Jonelle’s Top Ten Tips for Parenting Teens — Plus a Bonus Tip!
One of the most challenging transitions of our lives is that of going from childhood to adolescence. Radical brain changes and rampant hormones can turn your adorable, loving good-natured child into a sassy, sullen near-stranger who thinks you are nothing short of an annoying embarrassment. In a flash, it seems, you drop from beloved king or queen to foolish court jester. Perhaps even more challenging than transitioning from being a child to a teen is the transition parents must make from nurturing an adorable little one to riding the bucking bronco of parenting an adolescent.
Here are some tips that may help!
1. If you think your kid has lost her mind, that’s because she has. Literally.
Radical changes occur in the adolescent brain fueled by a flood of hormones that your child has never experienced before. The best description I have heard is that the child brain is crashing into the adult brain and, during adolescence, the two brains fight for dominance until the adult brain finally wins out. The “adult” parts of the brain that govern impulse control, decision-making, understanding of consequences, balancing of responsibility with freedom, etc., suddenly start growing at lightning speed. In the meantime, the playful, irresponsible, impulsive, thrill-seeking, “magical” child brain is not going to give up without a struggle. Many parents experience their teen going from being cooperative and making good decisions one minute, to deciding that it would be a really good idea to moon people out the back of the school bus window the next. Because so much growth is occurring so quickly, this is a time when kids’ brains are very easily and deeply influenced — and very easily damaged. (That’s why teaching kids values and helping them to avoid drugs, alcohol and other brain bruisers is so important.)
2. Be a friendly parent, but not a friend.
(This is the single most important tip.)
Perhaps one of the most damaging things I see as a counselor is parents being their kids’ friends rather than doing the hard and sometimes very unpopular job of following through on rules, consequences and limits. It is a parent’s job and is absolutely crucial in helping your teen transition into a happy, healthy, responsible adult. If you don’t set expectations and follow through with meaningful consequences, how can your teen really, deeply trust you in the way he needs to during this wild transition in his life? Having your popularity disappear when your child comes into puberty can feel like a real loss. But your willingness to do what’s best for your child despite his protests shows him that you love him more than you love your transient status with him. Just because your teen throws a fit when you set a limit, it doesn’t mean that you should go back on the limit you have set. I remember a time when, as a teen, I screamed (for the first and last time) at my mother, “I hate you!” for delivering a firm consequence when she found I had been hitchhiking (yes, it’s true, I hitchhiked, but don’t tell anybody). She calmly replied, “That’s fine, dear, it’s not your job to love me. It’s my job to love you and I certainly do. It is, however, your job to respect me and to obey me, and regardless of how you feel about me, you’re still grounded for the next month. Now please go empty the dishwasher.” I was sometimes furious with my mom, but I never for a moment doubted that she loved me, had my best interests at heart and knew her values and intended to clearly convey them to me.
3. Don’t assume that you know everything about your teen.
Teenagers can be very, very good at hiding from parents that which they don’t want them to know. It is natural and healthy for teens to want to expand their world, yet they may not have the maturity to safely navigate what they find along the way. Parenting through the cacophony of external influences can be very challenging today. Know your kid’s friends. Have them come to your house. Acquaint yourself with the parents of your kid’s friends, and their lifestyles. Are they parents whose values you agree with and who keep an eye on things, or are they smoking pot with their kids and letting them run around at all hours of the day and night? Your kids have access to very questionable media content wherever they go. But it doesn’t have to be through your computer or television, or the cell phone you pay for. Check histories regularly and install effective parental controls. And don’t assume that your teen can’t find a way around those controls. (They are probably more computer-savvy than you are!) Make sure that you have full access to cell phones, social networking websites, etc. And be aware that you may not have full access just because they say you do. Check them regularly and use questionable content as teaching opportunities. Keep the computer in a common area, even if your teen begs for one in his or her bedroom. Be aware of the content of the music your child is listening to and the computer games he or she is playing. And set limits on the amount of time your teen spends staring at a screen. Remember, it’s about brain development and what is being wired into your child’s consciousness during this very vulnerable time for the brain. As your child reaches out into the world, you will have less and less control over what they are exposed to. So teaching solid values along the way is very important.
4. Listen more than you talk. And when you do talk, talk softly and with authority.
When a child becomes a teen, she often has a lot more to say than before, but may not have the words to express her thought and feelings, and may feel that nobody is really listening, anyhow. In our eagerness to make sure our kids are on the straight and narrow, we adults can make the mistake of telling rather than showing, and lecturing rather than listening. Ask lots of open-ended questions (questions that require more than a yes-or-no answer) in a non-confrontational way, and when your teen starts to talk, don’t react, respond. Take a lot of deep, quiet breaths if what she is telling you isn’t to your liking, and carefully consider how you will reply. If your kid talks, rather than closing down and shutting you out, you have the opportunity to convey values and to help her understand the natural consequences of her behavior. Kids also need opportunities to participate in decisions that are made regarding them, though of course you have final authority. Just because you ask your teen what she wants, it doesn’t mean she is making the decision. But it does mean that she feels that you’re treating her like she and her opinion matter. So when your kid says she wants to become an exotic dancer when she turns 18, take a lot of deep breaths, listen to her reasoning, and use it as an opportunity to help her understand long-term consequences and values. (And then go into the bathroom and scream into a towel.)
5. As often as humanly possible, catch your teen being good.
I hear from my teen clients over and over that their parents only notice the negatives about them and never point out the positives. Teens have used up plenty of tissue in my office tearfully telling me that the only comment their parents had about their almost-straight-A report card was, “Why did you get a B in that class?” I often give parents the challenge of affirming the positive five times for every one time they point out the negative. (John Gottman’s couples research suggests that a single negative interaction withdraws five positive interactions from the emotional bank account of a relationship. I think this may apply to parent-child relationships, too.) Those who do it report a real transformation in their kids. At a time of life when outside influences are crawling out of the woodwork to assault your child’s self-concept, teens need positive feedback from you more than from anyone. They thrive on it. It nourishes their blossoming souls. And if they don’t get it from you, they will go elsewhere, even if they have to resort to negative influences for approval. So notice the positives about your teen, and tell him, loudly and clearly and often, even if they are tiny things. Because a realistically positive self concept can give a person healthy confidence in adulthood. When you do point out the negative, try to point it out in terms of the kid’s behavior, rather than pointing to deficits of character. For instance, say, “You know, I’m getting really annoy that you keep forgetting to shut the door behind you. What can we do to help you remember?” instead of, “What’s the matter with you, anyhow? Why can’t you remember to shut the door? Are you stupid?” The difference in impact is obvious.
6. Don’t avoid conversations that make you squirm.
The world today is much more complicated for teens than it was when we were kids. (And it was complicated enough then!) The amount of information coming at teens is much greater and its quality is often much more questionable. Conversations about substance abuse, sexual activity and appropriate social behavior can often make a parent squirm. That’s okay, go ahead and squirm. And then have the conversation. The Socratic method is often effective. Engage in a dialogue, rather than a one-sided lecture. Ask your kid if he or she knows the possible consequences for certain behaviors, listen carefully and calmly to the response, and then correct and fill in the information gaps. Let your kid know the dangers of certain behaviors in clear and simple terms. State your expectations and rules clearly, and describe the consequences for not abiding by them, both in terms of natural consequences such as brain damage, car accidents, pregnancy, STD’s, loss of reputation, etc., and the consequences that will be delivered by you.
I have a book in my office with pictures of what actually happens to the brain when a person abuses substances. It is amazing the impact these pictures have in deterring a kid from engaging in risky behaviors with substances. There is no substitute for good, accurate informtaion. So listen, educate, set the rules, and be prepared to deliver and follow through on consequences.
7. Don’t ignore the two-ton rhinoceros stampeding through the living room.
It can be tough to know the difference between normal adolescent behavior and red flag behaviors that signal a problem. Sudden changes in sleep patterns, dressing or grooming, rule compliance, friend choices, or increased secretiveness or conduct problems may be signs that your teen is engaging in substance abuse or is struggling with a mood or other mental health disorder. I have a friend who continually ignored the fact that her daughter had suddenly started dressing very provocatively and coming home later and later. When it finally became apparent that she was using drugs and alcohol, my friend failed to set limits or state clear values, fearing that her child would stop being her friend (see above). She insisted that it was just a phase her daughter was going through, that she would outgrow it. Unfortunately, the “phase” has lasted into her daughter’s mid-twenties. She became substance dependent in her teens and has stayed that way. I often wonder who this young woman might have been had her mother taken the red flags seriously and had she had the backbone to decisively intervene. If you are noticing something, or even if your gut says something is wrong, it cannot hurt to get your teen into a mental health professional for an evaluation, or at least a look-see.
8. If you want respect, be respectable.
Don’t, by any means, buy your kids alcohol, encourage them to drink or engage in drug or alcohol use with them. If you don’t behave in sensible ways, how can you expect your kid to? If you yell and scream and carry on at people, then expect your teen to be polite, does that make sense? If you engage in dishonest or illegal behavior, can you really expect your kid to take you seriously when you tell him not to? If you tell your kid not to engage in substance abuse, then come home every night and drink a six-pack or polish of a bottle of wine, what are you teaching? Or if you carry on inappropriately with people sexually, is it realistic to expect anything different from someone whose hormones are on turbo-drive? “Do as I say and not as I do” just doesn’t work. If you are having a hard time behaving in a way that provides good role modeling for your child, get help. Your kid is worth it. For better or for worse, you are the very most important influence in his life.
9. There is no substitute for positive time spent with Y-O-U.
I will sometimes ask a parent, “When was the last time you shut of the phones, shut off the computer, shut off the TV, and just spent time together?” It is natural for teens to start to separate, individuate and emancipate from you. That’s their job. But it is absolutely essential that they don’t do so too quickly. In the context of positive values and clear limits, it’s essential that you take time to share happy times and have fun with your kid. This can be anything from playing board games, to taking a walk, to baking cookies, to just sitting and talking. In working with some Mormon families over the years, I have discovered something many Mormon families do weekly called Family Home Evening. This is a time for togetherness, fun and spiritual connection. And, growing up in a big family with five teenagers at one time (can you imagine?), one thing my parents insisted on was that everybody be home together on Sundays from 4 pm on. We’d have a brief family meeting (during which our allowances would be mercilessly slashed if we hadn’t done our chores the previous week), then we’d eat dinner and spend time together. Sometimes squabbles would break out, but we’d work through them. As a result of my parents insisting we stay connected through our adolescences, my brothers, sisters and I are still closely connected, and that brings us all great comfort and strength.
Another thing that I strongly recommend is that you sit down around a table together to eat dinner every evening that you can. Shut off the TV and the cell phones. Set the table. And, if you are so inclined, take a moment to give thanks for the food and for each other. If you are not used to doing this, it might feel a little awkward at first, but there is no substitute for sitting together in this way on a daily basis. It bonds you as a family and reminds you that you belong to each other, even if you are a single parent with a single kid. Be sure to keep the conversation positive and light. It helps with digestion!
My dad used to quietly wake me up once in a while early on a Saturday morning and sneak me out of the house while the rest of the family was still sleeping to go get donuts. We’d go to a little shop down by the river and sit on a wall and look at the water flow by and talk. I felt so special to him at those moments, just the two of us dangling our legs, munching our donuts and talking about nothing much at all — or so I thought. Then we’d take donuts home for the rest of the family. Even now, as I look back on those outings, my heart is filled with warmth, love and respect for my dad and his values. Those secret donut outings did several things for me. First, they made me feel that I was worth my father’s time and undivided attention. Second, they gave my dad an opportunity to talk with me about things that he couldn’t talk about in the chaos of an eight-person family. Third, they gave him a chance to know what I was up to. And, fourth, they gave me a lifelong obsession with maple bars. (I didn’t learn until I was an adult that he took this sort of time, in one way or another, with all six of his kids!)
10. If you are going from inconsistent parenting to consistent parenting, don’t expect miraculous overnight compliance.
If you have been in the habit of giving in to your teen, you have trained him not to believe you when you set a rule or deliver a consequence. If you are ready to make the shift from inconsistency to consistency, clearly and kindly explain to your child that you are making the change because it is in his best interests, and that you expect his cooperation and compliance. At first, your teen won’t take you seriously. Stay with it. Don’t buckle. It may be very uncomfortable, but remember that you only have to outlast the kid for one second. Then the tide starts to turn. Hold your boundary firmly, kindly and with confidence in your kid’s ability to adapt over time to the new and improved ground rules.
I promise you a bonus tip, and here it is!
11. Remember, this, too, shall pass.
Keep in mind that adolescence doesn’t last forever and that one day you will wake up and your kid will most likely be a caring, loving, responsible adult capable of taking care of herself and others. It has been a joy for me to work with unruly teens and to have them come back to say hi years later, all grown up and self-possessed and really appreciating that their parents didn’t give up on them through the challenging years. The adult brain almost always wins out in the end. So hang in there and have confidence in your kid’s ability to mature. And, in the meantime, by all mean, keep your sense of humor!