While it's natural and essential for kids to begin "extending" out into the world, even opposing us as they explore who they are, this doesn't need to mean disconnecting or separating. In fact, teens need a healthy attachment more than ever during this trial and error phase of life. The more we stay close and connected to our teens (not to be confused with hovering or controlling), the better we can support them emotionally. Through our attachment, we equip them with a compass as they find their own truth and strength, and decision making power.
Teenagers must extend outward - that's their job. They need greater and greater freedom to grow, to find out what they are made of as a unique soul. Our job as parents? 1) Let them go, and 2) Keep them connected. Learning to live in these two places at the same time — this is the key to raising teenagers. Here are some Do's and Don'ts for balancing these two key ingredients:
- Don't assume your instincts are on target. We can easily become reactive and miss our blind spots when it comes to parenting. In so doing, we can miss the bigger picture of what will benefit our kids in the long run. Our own past experience and models can be useful but also limited.
- Do learn more about parenting, yourself and teen development. Read books and articles, seek a counselor or spiritual teacher with experience and wisdom. Take classes. Grow your own self awareness and explore your own issues. Then decide what feels right to you as a parent.
- Don't make teens choose between you and being true to themselves. Look out for how you might cajole your child to be what you want him to be.
- Do allow your teens to be who they are. Not only accept but enjoy and trust your teens' emerging individuality. Let her choose her own political view or personal style. Let him pick what sport or if any. Find as many areas and views that you allow space for your teen to decide and judge for herself. Ask open ended questions instead of leading ones. Encouraging their individuality doesn't mean sacrificing your core values and what you want to instill (see Accountability below). Having family structure and principles is essential. At the same time, let go and trust your teen to find his own truth more and more as he develops and matures. Our kids are more likely to stay connected to us when they feel free to explore and be who they are.
- Don't judge or criticize what your kids are into.
- Do get to know and join in their interests. Whether that be their music or how they connect with friends, how they study best or what they enjoy doing for fun. Let them be the expert in their interests and ask them to teach you more. I remember with our daughter getting really into “thrifting” and funky coffee shops; and with our son it was all about concerts. These interests became an important bridge to stay connected and also to show a sense of value for who they are.
- Don’t preach and overload advice. As parents we find it tempting to use every encounter as a teaching opportunity. This overwhelms kids and makes them feel we don’t trust them to find their own way.
- Do listen, empathize, be a sounding board. For every 10 issues they raise, maybe pick 1 of those to teach them something. When we truly listen, teens feel more and more free to come to us — and they just might take in what we say.
- Don’t press your teens to talk. Nothing shuts teens down faster than making them talk when they’re not ready. If family meetings aren’t the norm, maybe the teen years are not the best time to start. Too much structure. The pressure can threaten their independence. Teens often find it difficult to be vulnerable. Their emotions can feel embarrassing or overwhelming.
- Do make yourself available when there is more likely an opening. When teenagers see you making them a priority and on their timeframe, they get the message that what they feel and need is important and that you are a safe person with whom they can be real — whenever they feel ready. Car rides are often famous for opening up, especially for teen boys. Late at night for teen girls. Sometimes this means staying up later than you’d like, or waking yourself up. Try dropping what you have going on at work when you receive a distressing text. Teens appreciate our presence, particularly when we provide an emotional safe haven — and this strengthens the bond.
- Do attend sporting events, concerts, school activities. Even if they say it doesn’t matter, show up and stay discreet. You will be happy when you can talk about their activity and they will absorb the priority you made them for a lifetime.
- Don’t swarm teens with negativity. It’s easy to see their faults — teens can be difficult and forgetful, self absorbed and reactive. But if we criticize them, and they grow to see themselves as bad through our eyes, especially on regular bases, they will want to stay clear.
- Do remind them how special they are. Best not to over compliment, but teens need reminding of how proud we are of them and how much we appreciate the simple gift that they are our children. In addition to the overarching unconditional love and appreciation, praise with specifics and not just the big accomplishments. Look for when they have struggled and persevered, for when they worked hard and did their best, when they acted from their heart. Comment on their positive attitude and choices.
- Do keep interactions more positive than negative. The Gottmans' research has shown that a 5 to 1 ratio of positive interactions acts like insurance for married couples. Surely, this would apply to our connection with our teens. Positive words and gestures can go a long way, even small ones like a hug or a smile, a shoulder rub or warm hello.
- Don’t get reactive or name-call when teens misbehave. E.g, Rather than, “How could you be so inconsiderate?” Try, “We need to talk about you borrowing my charger and not returning it. What do you feel would be a good way for you to replenish the energy you took that caused a drain on my day.”
- Do talk to your teens about what’s going on when they act out — help them get to the root. Teens go through so many emotional storms. Like all of us, and even more intensely, teens behave reactively when they’re stressed, hurt, tired, scared, confused. Gently help them express what might be going on at the root of the issue. Simply expressing their feelings and being heard can go a long way. Much more effective than grounding tends to be.
- Do give consequences with love and empathy. E.g., “Oh son, we’re so sorry you lost your phone— it’s your lifeline to your music and friends. Try not to worry, you will be up and texting in no time, just as soon as you save up some money for a new phone. It happens to all of us and I am proud of you for taking responsibility.”
- Do repair. Sometimes by the time the teenage years arrive, their has been some damage to the bond. It’s very difficult to correct teen behavior when the attachment is rocky. Sometimes we need some extra assistance to repair first. If your teen doesn’t want to go to counseling with you, then don’t worry. You can learn a lot on your own to turn things around. See Preparation above.
- Don’t become permissive to try and win their favor. Many parents give in to what they don’t feel is right out of fear that their teens won’t like them, won’t be safe or they won’t want to be close. The truth is, while teens are growing more independent, they need boundaries and structure. Trust your truth and your soul to soul connection.
- Do set limits and standards of behavior. Even if they violate these outside your home, keep firm and consistent with your standards of behavior inside the home. Whether that be about drinking or sex, gossip or cell phone rules, hugging hello and good bye, standing firm with our values gives teens a model, a foundation to come back to. It’s an illusion that setting limits leads to teens pulling away. Quite the contrary, when balanced with enough freedom and trust, teens respect and love us more when we hold them accountable.
- Do teach them about respect. We as parents must show our teens how important respectful language and behavior is, even when they are frustrated or upset with us. It’s a universal law — we can only receive blessings from those we respect. Parents are the primary source of energy, in all its forms, until kids become adults. Teens have everything to lose when they don’t appreciate and respect their parents, even when they don’t agree with them. So when the time is right and the mood is neutral, you can explain why it’s so important to respect Mom and Dad— for them and for you. Discuss alternative ways to express their needs and feelings, model what opening up sounds like when shared with human dignity, give relevant consequences when they have trouble understanding or remembering how important respectfulness is. They will learn self respect when they see us standing for nothing less — but from love and care, not anger or victimhood.
- Do provide opportunities to earn. The older kids grow, the more skin in the game they will need. Earner-ship builds confidence and the ability to appreciate one’s blessings. I remember when our kids started doing their laundry in middle school. Once they learned how, we were amazed how they never complained or resented us. Rather it seemed to energize them and make them more positive with us. Earning can include whatever is relevant and age-appropriate, ranging from respectful behavior to doing their school work; from pitching in with household contributions to paid jobs. Earner-ship builds inner fulfillment, and trust me, your kids will thank you — sooner than you think.
- Don’t take your teens’ desire for space personally. We often become demoted during the teen years and we need to allow them to branch out without them feeling guilty.
- Do keep offering choices for spending time together. Even if the quality isn’t always the most intimate, it’s important to keep the continuity of spending time together, regularly. Even if for 5 minutes. Feel free to stay on them and keep trying. Make your offerings for time together inviting, no guilting. Pick options in their interest areas and allow some tentativeness with the timing. E.g., “How about we get our nails down sometime this week, or check out this new restaurant that has our kind of food?” or “I hear there's a new Marvel movie coming out. How about we pick one and if you’d like, you can invite a friend.” If they keep resisting, maybe explain how important it is to stay connected, that relationships need to be cared for to keep them healthy.
- Do provide family structure. Even if teens complain, they tend to participate in much of what your family does and how you operate. This could include family dinners, visiting grandparents, spiritual services, family vacations, as well as expectations, responsibilities, routines and rules that underpin the family dynamic.