One of the most perplexing and sensitive relationships for those of us at middle age is with our teenage sons and daughters. An offspring’s transition from young child to teenager is difficult for them but may prove downright traumatic for the parents. What happened to that cuddly little child you cradled in your arms, pushed lovingly into the air on playground swings and taught how to ride a bike without training wheels?
Remember the fun you had with your children when they were in Cub Scouts or Brownies. Remember his first T-ball hit or her first cartwheel in kiddie gymnastics? At nine and ten, your sons and daughters were so proud to share their accomplishments with you and come to mom and dad with every fear, concern or question. Now, as teens they routinely shut you out. A recent guest on my Internet radio program describes it best:
” Our teens eat…they sleep…they text and occasionally they converse with mom or dad, usually when they want money or keys to the car. Our teenagers are like strangers who pass in and out of our house, hardly pausing long enough to notice mom and dad.”
As loving parents, we obviously don’t want to give up without a fight. We want our teens to mature into well-adjusted adults who will live long, joyful, bountiful and productive lives while we stay connected. We most certainly don’t want to be shut out when our son or daughter encounters a serious problem or faces a critical decision. The problem: as parents we most compete for attention not only with face-to-face romances and best-of-friends but also with the 24/7 social media that has radically altered teen/parent relationships.
So how do parents in their forties and fifties decipher what’s going on in their teenagers’ lives? How do we retain teen attention and respect for what we have to say? Let’s begin by exposing two common misconceptions: 1) it is not true that teenagers no longer search for rock-solid adult role models and 2) it is not true that teens automatically dismiss parents as candidates for that position. In fact, although few will admit it, most teens look first to a same-sex parent for guidance. Respect and loyalty to that parent is far from guaranteed. To retain the number one position, mothers or fathers must be welcoming, affirmative, completely honest and never threatening to their teenage sons or daughters.
Here are a few suggestions for remaining your teen’s number one adviser:
- Your teen no longer is a small child, so don’t treat him or her like one. In conversations, you must respect your teens as near-adults, who have valuable insights and minds of their own. It is your teen’s time for self-definition and testing. Grant your teenagers new freedom to explore and experiment, always accompanied by reasonable, negotiated accountability for their actions. If subsequently a privilege must be withdrawn, your teens should always understand why.
- “Force” yourself upon your teenagers, but in a positive manner. In the car, let your teens choose the station and listen with them. (I can attest as a former parent of teens, this is not always easy!) No you don’t have to become a full-fledged ‘belieber’, i.e., a Justin Bieber fan, but you should at least listen to him sing and then jointly discuss trends in modern music. Watch TV programs together and talk about the content. Whenever possible go out on “dates” both you and your teen will enjoy. (e.g., mom and daughter ‘ladies’ night’ dinner and a movie; father and son golf outing.)
- Offer guidance to your teens in a general non-threatening manner trying never to single them out for harsh mean-spirited criticism. For example, you might bring up a newspaper article on teen drug abuse then ask your teens if drugs are a problem at their school. You could go on to discuss the dangers and harm drug abuse has caused to others without pointing the finger at them. An especially useful tactic is to sight specific examples of teen suicides or young adult lives ruined by drugs.
- When you must discipline, always rebuke your teen’s behavior, never your son or daughter as a person. It’s an overused term, but ‘tough love’ makes sense; you want your teenage son and daughter to understand that you are punishing them out of love and respect; for their own good and as positive guidance for their future. All discipline should be administered in private, never in front of siblings or friends.
- Set a few firm family ground rules which you and your spouse also must adhere to. These should never be strictly “teen rules”. If one common ground rule is a nightly family dinner attended by all, then dad and mom must routinely be there on time. Don’t expect your son or daughter to refrain from swearing if mom or dad swear all the time. Another excellent family rule is no cell phones or i-pads at the dinner table. Here’s a third great idea: all communication devices must be checked in (by younger children, teenagers and mom and dad) at bed time!
- Moms and dads coordinate in advance all teen privileges and disciplinary actions before approaching a teenager. Teens are highly skilled at playing one parent against the other and at recruiting mom or dad (the more lenient parent) as an ally. Parents simply must present a united front. The ‘parent versus patent’ problem can be especially acute following divorce. That is why every divorce ideally should be negotiated as “win/win” with child and teen welfare a primary consideration.
- When unable to make headway in communicating with your teens, try contacting their best friends’ parents. Strangely, teens sometimes open up more to a friend’s parents than to their own. You are not asking a friend’s parents to “snitch” on your own children, but comparing notes and discussing common activities is always a good thing. As an added benefit, parents of teenage friends often become their own best friends.
- Single moms of teenage sons and single dads of teenage daughters should attempt to locate and introduce as role models adult family members of their teen’s sex. There are certain things a teenage boy simply will not tell his mom or a teenage girl her father. There are certain opposite-sex subjects no man or woman is good at. If no role models are available within the family, seek outside counsel.
Simply because your son or daughter has turned thirteen, all hope is not lost. Millions of parents worldwide can affirm that their favorite child-rearing was in the teenage years. Did you and your spouse do a good job guiding and nurturing your offspring as small children? If so, your teens are ready and eager to take on personal responsibility. This can free up your time and talents as you place your reliable teen on “automatic pilot.” Your job now becomes ‘coach’ or ‘mentor’, inspiring and monitoring teen performance and intervening only as needed to prevent or correct behavior harmful to your teen or to others.
To learn more about conversations you should have with your teens, tune into the April 22, 2013 weekly installment of my Internet radio program, “Middle Age Can Be Your Best Age” live now on WebTalkRadio.net. You can tune into our program at any time, at your convenience. I interview two experts on teen behavior, one who will help you mothers inspire your teenage daughter and the other who will guide you fathers to become great dads no matter what kind of father you had.