I worked with teenagers for years. I read everything I could find about kids this age, went to conferences, and grew a sizable youth program. Parents regarded me as a bit of an expert, even called me for counsel. Then I had my own children.
Our first three arrived at the same time. Side, by side, by side, they came into this world “themselves.” For many years they learned by exploring. Sometimes they would test the limits. But mostly, they asked questions, observed, and soaked it all in. In those days, when I swung them over my head I was as strong as Thor in their eyes—and maybe even funnier.
Then, they became teenagers. Questions landed more like a challenges than inquiries. Right on cue, they began to draw conclusions. A teenager may share some of these findings with you. But often like someone just back from the Himalayas, full of years, rugged with experience, and a little exhausted by the prospect of bringing you up to speed. [takes a deep breath] “Haven’t you seen the meme?”
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”Attributed to Mark Twain
How can you give both space and guidance during these years of challenge? Consider these seven ways to connect with your teen…
1. Stay curious.
Parents frustrate kids by jumping in with advice when they reveal a problem. Instead, a little neutral feedback (non-judgmental) lets you be you and them be them. Without saying it, you send two great messages, “You are your own person and you can figure this out.” How you listen will start or stop the conversation. Mirror things back. See what happens.
2. Stay inflammable.
Emotional reactions trigger power struggles–-a battle of wills. This kind of tussle is an utter waste of time and energy. The main reason is this: it’s a red herring. Somehow teenagers figure out that if you are dealing with them, then they don’t have to deal with themselves. They’re too busy arguing with you to take responsibility. Make it your business when things heat up to stay inflammable.
3. Develop a courteous tone of voice.
Many parents do not adjust their toddler tone of voice soon enough. A condescending tone can strip a teen of his power, but not without also robbing them of responsibility. Guilt, fear, and shame may get you the golden egg in the moment, like a clean room. But, these motivators will not grow the goose. Give them choices and attach consequences to the bad choice. When they choose poorly, let the consequences speak, not your tone of voice.
4. Don’t judge feelings.
It is important to distinguish between feelings and attitudes. People can control their attitudes, not always feelings. Often when a teenager is being irrational, it because everyone can be irrational. We all need space to feel. Telling someone not to feel a certain way can polarize, making matters worse. A small word of empathy can provide an opening help them distinguish a bad attitude from hard feelings.
5. Keep the door open on any subject.
Sometimes tough topics only get addressed when a conflict brings them up. Instead, bring up potential conflicts during peacetime. In other words, create teachable moments. The heat of the moment is not a teachable moment. Instead, anticipate, discuss, even disagree by bringing up loaded subjects off the battlefield.
6. Permit the expression of ideas.
Teens are either exploring, testing, or concluding. This pattern can feel challenging to a parent’s values. Questioning an ideal is not a rejection of you. It may not even be a slippery slope they’re stepping onto. If you don’t yield some ground, a teen may take a stronger position if only to get out of a corner. Win-lose arguments can lead them to make a poor choice just so it will be their choice. Teens need boundaries, but they also space and freedom to internalize values.
7. Hold family conferences.
Make it fun, serve dessert, get to the point. Healthy, trusting relationships are fed by a consistent stream of communication. Quality time requires quantity time. Create time and space to find out what’s really going on. And when they open up about their pressures, do not sting with reactions and restrictions. Reward transparency with freedom and you will get more of it.