10 Mistakes Parents of Teens Need to Avoid
Avoid these pitfalls in order to get along better with your teen.
Posted Sep 30, 2019
Being in a relationship requires us to make hundreds of decisions every day, so we are apt to make a mistake now and then. This is especially true of a relationship as complicated as the one between parents and teens. However, there are some underlying factors that lead parents to make bad decisions. Being aware of these pitfalls will help you avoid a fight or two. For the most part, these mistakes violate psychological boundaries, and boundaries make good relationships. They also prevent children from having their own feelings and thinking for themselves. Following these points will keep you from rushing in too quickly to rescue your child. This is really important if you want your kids to be resilient and independent.
1. Don't over-identify with your kids.
Empathy is understanding someone else’s feelings. Over identifying means feeling them as if they were your own. We all feel the pain of the people we love, just as we revel in their triumphs. However, if overdone with our children we rob them of the freedom to have their own experiences, form their own opinions, and solve their own problems. It’s as if the problem they are experiencing is our problem, not theirs. A patient recently told me when she was out to dinner one of her friends read a text, looked visibly upset, and excused herself from the table. Upon returning she told the group her daughter texted because a boy she liked had not the returned an IM. The mother reacted as if the boy ghosted her, not her daughter. This lack of boundaries will make it hard for the girl to become an independent adult. In order to avoid over-identifying with your child, ask yourself: How is your child like you? Not like you? Are you overly concerned or preoccupied with what makes your child happy or sad?
2. Don't take anything too personally.
Some days it may seem like your teen takes you for granted, rejects, or even hates you. He doesn’t. He’s just doing what kids do: being preoccupied, pushing limits, or having trouble regulating emotions. Obviously you should not tolerate meanness or disrespect. Remember, though, that you are an easy target because you’re safe. You will never stop loving your teen, and he knows it. Taking things personally leads to anger, frustration, hurt, and guilt. It’s these feelings that destroy your equilibrium, not your child. They also lead you to make bad decisions. In the heat of an argument remember this is really not about you, it’s about your child. If he does hurt your feelings, give it some time and approach him later, when a productive conversation is more likely to happen.
3. Don’t make predictions about their future.
Projecting your teen’s current behavior onto their future self is futile at best and harmful at worst. Things will change dramatically between now and then. Worrying that your son will never learn to clean his room, brush his teeth, or be on time is what psychologists call “catastrophic thinking.” These types of thoughts have little to do with reality, but a lot to do with your anxiety. Worrying about their future keeps you from effectively parenting the child you have now. Kids also need their parents to be hopeful about their future, especially since they worry more about it than you think. It’s a lot more helpful to say “I know you will eventually figure this out” than “How will you ever be successful?”
4. Don’t model losing control to someone struggling to keep his cool.
Remember that during adolescence self-control and self-regulation are emerging abilities. We often think of teens as almost finished adults—like a cake that just needs a little more time to bake. More often, however, your son is like a toddler in an adult's body. If you keep that in mind when he is screaming at you about how unfair it is to make him do the dishes, it will be easier to maintain decorum. Getting him to help out around the house is a good idea, but showing him how to stay calm while resolving conflicts is even more important. He won’t be able to follow your lead consistently, not yet, but eventually, he will get it.
5. Don’t engage in power struggles.
A teenager is a power struggle waiting to happen. It’s a way for him to assert his independence and feel more grown-up (even when acting like a child). Teens will always win battles of will because they have everything to gain and nothing to lose. It’s best to avoid power struggles altogether by giving your son a choice. When you are engaged in a tug of war about whether he will have dinner with his grandparents (and miss a night out with friends) remember it’s not about the issue at hand, it’s a battle of wills. Offer him a choice—he can join you for dinner and see his friends next weekend, or he can see his friends this evening, and be grounded next weekend. This may sound sneaky, but it's not because the choice is real. He may decide that whatever his friends are doing is so important that it's worth being grounded next weekend. If that is the case you have to let him go out, but make sure you follow through on the consequence
6. Don’t compensate for a spouse you think is too lenient or too strict.
Many parents tell me they have to be either too soft or too strict in order to make up for the opposite extreme in their spouse. However, compensating for a spouse creates more problems than it solves. First, it puts you in the middle of your son’s relationship with his other parent. This is a violation of boundaries. He needs to learn how to negotiate a relationship with both of you. It also compromises your ability to make good parenting decisions. Kids need parents who are consistent, firm, but also reasonable. If your spouse can not be this parent, at least you can. Until you and your spouse can get on the same page make up for their failings by being a good parent, not one who makes the same mistakes they do.
7. Don’t talk when you need to listen.
Listening is one of the most powerful things one human being can do for another. It expresses support and unconditional love. Too many times parents jump in to teach a lesson or solve a problem when kids just want to be heard. Silence is a powerful tool to get someone else to talk. By listening you can learn more about your child’s situation so you don’t make assumptions and can eventually give better advice. Don’t just listen to see things from your son’s perspective, listen to understand how their perspective makes sense to them. Ask “how” or “what” questions to get him talking, but stay away from “why” because it can make him feel defensive. “how did you get a D on your Chemistry test?” is a very different question than “why did you get a D?” “What can you do to bring up your grade,” is a much better response than “you need to see the teacher for help after school every day and study an extra half hour each night.”
8. Don’t do things for your teen that he can do for himself.
A patient was recently very upset when his son decided, two weeks into his freshman year, that he wasn’t ready for college. He and his wife offered their son as much support as they could over the phone, drove up to see him, and encouraged him to seek help at school. However, as hard as it was, they let him make the decision, and once he did, they did not rescue him. Rather, they told him to talk to the dean about taking leave, fill out the necessary paperwork, and call them when he was ready to be picked up. I was very impressed that even when their son was facing such difficulty, they found a way to let him own his problem and figure out the solution. The next week my patient told me “It was probably one of the hardest things we’ve had to do as parents because he was in so much pain. However, it gave us tremendous pride and confidence to see him handle himself independently under such difficult circumstances.”
Take this challenge: Write down everything you do for your son in a week. You might need a lot of paper. At the end of the week review the list. Cross off everything your son can do for himself, and stop doing it. Circle the things he can do part of, and let him to that part. Continue to do the things that are left. I promise that you will have a much lighter load the following week, and your son won’t know what hit him.
9. Don’t make teasing your teen a habit.
An occasional jab can help your son take himself less seriously, but it should not be staple of your relationship. Teens are very sensitive and even though they might act like its OK, it probably isn’t. However, this advice does not go both ways. Teens love to tease or make fun of their parents. Here is something not to take personally. It’s a way for them to establish an independent identity. It also gives you an opportunity to model a good-humored response, which he needs to master since his friends are ribbing them all the time.
10. Don’t violate his privacy.
This is tricky advice in the digital age. Should you track your kid, read his texts, search his room? There are good arguments on either side. However, I am in favor of respecting his privacy, at least until a serious problem presents itself. Snooping blows through boundaries and kids resent this intrusion for years. It's also not very effective--there's a good chance he will find a way to outsmart you. I know teens who tell their parents they will be at a friend’s house, leave their phones there, and then go to a party. Ultimately snooping destroys trust and makes most problems worse. Parents have information they can’t always act on and sometimes draw the wrong conclusions. Furthermore, I have never seen a kid stop getting high or vaping because a parent searched their room. They just got sneakier. However, there may be times when you do need to jump in and find out what your son is up to. If you think he might hurt himself, don’t hesitate to do everything you can to intervene. Otherwise, make sure you have good cause to violate his privacy—not just your own anxiety. Then give him fair warning, and turn off his phone if he does not give you access. This does give him the chance to erase any incriminating texts, but it will let him know you are watching without betraying his trust.
Do be kind to yourself.
We have all made these mistakes, and will make plenty more. As much as we would like to be one, there is no such thing as a perfect parent. Do keep this in mind: parenting is not a skill, it’s a relationship. One of the most important qualities of a good relationship is being able to tolerate one another's mistakes, learn from them, apologize when necessary, and move on.
If you trust the relationship, your son will know you are there for him, but will also have enough space to make some mistakes of his own. How ironic is that?
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