true. By respecting your teen, making yourself available to them when possible, and not taking their behavior personally, you will go a long way toward maintaining a healthy connection, one which can provide them with vital support as they move toward adulthood.
What are your strategies for staying connected with your child? I’d love to hear them in the comments section below.