Teens Need Their Parents
As a culture, we assume that the teen years are going to be tough on parents. Somewhere between grade seven or eight and the end of high school, we expect problems. We don’t like the thought of having problems, but we feel realistic enough to expect them.
This can sometimes blind us to the opportunities, though. Yes, this is a time of change and experimentation for kids, when they learn more about themselves as individuals, separate from their parents. Yes, it’s a time of new challenges, like dating, post-secondary school, and part-time jobs – things that as parents of younger kids we didn’t have to handle. But it doesn’t have to be a time of door slamming, rebellion, and defiance. Situations involving drama and trauma to the family exist and they’re very painful, but we’re doing ourselves and our kids a disservice if we expect them to be a rite of passage. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: we’re looking for signs of trouble, so we find them.
Study after study has shown that teenagers want their parents in their lives, that teens who have involved parents do better in school, and that they enjoy spending time with their parents. Admittedly, they might not enjoy spending Saturday night with their parents when they could be out with their friends, but in general, they appreciate and enjoy the time spent as a family. The problem comes when we have an assumption that they aren’t interested. Attitude can play an important role here. If we assume that our kids don’t want to have anything to do with us, we behave in a way that sends a subtle message that may be interpreted by our kids that we don’t want to spend time with them. As well, kids of any age are extremely sensitive to how they feel they are being perceived, and if they sense a perception that they are inherently troublesome or untrustworthy, they’re much more likely to get discouraged and perhaps behave accordingly. But if we assume that they are capable and that they want to be included in the family, at least sometimes, there is a subtle shift that takes place, one that kids pick up on and react to. Even if they don’t want to accept every single time, they take comfort in knowing that the invitation is always there.
A lot of people have a lot of theories about human development. In the mid-20th century, one of these experts put forward the idea that teens need to break away from their parents in order to create their own identities, which would then allow them to reconnect with their parents as adults. This theory has maintained its position in popular thought, despite the fact that it doesn’t appear to be rooted in fact. Studies consistently show that parents matter more to teenagers than this theory would suggest. And if this seems hard to imagine, ask one. Pick a teenager in your life (maybe not your own), and ask how important his parents are to him. They will usually say things such as their parents are the most important people to them, that they enjoy spending time with their parents, that they think highly of their parents, or that their opinion matters.
Teenagers need the same things from their parents that they did throughout their childhood: someone to be in their corner – to provide them with a safe place to fall when times are tough and a source of strength for going out into the world as they develop their own confidence. This looks different depending on whether you’re parenting a toddler or a teenager. When your kids are teens, it may mean not taking their behaviour personally, and being a role model for them in how to handle conflict without shutting the other person out. Remember that mantra that was so helpful in disciplining your toddler: love the kid, even if you don’t love the behaviour? That’s the same mantra that will be helpful again (or still) now that your kids are older. It’s possible to be unhappy over a thoughtless comment or broken promise, while at the same time still sending the message that you love and accept your child.
And when the going gets tough, keep in mind that teenagers are particularly concerned with saving face. When you put your foot down about something, you may get a lot of static for it, but your teens may secretly be able to see your point or even agree with you. You might be surprised to learn that despite the ensuing tantrum, they are quietly relieved to not be able to go to that party or get involved in an activity that they’re not comfortable with. You just may be giving them the excuse that allows them to get out of the situation without having to live through the embarrassment of telling their friends they’re uncomfortable. Don’t expect gratitude when you deny a request to go a co-ed sleep over, but just take comfort in knowing that there’s a possibility your kids get it.
I saw a fridge magnet that said, “If raising kids was meant to be easy, it wouldn’t start with something called Lab our.” Even in the best of relationships a little rain must fall, so it won’t always be easy being a parent. But don’t set yourself up for even more trouble by assuming that the teen years are a black hole of yelling, tantrums, defiance, and thoughtlessness. We want to approach the teen years with a positive expectation, anticipation, and the belief that whatever happens, we have the ability to work together as a family to overcome it.