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When the Best Protection Is Connection

Why your relationship with your teen is worth the hard work of change.

Key points

  • As children grow older, the parent-child relationship naturally changes to meet the young person's need for autonomy.
  • It's important to let go of the need to hold your child back and allow them to make mistakes and learn from them. 
  • Focus on connecting with your child, being a supportive presence, and listening more and talking less.

A longtime client got on our video call this evening and let out a long exhale. Talking about the week’s events with her two teenagers, she summed things up like this, “I’m learning how to parent in a whole new way, and it’s really hard.”

What I sought to name in return is that “hard” doesn’t even begin to describe the job of parenting teens. I would add exhausting, challenging, disconcerting, and dysregulating to throw just a few more adjectives on the fire. But what I hope comes through when the smoke clears is so much more. I’m looking for words that reach deep inside the hearts and souls of tired, worried, uncertain parents. Words that express what a real human-to-human, parent-to-teen connection can be. Humbling. Inspiring. Rewarding. Worthwhile.

Here are a few guidelines I’ve learned not only from working with parents of teens but from road testing them with my own two kids, now 18 and 20:

The best tool you have to protect them is the strength of your connection.

You want to keep them from harm, shield them from mistakes, and generally reduce their pain and suffering. When they were little, that meant bumpers on the corners of the coffee table and keeping those tiny Legos out of their mouths. But now, guess what? Those ways no longer work. And the more you try to protect them by restricting what they do and where they go, the more creative they will become at finding a way to get their needs for novelty, exploration, and independence met.

Now, of course, I’m not talking about extremes, and in no way am I suggesting you can’t have rules and expectations. What I am saying is that as they seek greater autonomy, you may think you should hold them back. You might insist you drop them off instead of letting them ride a bike or take a train, or you might reflexively veto spontaneous plans because they didn’t let you know in advance.

These impulses are wired up from all of the parenting you’ve done to date, and with the onset of adolescence, it’s like your old parenting rulebook suddenly became outdated overnight. What’s so stress-inducing is that there is no Amazon delivery with an updated version. This is very much a DIY project about knowing who your child is and tailoring your plan to meet their evolving needs. Connection fosters communication—and communication keeps you informed and in the loop when your influence matters most.

Source: VH-Studio/Shutterstock

Pay attention and give them some space, and you might be pleasantly surprised.

There’s a decent chance they can manage their schoolwork and schedule, anticipate and verbalize their needs, and plan and manage their social relationships. This is a good thing, parents—you actually get to give your prefrontal cortex a break, as most teens can pick up the bulk of the work of organizing and planning their own lives. Let them take the lead while you get another cup of coffee. They may not do everything the way you would or in a way that’s comfortable for you, but that’s on you.

It’s time to downshift from accomplishing tasks to offering presence. Your teenager very much wants and needs your attention. Being curious, open, and non-judgmental all help strengthen the infrastructure of your relationship. That’s the gold ring.

Focus on what you want, not what you don’t.

Ever notice how you get your kid in the car or have their attention over dinner, and a laundry list of all the things they are not doing right or could be doing better comes tripping off your tongue? It’s as if someone pressed play, and out it comes. Don’t stay up too late. Don’t forget to turn in your work. Don’t talk to your brother like that. Don’t stare at your phone. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Don’t forget to take out the trash. Don’t do any of the dumb things I did as a teenager. (Only this last one is usually more of a thought bubble than an actual statement.)

I’ve worked with many parents who come to me in distress, worried about the risks their teen might be taking or be tempted to take, or about the chance their teen might repeat mistakes that they’ve already made. I get this worry, but I can’t assure anyone their kid is not going to stumble or fall. What I can do is turn the conversation to what their child is doing well and what they’d like to see happen, as opposed to all the things they’d like to prevent or stop. Give your attention and support to where you want them to grow, and watch what happens. When all else fails, simply try saying less and listening more.

You are in new territory, but you’re not without tools. Your child’s brain is going through a period of spectacular development rivaled only by their toddler years. As they grow toward the young adults they will be in just a few years, you have an opportunity to let your relationship grow along with them. Build up your support network, and give yourself some credit. As my client said so well, learning new ways of parenting is hard—and also totally worth it.

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