“I feel like I’m losing him. He never talks to me anymore. Part of it is our schedules. We’re always running out when the other is just coming in. When we do talk it’s about chores and curfews. More and more, I get silence, or an angry reaction. I’m worried that if he was getting into trouble, I wouldn’t even know. Sometimes I think I just need to be more strict, especially when he’s talking back, but then I feel bad because we never seem to have any good times together any more.”
Advice for parenting teens is wide ranging and often contradictory, from, “Become our child’s best friend!” to “Tough Love.” There seems to be a universal dread of the teen years. For many parents it is difficult to know how to set limits with a child whose maturity level seems to fluctuate back and forth between childlike and adult (sometimes within the course of one day!)
Here are three main areas of parenting teens to consider when you are getting lost in the swirl. As parents we often priorities these areas as Safety first, then coaching, then relationship. But these three areas are interconnected and affect each other. I’ll discuss reasons for reconsidering these priorities throughout.
Safety is the first concern of every parent, keeping your child alive, keeping them healthy and out of danger. Rules are often established around safety issues. Decisions are often made with safety in mind. This all makes sense and seems straight forward when your children are babies and toddlers and then starts to get slightly murky later near the end of elementary school when they want to go play at the home of people you don’t know well, or at a park several blocks away. They are no longer always in sight or in the care of other trusted adults. For those who are co-parenting with people they don’t completely trust or have conflict with, not knowing what is happening with your young child at all times can be distressing. When they get into the pre-teen years, safety starts to conflict with the burgeoning independence of your child. Developmentally, it is appropriate to begin allowing your kids to make their own decisions and to allow them to make mistakes but this is difficult in a very safety conscious society.
When it come to safety, it’s important to keep your eye on the ‘long game.’
Protecting your child from all risk can interfere with the task of coaching and mentoring into adulthood. It’s a find line between stifle their development by not allowing them to make decisions and keeping them safe. If kids are unable to develop their own risk assessment skills and decision making skills, they are at risk of making dangerous decisions as adults. Self esteem is also eroded. Self esteem might not seem important when considering what might appear to be a life and death issue, but considering the impact of self esteem on mental health, addictions, entering abusive relationships, etc., both of these should be factored into safety issues. Start by getting the facts about the actual level of risk in a particular activity or decision. Do your research and know your sources.
Check your own anxiety.
Pay attention to the things that cause you the most distress and find out where this distress is coming from. Did you experience something bad in a similar situation? Have you heard something from a family member, friend or the media that’s influencing your anxiety level about this? Again, check your sources and work on resolving any lingering effects from your own history. As much as possible, try not to make decisions based on your own anxiety.
Developmentally, physical risk taking is an essential part of teen development. They need to know where their limits are and what their strengths are in order to trust their own bodies and to be able to take care of their bodies as adults. If your teen is getting into trouble, they may be seeking more adrenalin. Consider signing them up for an intensive, or high adrenalin sport or activity (rock climbing, mountain biking, water polo, etc.) where they can channel that energy.
Check out An interview with Adventure Therapist, Lise Brown for more on kids/teens and risk taking.
The next big task of parenting teens is mentoring/coaching. You need to prepare your child for adulthood. Ideally this would happen through modelling, encouraging, coaching and scaffolding.
You need to model effective and appropriate adult behaviour in your relationships with others, with the way you spend your time and your money, the way your learn from your mistakes, the way you respond to disappointment and the way your care for yourself. Modelling is one of your most effective ways of teaching your child about adulthood. In fact they are already learning from you, no matter what you are doing and what your intention is.
You do not need to model perfection, in fact, allowing your child to see you fail, will show them that they do not need to be perfect and that if they do fail, they too, can recover.
These are great times to use whatever recovery skills you have or allow them to see you learn new skills for recovering from failure,
Another aspect of modelling which is often overlooked or misunderstood is showing kids how to respect others. This will not happen by you yelling at them to respect you or others.
Your kids will treat others the way you treat them.
Encouragement. Look for success and name it. I am not advocating for complimenting kids on a poorly done job. This will not build self esteem. Also, they have a very high “bullshit detector” so you won’t likely get away from a compliment that is not genuine. They know when they’ve done something poorly, but look closely for their strengths, thing they might not know about themselves, and let them know you see it.
Coaching and mentoring without encouragement puts your relationship at risk. If they do not believe that you believe in them, if they are not able to identify their own strengths they will give up on themselves and stop trying. This can turn into a negative cycle of frustration where the parent sees a child underachieving and criticizes them for this, and then the child, already overwhelmed by negative self talk or lack of self confidence due to having too little positive feedback, and continues to underachieve.
As your kids get older they need more constructive feedback. If they do something that you don’t like or make a mistake, you don’t have to pretend it was all good, but spend more time on what they can do differently next time than what they did wrong this time.
When giving feedback try the “sandwich” where you give two positives with a negative. If this feels too “soft,” think about how you respond to criticism from others around you. How much can you take before you shut down or lash out?
Chances are, your teen, who is much younger than you, has much less resilience than you.
Contrary to popular belief, dumping negative feedback on your teen, on a regular basis will not thicken their skin, just bruise it until it breaks or cause them to back far away from you for their own self protection.
Your teen is a human being who is responding normally to too much negative feedback. You would do the same, maybe you have done the same and feel they your child deserves the same treatment you received. If so, you need to dig deep to see how helpful this treatment was in building warm, trusting relationship with those around you. If you are discovering something new about yourself here, you may need to talk to someone about it. If you notice your teen is crying a lot, expressing lots of negative self talk or pulling away from you, and not reacting to you with anything other than anger or indifference then this may be a sign that you need to back off so that they can stop defending themselves from you and come in closer in order to actually hear your love and concern.
Responsibility. This is also a tricky one as it requires a level of mental ability. Give your teens responsibility for things that would naturally belong to them. For example, doing their own laundry, cleaning their room, helping out with meal prep and dishes, filling the gas tank when they’ve used the car. Getting the oil changed, budgeting their own money.
Don’t expect them to automatically know how to do these things. Consider this scaffolding process for new tasks:
- First let them watch you do it;
- Then you watch them do it; and then,
- Let them do it alone.
*This process may need to be repeated more than once.
Scaffolding. This is an educational term that has to do with building one skill onto another. Check your expectations of your child. It’s easy to forget how little experience they have in life and that their brains are not fully functioning due to an excess of hormones. Forgetfulness and moodiness may have nothing to do with them trying to be manipulative or disrespectful. Yes, they are self-absorbed, that’s a developmental norm. Life is overwhelming at this point. They may have genuinely lost the information you gave them yesterday about how to run the washing machine because their brain got overwhelmed by hormones. You need to know the capacity of your teen. Punishing them for things they are not actually capable of doing is technically abusive.
Skill building is not always a linear process as development does not always occur in a straight line. Trauma, death of a friend or loved one, major changes, such as a move or the end of a parent’s relationship, mental or physical illness, bullying, and other factors might cause regression in development and a loss of skills, at times.
Discipline. Everyone wants to know about discipline. This is part of coaching and mentoring. Ideally discipline will be connected to the offence in terms of a natural outcome. This is the most effective use of behaviour modification. So, if your child wrecks something, they may have to fix it. Again, you need to assess their abilities, check if you’ve communicated clearly and are being fair. If they have mistreated another person, be sure you have the whole story and work with them to show which part of an interaction they are responsible for. For example, saying that “Someone made me mad” might be fair but they still choose their actions after that point, DON’T FORGET – Even adults get some leniency in court for actions in response to provocation. However, this is the perfect time to work on, or learn together, anger management strategies and emotional regulation skills. See When YOU are the Volcano – 7 Ways to Care for Yourself for more on this. Check if your reaction is based in anger that goes beyond the offence and is tied to other stressors. For more on discipline in parenting check out Too Many Sticks & Carrots.
Some parenting methods disregard relationship entirely. Your relationship with your child is also a form of relationship coaching. You want to model the way you would want others to treat your child so that they can recognize what kind of treatment is unacceptable in a relationship. You may also set boundaries on how they treat you, modelling an expectation that others will respect you and how to ask for that respect. If you struggle to do this at or, or in a respectful way, check out Where Do I Draw the Line? for more on boundary setting.
The teen years are a great time to model concepts such as ‘consent.’ Asking for a hug and respecting when they decline it, will teach them that their body is to be respected and so are others’ bodies. Using ‘please and thank you’ when speaking to them, will show them how you’ d like them to talk to others and that you appreciate them and see them as individuals worthy of consideration. You may take your teen out on a ‘date’ or spend an evening with them. Ask them what they’d like to do. Show an interest in their interests. Get them to teach you something that they know about and you don’t. This is all part of building good relationships in any context. Why not demonstrate this by building one with your own teen?
You don’t need to be your child’s best friend but you are also not their jailor or slave driver. Your are their parent. They are going to be connected to you emotionally, in one way or another, for the rest of their lives. Your voice becomes their inner voice.
What does your inner parent say to you? If you did not have a good relationship with your parents, what do you wish they had done differently? You don’t have to re-create your parents mistakes. What did you learn from your parents? Is there more than one way to learn that lesson without sacrificing relationship? If you are still struggling with issues related to your relationship with your parent, this might be a good time to talk to someone about it and see if you can find some peace about the situation in order to avoid re-creating those same problems in your relationship with your teen.
Risking relationship for the sake of mentoring and coaching (using too much critical/negative feedback and punitive discipline may result in a child disconnecting from you emotionally. When this happens, they reject your advice, and act in ways that they know you disapprove of, or in dangerous ways. This, of course, may just be part of their individualization, a normal part of teen development, but there are varying degrees of this “rebellion” and risk taking which are influenced by the level of connection they feel with their parents.
Many parents and teens have ‘rocky’ relationships. This does not meant it will always be this way. Many relationships change as teens mature and adults give more space and autonomy. But you can start building a good connection now and you don’t have to do it by always giving in or always being the bad guy!
Overall, I would argue for relationship as a first priority with mentoring/coaching second and safety third. My reason for this is that with a good relationship, you child will attend to your advice and look to you for modeling. When they do this, safety issues become less frequent as trust you enough to check in and learn to make their own wise decisions.
Your solid, but caring and fair stance, with boundaries and behaviours that they can predict, is the secure base from which they will enter the world and then return to to reconnect.
If your family or your teen has experienced a major change, loss or some kind, or trauma and is not doing well, don’t hesitate to ask if they’d be open to talking to someone other than you about how they’re doing. If they have someone that you both feel comfortable with, that is ideal, but if not, and they’re willing to see a counsellor, that might also be helpful. If your teen is expressing thoughts of suicide or threatening to harm themselves or others, get help immediately call 911 or a local crisis line. If you are in Manitoba you can click here for local numbers http://www.gov.mb.ca/health/mh/crisis.html.
For more on teens check out TEENAGERS!!!
School not going so well? Check out Time to “Quit” School and Quitting School- Part II (A more literal interpretation)