The first challenge to engaging your teen is maintaining the thin line between “parent” and “buddy”. While you want your child to be able to openly engage you, you are still their parent, guardian, enforcer and protector. You have a functional role, and and emotional role–and that can be a tricky scale to balance. Your emotional role is an important tool that, in moderation, can help you connect with your teenager–but it can also go too far. The worst example of this is making your teen your “gossip buddy”. In an effort to show yourself as a trusted companion your child can chat with about anything, you may begin spilling the beans about how you really feel. Suddenly your child might know that you secretly can’t stand their grandmother, or their teacher, or even your spouse. If you’re looking for someone to dish with, find another parent–there are just some things your teen doesn’t need to know, and there are plenty of other ways to be a trusted confidante for them.
The temptation is there, but must be avoided–do NOT parent your teen the way you wish your parents had parented you. This can go both ways–perhaps your parents shoved you toward a school, a career, and a life you didn’t want. Perhaps they made absolutely certain you were home by nine, kept all good grades and never had a chance to be alone with that boy or girl you were dating. Or, maybe your parents weren’t present enough–maybe they left the gate wide open and from that, you found your way into a lot of trouble. This is called “reaction formation”, and essentially you’re overcompensating where your parents were lacking. Part of creating a healthy relationship is letting go just enough to allow your child to begin engaging their individuality and begin separating from you. It’s true–your teen is going to develop beliefs, goals and rules that they aren’t going to want to share (and that you may not agree with). But rather than yanking the wheel away, or abandoning them altogether, consider watchful guidance. You can still offer a guiding hand to keep your child out of trouble while also letting them taste some freedom. Say yes to that slumber party, that movie date… but also place some loose boundaries. Ask them to call you after the film, arrange a pick-up location, have a check-in time to call or text, etc…that way, they’re enjoying the “teen” experience their way, but still within your fence.
Hold your anger in check–this is huge. Too many times a parent has lost control, lashed out, either verbally or physically, and damaged the relationship with their teen forever. Your teen is going to do, say and choose things that you aren’t going to like–that’s part of being a teen. They’re becoming their own person and that person might look a lot different than what you had in mind. It helps to remember that not everything is worth your anger. Your teen will get in trouble, will make mistakes you never thought they would make, and will do things you never dreamed your child will do. No matter how watchful you are, it’s going to happen. Handling these moments with grace is key, and we’ve got some tips…
–Analyze the problem. This can be anything from your son stealing your car to failing math class. Those are two very different situations that are sometimes handled with the same level of punishment! Consider if you will, the root of the problem–maybe your son is fighting for some independence. Maybe he’s just really bad at math and needs some extra help. No two transgressions are the same, and shouldn’t be treated with one standard reaction!
–Don’t raise your voice. Screaming at your teen is about as effective as screaming at a brick wall…that can also scream back. An emotional argument with your teen is the fastest road to some very dark days and damaged relationships.
–Decide if it’s something to get angry over. Let’s say your daughter is skipping band practice, and spends that extra time with friends, or at the library, or working on some other project she likes more. Realize your daughter wouldn’t skip band for no reason–engage and talk with her rather than grounding her and forcing her to go to band practice. Look for a solution–maybe find an extracurricular she likes better–rather than focusing on the problem. It’s not the end of the world!
Listen. The key to any solid relationship–business, personal or otherwise. The ability to listen, and not just hear, is going to be the most powerful tool in your arsenal. Remember that your teen is struggling–those years between childhood and adulthood are painful, awkward, complicated and can be a disaster. Remember that all that fear, unsurety and insecurity that you felt is still alive and well. Listening to your child should start at a very young age–when they hop in the van after an exciting day at preschool. Listening and engaging your child in a meaningful way then can build a solid foundation to your child trusting you and opening up to you now. But if you’ve missed that boat, don’t worry–you can start listening now. Start by asking curious questions, not interrogating your teen. Forcing them to speak to you will only push your teen further away. Rather than demanding interaction, offer an ear. It may take time, and you may not see results right away, but the more you make it known you’re there to listen and really engage them, they’ll blossom. We promise!