Parents worry a lot about teens. They worry their teen will get into trouble, that their teen won’t be ready for adulthood, that they don’t matter anymore with their teen. We’ve learned that teens worry a lot too, and good communication can help parents and teens work this out.
Teens are mostly worried that they are going to be treated like a baby forever, and at the same time they worry that they aren’t ready yet to be a grown-up. They worry about grades, school or finding a job. They worry about sex, drugs and alcohol. They worry about their families. They worry about their friends, but mostly they worry about themselves. The hard part about communicating with a teen is that she doesn’t always tell you what she’s worried about. This is because, for many teens, letting a parent in on the problem means that the teen can’t handle it herself; in other words, she’s still a little kid. Often the most that parents get to see is an uncommunicative or irritable teen, and the parent is left wondering what they said to make their child so angry.
The first step is recognizing that this stage doesn’t last forever. Once teens start feeling more comfortable about taking on grown-up stuff, usually around ages 17 to 22, they feel less that talking to a parent equals “being a baby”. In the meantime, here are some things that we find make communicating easier:
Make Your Point Fast
When the lecture starts, teens stop listening. Parents sometimes worry about making sure their child “understands how important this is…”. Believe us, chances are your teen already knows how you feel. Keep your message short, calm and to the point. “I expect you not to smoke. If I find out you have been smoking, we will talk more about it. If you need help or have questions you can always come to me about it”.
Teens often think parents are angry, even when it isn’t true. If you really are angry, admit it and ask yourself if you can calm down enough to talk it out. If the answer is no, put off conversation for a time you can be calm. Sometimes teens can be overly sensitive, and they read a lot of things into a simple sentence or question. It’s hard to put up with, but be patient and let your teen know you’re not angry. Chances are the “You’re always angry with me!” tactic is really about your teen worrying (there it is again!) that he or she is messing up in some way.
Allow for Space
Don’t expect your teen to tell you everything. Teens need to feel they can manage things without parents. Sometimes they act like they are allergic to parents to point out to everybody, and mostly themselves, how grown-up they are. Let them do this. Don’t listen in on conversations, don’t read diaries, don’t snoop. On the other hand, explain there are some things you need to know, like where, who, when and what they’re doing (including online). We know, it’s tricky.
Take Care of Yourself (and Let Stuff Go)
Teens can be very thoughtless and hurtful at times. It’s OK, and even important, to let your teen know he made you angry or hurt your feelings, but don’t keep the fight going or say hurtful things back “to teach him a lesson”. You are the adult. Adults take care of their own feelings. Children, including teenagers, feel overwhelmed at the idea of being a grown-up or taking care of one. Saying to your teen “I’m so upset, but you can make me feel better by…”, in other words, making him responsible for fixing how you feel, is too hard for your teen to handle.
Teens become very good at catching parents at making mistakes, fudging the truth or not always living up to their own rules. This is part of how a teen learns to look critically at herself and the world. Be honest, and admit mistakes. Showing your teen that you know you’re not perfect, and that you’re OK with that, teaches her that it’s OK if she‘s not perfect either. It also teaches honesty and builds trust between you and your teen.
Most importantly, always tell your teen how much you love him or her, no matter what. Communicate!