Navigating the Relationship with your Teen
In my work with teens and their parents, I find that one of the most common and primary “complaints” or problems that bring families to seek additional support for their teen or child is communication, or lack thereof. In reality communication is occurring, but it may be muddled up and mixed with feelings of overwhelming need, worry, frustration, concern, anger, reactivity, defensiveness, or resistance on both ends. The challenge for parents then becomes finding the best way to share concerns and address “problems” with your teen in a way that is constructive and collaborative and focused on building solutions.
One of the most effective and challenging ingredients in navigating the changing relationship with your teen is to see them, accept them, and acknowledge with them that they are changing and becoming an adult. This does not mean that they are an adult yet, but that they need experience and practice along with your support, guidance, expectations, limits, rules, and boundaries to complete their transition from child-to teen-to adult.
Developmentally adolescence is a time of establishing ones’ identity separate from the family as a unique individual in this world. The challenges of growing up during these times are immense and myriad. One of the greatest gifts that we can give to our children is a sense of trust, respect, security, and unconditional acceptance within a world filled with conditions, pressures, stressors, and uncertainty. Unfortunately, what often happens is that as a parent our intention to help, guide, and impart our knowledge and experience has the opposite effect on our teen and the impact is much different than what we had intended. As this dynamic continues problems ensue, rifts begin to take hold and communication diminishes or becomes increasingly negative, charged, or one-sided.
The power of listening is important especially, as your child moves into adolescence. The knowledge and guidance that we as parents have to share with them during this time cannot come about without the presence of love, acceptance, respect, availability, curiosity, and empathy. A parent’s engagement and curiosity are processes that add to the creation of attunement or the experience of “feeling felt” by the teen. Attunement and “feeling felt” convey love, respect, compassion, and a willingness to understand another perspective, especially one that as parents we don’t necessarily agree with or don’t find effective or “right”. As my fellow site director, Martha Chan wrote recently, “Listening can be a challenge for many of us; as parents, we have accumulated wisdom and experience we would like to impart to our children, to save them from having to make the same mistakes we did or that we saw our friends make. And once we start talking, we often keep going in hope that our teenager will make some response, join in the conversation, or otherwise acknowledge that he/she is listening.” Often when our desired reaction or response does not happen, we make an assumption, an evaluation, or a judgment. It is as if a knot is being formed and pulled tighter.
I found an inspiring reference to this process in a blog by Dr. Laura Dessauer that speaks to the desired intention and preferred impact of our efforts as parents with our teens. She referred to these commitments as the essential messages that they need to hear from you, their parent. She wrote these as follows:
You are lovable: No matter what, you are lovable. You do not have to do anything or be anything more than what you are to be loved and to be lovable. In this moment I recognize you and love you just as you are.
Sometimes it hurts: At moments life is painful and there is nothing you can do to make it any better. It just feels bad and I am here to be with you in these difficult moments.
You are safe: Although I can’t protect you when things go wrong or you are scared, know that you have within you
tremendous courage. Even when things feel dark and hopeless, take a deep breath and know that you are in this moment, okay.
Let me try and understand: I may not know what it is like to be you. I don’t know what happen in your heart and in your mind. I don’t know why you act the way that you do sometimes, so please help me understand. I am willing to listen and respect what you have to say.
I respect you: You have different ideas, and see the world differently than I do. Sometimes we struggle to meet eye to eye, but who you are as a person is good and kind and there are moments when I look at you and have such deep respect for the person that you are.
Teach me: At times I forget to be patient, sometimes I snap at you, at times I want things done quickly, and done “my way”. Please continue to teach me patience, remind me to be flexible, show me the gifts that you have in your heart about love and kindness. I can learn so much from you when I am willing to slow down and just be with you.
You are good enough and you are whole: Please remember that nothing anyone says or does, or nothing that you can do or say, will make you less than whole. You are lovable and there is nothing that you can have, do, or be that will make you more loveable than who you already are.
You are worthy: You are worthy of happiness, love, and kindness, and all the goodness, no more and no less than any other being. Sometimes I struggle to remember this in my own life and I thank you for reminding me.
Let your uniqueness shine: I know at times it feels like things would be better if you just fit in and you were like everyone else. It feels so isolating to be different and stand out. I honor and celebrate what makes you uniquely you, no one else on this planet can take your place, and that’s truly remarkable.
I am sorry: I try to help you grow into being a happy and kind child, and sometime I try too hard and I forget what an amazing gift you are. You are funny, kind, you have such a generous heart, and love to laugh and play. I’m sorry for those times when I forget to look at you with the love and compassion you deserve.
The take away from this that I wish for those reading this article would be that this period of time can be incredibly challenging and uncertain. You are an incredibly important figure in your teens’ life, but it is a time of great change for both of you. The role and importance of home and family cannot be underestimated. Having a secure home base that is a safe haven for your teen to recharge, to work out problems, to gain understanding, to feel a sense of peace and solace, and to get support is essential AND always a work in progress. You may have the best intentions, but when the impact does not line up, it is like rolling a large boulder up a hill. Listen and engage, and that boulder can feel lighter and less heavy and maybe you’ll even have some help pushing it up the hill.
Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, “The Whole Brain Child”
Patt and Steve Saso, “10 Best Gifts for Your Teen: Raising Teens with Love and Understanding”