Attempting to maintain a healthy and open relationship with your teen is one of the most important things you can do as a parent. I say "attempting" because the teenage years can be challenging, to say the least. Much like a toddler, teens are doing new and exciting things; they're finding new ways to express themselves, and they don't take the word "no" very lightly. As your teen transitions into adulthood, staying close as a family becomes more difficult. Somewhere between teens wanting to break away and parents trying to hold everything together lies fertile ground for growing a stronger relationship. That bond not only strengthens your relationship, it also fosters confidence, which is something they'll need when it comes to protecting themselves from danger. Finding that mutually agreeable middle ground all begins with communication.
It's easy for us parents to give in to the hardships of day-to-day life and close ourselves off. You may not see it happening, but I can guarantee your teen does, and it's only in hindsight that we see how our words and actions affect our children. I know that I've personally let my emotions get the best of me and resorted to harsh words and short answers when open and honest discussion would have been more appropriate.
These types of reactions to issues create a very uncomfortable divide between parents and children. I clearly remember coming to the realization that I could possibly be the reason my teens didn't want to open up in front of me. It was a hard pill to swallow, but it forced me to become more self-aware and take more time to talk openly with my kids about the things that were bothering them. Some of the problems they wanted to talk about were uncomfortable for me to hear and ran much deeper than I could have imagined. It can be tough to talk to your children about their problems, but believe me when I tell you, that their mental and physical well-being depends on having someone they trust to open up to. It takes a lot of work, but there are ways for parents to become better communicators. Rachel Ehmke of The Child Mind Institute recommends the following when talking with your teen about the issues that are bothering them:
- Listen. If you are curious about what's going on in your teen's life, asking direct questions might not be as useful as simply sitting back and listening. Kids are more likely to be open with their parents if they don't feel pressured to share information. Remember, even an offhand comment about something that happened during the day is their way of reaching out, and you're likely to hear more if you stay open and interested.
- Validate their feelings. It is often our tendency to try to solve problems for our kids or downplay their disappointments. But saying something like, "She wasn't right for you anyway" after a romantic disappointment can feel dismissive. Instead, show kids that you understand and empathize by reflecting the comment back: "Wow, that does sound difficult."
- Show trust. Teens want to be taken seriously, especially by their parents. Look for ways to show that you trust your teen. Asking them for a favor shows that you rely on them. Volunteering a privilege shows you think they can handle it. Letting your kid know you have faith in them will boost their confidence and make them more likely to rise to the occasion.
- Don't be a dictator. You still get to set the rules but be ready to explain them. While pushing the boundaries is natural for teenagers, hearing your thoughtful explanation about why parties on school nights aren't allowed will make the rule seem more reasonable.
- Give praise. Parents tend to praise children more when they are younger, but adolescents need the self-esteem boost just as much. Teenagers might act like they're too cool to care about what their parents think, but the truth is they still want your approval. Also, looking for positive and encouraging opportunities is good for the relationship, especially when it is feeling strained.
- Control your emotions. It's easy for tempers to flare when your teen is being rude, but you should never respond in kind. Remember that you're the adult, and teens are less able to control their emotions or think clearly when they're upset. Count to ten or take some deep breaths before responding. If you're both too upset to talk, hit pause until you've had a chance to calm down.
- Do things together. Talking isn't the only way to communicate. It's great during these adolescent years if you can spend time doing something you both enjoy, whether it's cooking or hiking or going to the movies, without talking about anything personal. Kids need to know that they can be in proximity to you and share positive experiences without having to worry about intrusive questions or if you'll call them out for something.
- Share regular meals. Sitting down to eat a meal together as a family is another excellent way to stay close. Dinner conversations give every family member a chance to check-in and talk casually about sports, television, or school. Kids who feel comfortable talk ing to parents about everyday things are more likely to open up when discussing more challenging topics.
- Be observant. It's normal for kids to go through some changes as they mature, but pay attention if you notice changes to their mood, behavior, energy level, or appetite. Likewise, take note if they stop wanting to do things that used to make them happy or if you notice them isolating themselves. If you see a change in your teen's daily ability to function, ask about it and be supportive (without being judgmental). They may need your help, and it could be a sign that they need to talk to a mental health professional.
These are all great ways to strengthen relationships and create a communication pattern with your child, but no one likes a one-sided conversation. As young adults, teens also have to be willing to open up and not shut themselves off to the information their parents are trying to convey.
The above is an excerpt from Spotting Danger Before It Spots Your Teens by Gary Quesenberry, Federal Air Marshal (Ret.), Publication date April 1, 2022, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594398681.