Believe it or not, your salty, snidey, loathing, growling, fuming, resentfully capitulating (if you’re lucky) teenager has, in a heavily locked fortress buried deep inside the recesses of their being, love and appreciation for you.
They’re not likely to show those feelings anytime soon, but don’t let your conviction in their existence be swayed by palsy things like unrelenting evidence to the contrary. Be stronger than that.
Yes, your teenager is making life difficult for everybody. But – and here’s the rub – you’re probably not making things any easier. In your earnest, well-intentioned attempts to be close to your teen, or to offer them support, you are unwittingly contributing to the deluge of frustration and mutual dislike that is becoming the hallmark of your interactions.
Most parents are predictably relentless in their approach with their teenager. They employ the same stale strategy – one that their teenager is well aware of and firmly opposed to – as if they genuinely believed that the 1,000th iteration of it would produce new results. (Most of the time these strategies look like persistent questioning, unsolicited advice giving or statements of concern and worry.)
We’re all familiar with Einstein’s timeless words of wisdom about the definition of insanity, but the following quote is even more pertinent: “Doing the same thing over and over again in exactly the same way is not a recipe for improvement; it is a recipe for stagnation and gradual decline.”
That’s right. The more you do the same thing you’ve been doing with your teenager, the more your relationship with them will continue to deteriorate.
Fortunately, there are things you can do differently, starting today. These are probably new behaviors – which in and of itself could powerfully transform the status quo – but, more important, they are behaviors your teen actually wants to see (though don’t expect them to admit it). These suggestions are based off of years of working with teenagers and their families.
- Acknowledgement and appreciation
Many teenagers are hyper-attuned to perceptions of criticism and judgement. When you remind them to take the dog for a walk, or when you ask them what they learned at school, their reaction can be so extreme that you would think you just challenged their very right to existence.
And you did.
You didn’t do it intentionally, but that was the impact your statement had. Your seemingly innocuous statement was heard in this way precisely because that’s what your teenager is going through. Their internal dialogue is chalk-full of self-doubt and self-criticism. They are firmly entrenched in the “Am I good enough to exist?” line of questioning.
Anyone who further activates that vulnerability places themselves directly in the line of fire. Watch out.
Anything you do that isn’t OBVIOUSLY in support of EXACTLY who they are in the moment, will be interpreted as an attack on their character.
They then take what should be an internal conflict and project it onto you. You become the source of their animosity.
No matter what is happening, there is always something, some element of who they are, that you can genuinely appreciate and express gratitude for. In other words, I’m not suggesting that you invent platitudes, but that you sincerely search for what you like and appreciate about your teenager and that you communicate those things frequently.
(On a deeper level, this stream of genuine positivity will eventually impact their own internal dialogue in a transformative way.)
Teens LOVE it when their parents self-disclose. Now, this has to be done skillfully. You certainly don’t want to give too much information and trigger vicarious embarrassment for your teen. You also don’t want to become like a broken record, sharing the same story over and over in an infinitude of dreary monotony.
If you can appropriately share some of your own struggles as a teen, your teen won’t feel as alone in their plight. There needn’t be a lesson in the story, either (most parents tend to cherish lesson-giving). The message is simple enough: I’ve been there too, I also messed up, I had my own heart broken, it was tough for me as well, etc.
In the event that current life circumstances are impacting your ability to be the parent you’d like to be, it is generally helpful to let your teen in on what’s happening (they’re usually aware of much more than you think anyway).
Similar to #1, your teen is likely convinced that you don’t trust them (in part because they are still developing the capacity to trust themselves).
Every parent’s favorite question, “Do you have any homework tonight?” can be interpreted as “I know you would never do your homework on your own, you’re a no-good, spoiled kid and you’re not doing anything right.” Ouch.
To account for this, try on affirming statements. “I know you’ll figure it out. If you would like some help, I’m here for you.” Or, “Yeah, math sucks. I’m sorry you have to do it, but I know you can.” Or, “Friendships are hard. From everything I’ve seen, you’re a great friend. If they don’t want you around, that’s their loss.”
Behaviors that communicate trust are equally as effective as statements. Such behaviors may look like NOT asking repetitive questions and instead granting them the freedom to figure some things out on their own, make mistakes, and deal with the consequences.
Ok, maybe you’re thinking “but I’m not funny,” or, “I KNOW I’m funny, but my teen certainly doesn’t think so.” Well, what I mean by “humor” isn’t that you “be funny,” but that you be lighthearted.
Your teen is already freaking out. They don’t need you to be freaking out on top of their already impressive freak out.
A lighthearted attitude isn’t dismissive of their freak out, but communicates that they’ll make it through, that this freak out isn’t the end all be all, and that everything already IS ok.
You can place what they’re currently going through in a much wider context, whereas they don’t yet have the life experience that precludes this ability. By putting it in that larger context (where it is important but not all-important), your simple attitude of lightness and acceptance will rub off on them.
Yeah, yeah, you already know this one. Every parent has heard it from their teen a thousand times. So then, what’s stopping you from giving it?
Maybe you’re worried that they’ll spend every waking hour in solitude locked into video games. So then, take the console away.
Maybe you’re worried that they’ll never do their homework. Well then, ask them to show you their completed homework before they disappear.
Maybe you’re worried that they’ll be doing drugs. Then, ask them to talk to you about their drug curiosities (this isn’t about giving them permission, but it is about taking a taboo topic and putting it out in the open, where it is likely to do less damage).
For most parents, reluctance to grant their teen space is a product of the parent’s own emotional issues. Parents don’t want to feel lonely, abandoned, empty, adrift, anxious, etc. As a result, they keep a sort of unrelenting focus on their children.
- Hearing without solving
We’ve likely all had the experience of telling somebody about a particular vulnerability we’re experiencing, only to have them attempt to fix it for us. This attempt to fix is a subtle message that “we’re not ok the way we are”. That we need to eradicate said vulnerability in order that we might be socially acceptable and desirable.
If your teen risks sharing something difficult or painful, take them in. Hold them – maybe not physically, but emotionally – in their process. Provide them with the space to feel. Put no demands on them to feel or do otherwise. Just “be”.
The line, “I hear you,” can work wonders.
- Your own interests outside of them
Your teenager wants you to have your own interests, passions, pursuits, hobbies, worries and concerns outside of their life. This gives them the psychological space to be their own person, as opposed to continually exhausting their energy confronting external pressure.
They don’t want you to disappear, they simply want you to do your own thing from time to time and give them some room to breathe.
- Clear consequences
I can’t tell you the number of teens I’ve sat down with who tell me they WISH their parents were clear on the consequences. Who openly admitted that they WOULD follow rules, but they don’t because they either don’t have a clear sense of what the rules are, or they know their parents will never follow through on the consequences.
Teens want some semblance of structure, predictability and boundaries. They are dealing with enough chaos as it is. Make home life the hallmark of stability. And please note, when I say they “want” something like structure, I don’t mean that they will “make it easy” for you.
Their job, as it were, is to make things more difficult than seemingly need be in their struggle for autonomy, independence and self-hood. Your job is to support this process, but within reason. They are not ready for full autonomy, they wouldn’t yet make it on their own.
In summary, practice giving your teen the freedom to navigate the trials of burgeoning adulthood, while providing a loving, accepting, lighthearted, structured home-life for them to return to.
I’m not promising that love will come pouring out of your teenager if you take on all of these practices; like I said, its buried pretty deep inside. However, I do think you’ll see some changes. Life will get a bit easier. Their expressions of hatred will lose some of that vicious, you’re-the-worst-person-in-the-world intensity.
Who knows, you may even get a compliment from time to time.