As July reaches its midpoint, we collectively realize that the summer is (at least) halfway over. For teens who are about to embark on their first year of college (or who are moving away for other reasons in the fall), this summer can be particularly meaningful.
To so many of these young people, this is the summer; the summer where great changes are made, identities are shed and reformed, and the world begins to take on a slightly different shape.
If your teen is experiencing a lot right now, you may be wondering how you can walk beside them as this season comes to a close, while helping them to connect with and express their own feelings.
1. Mind the Gap
No two people experience life in the same way, and no two people handle change in the same way, either. Do your best to be mindful of the space that may exist between your teen’s experience during this time, and your own when you were their age. And, try to keep in mind the difference that may exist between one child’s experience and another’s.
Enter this period with openness and curiosity; you may not necessarily know what they’re going through right now. They may be afraid to share their fears and doubts, or may worry that their excitement over moving on could seem insensitive to your own time of transition as a parent or loved one.
The only way to find out is to ask.
This doesn’t have to become a somber, heavy conversation if you don’t feel it needs to be. Simply asking your teen how they’re doing and how they’re feeling right now can open the door for valuable conversation.
2. Try to Not Jump to Solutions
It’s nice to have an answer to someone’s problems (trust me, I hear you), but that is so rarely the case. Now may be one of those times when there just isn’t a solution; maybe there’s just feeling.
Especially if your teen is feeling lost, uncertain, or anxious, it can be powerful for you to just sit with them in those moments. Give them the space to experience those feelings without judgment, and without expectation that they have to do something to make those feelings change. All you need to do is listen.
If and when they’re ready to think of ways to change the situation they’re in or reduce the negative feelings they’re having, let them know that you’ll be there to help.
As your teen enters adulthood, your relationship will inevitably change. Especially for families with teens going off to college, distance may make it difficult for you to really do anything to help when they’re struggling.
That’s hard to think of, I know.
But you have an opportunity to show and practice a new type of support, one that is grounded solely in feeling. Not everyone’s teenager is going to be comfortable being vulnerable, but even when teens struggle to express themselves, it can be meaningful for them to know that they have someone to turn to if they need to.
You may not have any solutions right now, and that’s okay.
3. Validator Supreme
This one is short and to the point: validate your teen’s feelings and experiences!
You may not agree with their view of the world right now, or maybe you’re struggling to empathize with how they’re feeling – that’s alright! A huge piece of building supportive relationships with young people is to let them know that their experiences have value. Validate.
Say your teen is heading off to college but their very best friend is going to a different school out of state. They’re hurting right now, and they’re likely afraid of being alone when they start a new chapter of their lives in a strange place.
In this moment, many parents may instinctively think to say, “It’ll be ok, sweetie! You’re going to make so many new friends!”
To your teen, that could be hurtful, when what you’re really trying to do is be encouraging and supportive.
Remember a few seconds ago when I said to not jump to solutions? In a situation like this, it may be enough for you, as a loved one, to just say, “I’m so sorry. I know how hard it is for you to think of not having your friend around every day.” And then leave it at that.
Validating statements like this one can help to reaffirm your teen’s experience and create an opportunity for them to be heard.
4. Make Space for Family
Whether or not every young person shouts their need for family time from the rooftops, or social media, I think that the great majority of them do value those experiences. So make space for family this summer.
Plan small trips or at-home movie nights; if your teen doesn’t know how to do their laundry or make a meal, turn it into a fun family affair; have the conversations you’ve been holding out for, and appreciate the moments you have to connect with your child before big changes come along.
Make space for family, however you define it.
5. Be Honest
In these last few articles, I’ve encouraged parents to try out new ways to connect with their kids, to foster open and honest dialogues about their children’s experiences. But honesty and vulnerability should be present from all sides of these interactions. Parents, loved ones: practice honesty.
Within boundaries that feel safe for you, let your teens see you as a person, not just as a concerned adult. Share your honest concern, giddy excitement, or own understandable sadness about this time of transition. Modeling this type of emotional honesty and vulnerability can help your teen try new ways of connecting, as well.
You know the limits of what you do and do not feel comfortable sharing with your child, and I am not asking you to cross those limits. But as children grow older, they have an opportunity to start to know their parents as people, and this can be a powerful step in that direction.