So, you have a teenager. Right about now, you’re realizing that lingering hugs and “I drew this for you, Mommy” are a thing of the past only to be replaced with eye rolling and “You just don’t understand me.” Step one: don’t panic and don’t give up — this too shall pass. Step two: adopt new techniques, especially when it comes to communication.
Parents want to know what’s going on in their child’s life, and teens want the exact opposite. So what do you do? We enlisted the help of Brad Sjostrom, LCSW, MAC, behavioral expert at West Pines Behavioral Health and dad to two teenage daughters, to learn how parents can foster a safe and open home environment where teens actually want to talk to their parents. These are his seven tips.
1. Do Things With Them
Skip the interrogation and go bowling. According to Sjostrom, “Do anything but barrage them with questions, no matter how great your impulse is.” The best relationships are built on a foundation of shared activities, so get to know your teen in the context of an activity they enjoy. Not only does this help with long-term trust and open communication but you can also learn about what makes her tick by observing how she handles certain situations. It’s also important for teens to know that these activities aren’t just a thinly veiled disguise to drill for information. Over time, conversation and light questioning can happen naturally without feeling intrusive.
2. Listen More, Talk Less
If you really want to know what’s going on in your teen’s life, sit back and let the information come to you. Teens are more likely to be open with their parents if they don’t feel pressured to share information. Pay close attention to clues that they’re ready to talk, and make yourself available to listen.
Pro tip: Practice your poker face. Your ability to listen without judgment is what will secure you a place in the next conversation. Drop the scowls or gasps if possible and try not to end each conversation with unsolicited advice.
3. Open the Lines of Communication
As a parent of teens, you’re constantly torn between wanting them to like you and wanting to keep them alive. You have to set boundaries, but still maintain the lines of communication when rules are broken. Let’s say your teen rode with a risky driver (a clear violation), but he feels guilty and tells you. Don’t freak out and go full discipline. Let him know how happy you are that he’s safe and that he felt comfortable enough to tell you.
It also helps to let your kids know that you, too, make mistakes. Of course you’re not perfect, but it’s important to let your teens know that. Apologize, and then also let them know you’ll probably mess up again in the future. Parents don’t get a trial run, so there’s no way you’ll get it right on the first try every time. Admitting your own humanity and all its messiness suddenly makes even the most “perfect” parent more approachable.
4. Don’t Give Up on Family Time
When teens get busy with sports, clubs and homework, it’s easy to let family time fall by the wayside. But new research suggests that increased parental involvement can play an important role in your child’s most volatile decade. “The teenage years used to be seen as a time for parents to take a step page and let your kids assert their independence. This could not be further from the truth,” say Sjostrom. “Now, we know that the more involved parents stay connected, the better it is for the teen and the family as a whole.” Home can be a safe haven with no deadlines, social pressure or expectation to perform. Need a place to start? Sjostrom suggest family meals. “Dinner is a perfect time to get teens talking. And it could be about anything! The more comfortable they feel talking about everyday things, the easier it is to broach harder topics if and when they come up.”
5. Model the Behaviors You Want to Teach
Are you sick of your teen spending all of her time with her nose glued to a screen? Before you get mad, take stock of your own technology habits. Do you scroll through news headlines or Instagram while dinner cooks? Do you automatically reach for your phone at stoplights? Technology is a real challenge in 2018. It’s necessary for school and society, but it also has innumerable damaging effects. Want your family present for dinner? Make sure you always put yours away first, then ask the same of your kids.
6. Teach Stress Management and Coping Mechanisms Early
Being a teenager today isn’t easy. Some teens fill every waking hour with extracurriculars in the hopes of getting into their dream college. Earning a spot on the varsity team now requires year-round practices. Add in mounting social pressure to have the right friends, look a certain way, like the right music and what do you get? A lot of stress on a maturing and vulnerable brain.
Teens need to learn stress management, and it’s up to you as a parent to teach and model these self-soothing skills. Meditation, exercise or learning how to say no so you don’t burn out are all important techniques. Research shows that coping strategies teens use at this stage can become ingrained in the brain’s circuitry as lifelong patterns, setting them up for success down the road.
7. Applaud the Effort
Although they might not act like they care, research shows teens blossom when you praise their efforts, not just their natural abilities. Maybe your math whiz spent hours studying for a history test only to receive a B-. Sure, it’s not the best grade in the world, but she truly applied herself to the subject matter and the task at hand. That should be commended. In the course of life, we’ll need to do many things we’re not naturally good at or enjoy doing (taxes, anyone?). It’s how we handle these challenges that defines us, not our innate talents. And at the end of the day, your kids still want your approval.
The underlying theme behind all these tips is the necessity to spend lots of time with your child as early on as possible. Close relationships don’t happen overnight and they certainly won’t start in the throws of adolescence.
But there’s also this reassurance: Most adolescents turn out to be productive members of society. It may be awful right now, but it does get better. There can be dark periods, but most often kids turn out just fine.