There is very little about raising a child that prepares us to raise a teen.
We tend to hit our parenting stride when our children are around age 9, 10, 11. Then, the child enters adolescence and all of the rules suddenly change. It’s like plate tectonics. The earth shakes, and your child wakes up a different person. And this requires you to be a different kind of parent.
As a psychologist who specializes in treating teens, I have helped scores of adolescents and their parents navigate the rough waters of adolescence over the last twenty years. I am now the parent of two teenagers myself, and I think this puts me in a unique situation. Shouldn’t I be really good at this, since it’s my professional specialty? The answer is: Hmm. It’s just not the same when it’s your own child.
As a psychologist, I call children’s natural, gradual detachment from their parents throughout adolescence “individuation.” As a parent, I call it simply “loss.” I’ve never felt more alone in my house than I do now. My children, ages 17 and 14, far less often choose, unprompted, to speak to me. When I ask my 17-year-old how her day was, the answer is typically an eye-roll. My son, whose sunny disposition and warm heart has always been my consolation during his older sister’s natural distancing, is now only “himself” about 20% of the time. The other 80%, he’s a sullen, preoccupied, hungry, headphone-covered young fellow.
These two went from, as young children, seeking a kiss and hug from me before leaving for school in the morning, to tolerating it, to outright refusing it. When I walk in the door after a long day’s work, only one person offers a greeting: my husband. It’s hard. It’s lonely. It’s thankless.
It might sound like I’m complaining, and I guess I am. But I would also like to acknowledge the great things about having teenagers. For example, I now have considerably more free time. My daughter drives herself and her brother places. Neither seems to need me as much. I get to spend more quality time with my husband, doing fun activities that we both enjoy. Exciting things are happening, as my daughter has started to think about and explore the process of choosing a college. It is exciting to watch little babies grow into almost-adulthood, and the amazing people that they are becoming.
Now I would like to share some of the lessons that I have learned along the way. Each of these Tips for Parenting Teenagers represents things that are distinctly different from parenting young children. I learned them the hard way, through my own personal experience; then I ran them through the sieve of professional research and experience. So you can rest assured that all of these tips are doubly tried and true, personally and professionally.
- Choose your battles carefully. Younger children are more dependent upon you, so you have more intrinsic power. Your bond is more consistent, and you can afford to address things as they come up. On the other hand, your teenager is trying to assert independence, and needs to feel a sense of his own power and authority. That makes it very important to preserve your bond, and to fight only the battles that really matter.
- Don’t over-respond to your teen’s moods: Teens are moody in a way that younger children are not. And their moods can be very powerful in the household. It’s important to give them the space to be in a bad mood without getting angry in return or trying to “fix” it for them. Often, their moods have nothing to do with their parents. They are more related to hormones, or to simply being an adolescent.
- Let your teen choose your moments to communicate with her: With an adolescent, timing is everything. Your teen will tell you what moments to choose. Don’t try to talk to your teen when she’s tired or stressed or moody or seems to be shut down. Instead, when she seems open, put down everything you are doing and talk to her then.
- Make sure rules and expectations are clear and well-communicated. I recommend writing them down and posting them on the refrigerator. Teenagers are masters of manipulation. They are great at blurring, fudging, forgetting. Writing things makes them more concrete and inviolable.
- Give your teen room to grow while keeping the emotional connection intact. This is the most difficult tip of all. Your teen doesn’t want to need you, and doesn’t want to want you. It’s your job to tolerate the rejection, and simply be there for him, no matter what. Never reject your teen.
- Walk the line. Your adolescent is either approaching or at the line that separates child from adult. He’s confused by this. His roles are changing and his brain is changing. Your job now is to walk that line with him. As his parent, this line becomes the one between freedom and rules; between dependence and independence; between family and friends; between home and the rest of the world. To be on that line with your teen means tolerating the confusion and discomfort that he feels himself. So set limits and enforce them, while taking your teen’s personal characteristics and needs into account. Let him make mistakes, but not too many. Encourage his peer friendships, but check up on him when you have concerns or doubts about them. In other words, back off. But not too much.