- Teenagers are old enough to make mistakes and learn from them.
- We cannot control what teenagers say or do, but we do have a say in what we say or do in response to them.
- Carefully exercising that power can do wonders in the parenting of teens.
Parenting teenagers can be tricky. They want to be grown-up right now, but they still need that parental support as they navigate life challenges and pitfalls. Here are some tips for parents of teens to keep in mind:
1. "They’re big enough to fail."
A riff on the catchphrase “too big to fail,” this tip speaks to allowing children the space to make their own decisions and to experience natural consequences. They're old enough at 13, 15, or 19 years old to mess up and learn something from it. If parents rescue them every time, teens learn that there are no consequences for risky or irresponsible ventures. For them to learn to be independent gradually, we have to be able to stand back and encourage them to be responsible for themselves.
2. Stay in communication, even when it seems lame.
Every therapist knows the value of asking open-ended questions. But even when parents adopt this strategy and are scintillating conversationalists, teens can be amazing minimalists. A solid query, such as “How was school today?” can elicit a response of “Good” and nothing more.
This can be frustrating or just plain tedious after months (or years), but my advice is to keep at it . Quitting altogether can be perceived as a lack of interest or caring or, worse yet, an indication that one is too distracted or busy to invest time or energy in the supervisory function of being a parent. So, hailing frequencies open!
3. “Angry” teens can be sad, depressed, and grieving teens.
Teenagers are famous for being rebels with or without a cause and can erupt over just about anything. But before diagnosing a teen as rageful or oppositional, consider recent events that may have contributed to emotional distress or an agitated mood. Has a family member or friend fallen ill, or passed on, in recent months? Has an important friend or romantic interest moved away or moved on? Is low confidence or low self-esteem being camouflaged by noisy bravado?
Consider that your teen may be upset about something they aren’t ready to talk about or may not even realize is upsetting them yet. Be there for opportunities to explore and reflect on the sources of their agitation, disappointment, or sadness.
4. Do not match or echo disrespectful, abusive speech or actions.
Teens say things we never would have said to our parents. But we also walked in snow up to our hips uphill both ways from school every day (or at least that’s how we remember it). Even if we really never dreamed saying out loud the things teenagers say to us nowadays, and it is disrespectful, remember these two words: Don’t panic!
So many parenting mistakes come out of a place of fear that our children are getting away with “crimes” against their progenitors, and this “must be squashed and squelched at all costs.” But symmetrical escalation is the real disaster waiting to happen. We’re supposedly the adults here and must try to act like it, modelling emotional regulation and calm and coolness under pressure, even when your teen just called you fat idiot. Even if you’re not fat or an idiot, part of us doesn’t think that they should be able to “get away” with saying things like that.
Nevertheless, don't yell, curse, or physically escalate the situation. After some ridiculously abusive utterance or behavior, calmly state that that was unpleasant and ask about other, better ways of handling stress or frustration. Then consider our old friend, natural consequences.
5. Catch them doing good stuff.
It’s easy to be an armchair critic, ready with the “gotcha” when someone messes up. When it comes to organization and cleanliness in their rooms, my boys do not have it together, but I don’t tell them they’re total slobs. They already know that they are slobs, and relentlessly complaining about it isn’t going to get me or them anywhere.
Instead, their parents keep their bathroom clean and organized, and we also make our bed, and once in a great while, one of the boys makes their bed, too. What’s harder than being a constant critic is remaining expectant for the things our teens get right, and when they at least make an effort.
My youngest’s primary chore is taking out the trash and recycling each week. It was a chore for us reminding him over and over for years to do it, but now he consistently does it without prodding, and this is something worth noting. Observing it, and noting it out loud, serve to reinforce the things you would like to see more of in the future.
We cannot control what others (i.e., teens) say or do, but we do have a huge say in what we say or do. Exercising that power can do wonders in our parenting of teens.