When I was a teenager, I had an insatiable desire to “fight.” Nearly any directive or request that came from adults, authority figures, or anyone who seemingly had “more power” than I, was met with an indelible resistance wrought with righteousness. For example, the more I saw my parents squirm when I listened to music with explicit lyrics, the more I listened. My identity had predominantly become the embodiment of the “anti-Dan and Gini” platform. Anything they wanted me to do, I did the opposite. What my parents didn’t understand at that time was that my behavior was an exaggerated response to a very healthy process of differentiation from the family. Teenagers answer the question “who am I” from within the background of their family – it is very difficult to create oneself in a vacuum. Think about it this way, every organism on the planet creates itself in relationship to “other” – or, to what is familiar. Every organism differentiates to survive. A teenagers’ task is to do the same thing, redefine themselves, for themselves, so that they are equipped to take on the challenges and deal with the stresses (and rewards) of living an independent life.
Now, one of the main tasks for parents of teenagers is how to facilitate this process without teenagers defining themselves solely as the “anti-you/that,” or without taking undue and exorbitant risks. What follows are some keys I have observed highly effective parents using to let their kids “find themselves” in safe and healthy ways:
Listen So That Teens Talk
Before you make any comments about what they are telling you, practice reflecting what you hear them saying. You may even start to practice reflecting what you hear them feeling. Meaning, do your best to put yourself in their shoes. I can’t reiterate enough how powerful it is for a young person to think, “you get me.” Effective parents share with their kids how they imagine their kids may feel, are open to being wrong, and then open to being corrected by their kids. I assure you that if you practice this simple (but not necessarily easy) tool, over time, your kids will share more with you.
If you find yourself “rescuing” (wishing they felt another way and offering ‘helpful’ advice as to how they could make a hard experience easier) or “problem solving” (coming up with solutions to their problems in lieu of simply listening to them), you can self-correct by naming what you are doing, and return to listening and reflecting.
For most people, and especially teenagers, not being heard or understood often leads to an innate feeling of frustration or dissatisfaction that, over time, can lead to withdrawal and isolation.
Accept Feelings Not Behavior
As discussed above, parents seeing and understanding the feelings of their children leads to stronger relationships and deeper intimacy. However, as any parent reading this knows, boundaries are essential to the education of any healthy child. While most parents are natural experts at this strategy when children are infants, many parents struggle to employ the same methods when their children become teenagers. When your kids were young it was easy to hold them when they cried after not getting the treat they wanted, or when they touched the proverbial hot stove. It becomes much more difficult to express the same sentiment of the message, “No, you can’t do that and I love you.” When your child, now a teen, says things like “I hate you!” or “Dominic’s parents let him do ____!”, it is often so much harder to not be infuriated, saddened, and anything in between by how they are acting. Enter “accept the feeling, not the behavior.” See if you can pick up on how it is for your teen to not be able to do what they want to do. Meaning, do your best to leave space for how they feel about the event without either giving in to what they want or disregarding how they feel.
Let’s take the example of Brandon, who wanted so badly to go over to his friend Owen’s house for the night when you know, without a doubt, Owen’s parents allow he and his friends to smoke marijuana and drink while there. Brandon may feel let down, angry, a sense of injustice, etc., but you know you don’t agree with Owen’s parents’ lack of boundaries. What is critical in this situation, is to acknowledge 1) how important it is to Brandon to spend time with his friends, and 2) how awful it is for him to not be able to go when everyone else is going to be there. (Of course, we would need to see if these sentiments are actually true for Brandon.) Within, your boundary of not allowing Brandon to attend the party, you make an infinite space for understanding Brandon’s situation – and the emotional result within him. Furthermore, you may share how this is a hard situation for you too because you want Brandon to have time with his friends but you cannot compromise on the presence of drugs and alcohol and the incongruence with family values. Over time, this strategy will lead to more transparency in your relationship with your children as well as a greater ability to come to compromises.
I encourage you to experiment with using these tools over the next few months and see the result that they have on your relationship with your children. I know that when the teenagers I work with, see that they are understood, heard, and gotten, they become more of who they truly want to be – not just what they won’t do.
Jonathan Mitchell, MA, LPC is a clinical therapist for adolescent boys at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy. He has been working with children and families for over 15 years.