As a parent, you probably know more about your child than anyone else. You remember, cherish, and are grateful for each new stage your child went through, regardless of the challenges that came with each development. But so often, the parents I work with find themselves stuck with their teenagers in ways they have not been stuck before. This series is devoted to helping parents connect with their teens.
Tip: Be Curious, Don’t Assume
The teenage years are a wild ride for teens and parents alike. Teens change and shift rapidly in so many ways — physically, emotionally, even (and especially!) in their interests and viewpoints. This is all part of normal, healthy teen development, in which novelty-seeking combined with heightened emotionality leads to experiencing a new, exciting world and trying to find a place in it. This is a time for teens to explore their identities, connect with peers in more meaningful ways, and identify what brings them passion and purpose in the world.
Parents, you can have a valuable role in supporting this process. How? By creating space to connect with your teen and by asking them lots of open-ended questions about their interests and experiences. Rather than just sharing your own related opinions and experiences, ask your teen more questions when they share something that is exciting or new to them. Show your own interest and curiosity in what they think and feel. This not only communicates that you care about them, but also that you want to understand them and how they experience the world. Why is this so important? Because this kills the toxic stance that tells your teen “I already know who you are.”
Managing Parental Anxiety and Loss
You might wonder why I label this stance as toxic when there may be a partial truth in it. It is toxic because this stance will never foster positive, authentic interactions with your teen; your teen will be more likely to shutdown and actually feel unknown or disconnected from you. So often even the most well-intentioned parents want to hold onto parts of their teen’s child self. There can be genuine loss in experiencing your child’s transition into the more adult-like state of his or her teen years. Depending on your own experiences growing up, you might also have some anxiety or fear surrounding your child becoming a teen or young adult. This is especially common with those who experienced abuse or trauma as teenagers or those who participated in riskier behaviors such as substance abuse or unsafe sexual behaviors. Those experiences you might have are important to devote attention to so that you can be more aware of their potential to impact your own parenting. It can be easy to want to continue to think of your teen as a child or to not want to be fully aware of all of the changes that are occurring. Both can be very dangerous and contribute to your teen feeling even more unknown that most teens feel.
Growing Your Relationship with Your Teenager
The secret to helping your teen feel known? Proceed as though you don’t fully know them but that you love them no matter what. Don’t assume what they like, don’t like, think, or feel. Express curiosity and genuine interest, and continually get to know them as they continually get to know and connect with who they are. When they are excited, be excited with them and explore that excitement. When they are experiencing peer conflict (if you are privileged enough to be let into that part of their world), explore what they feel about it and how they want to proceed rather than providing answers. When they have discovered a new philosophy that they believe about the world and people, no matter how idealistic it may appear or how different it might be from what you believe, ask open-ended questions to understand how your teen has arrived at that conclusion. Doing so can help develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills while continuing to help you understand where your teen is coming from.
Underlying Message to Communicate to Your Teen: “I want to keep getting to know you better, and I love you no matter what.”
Therapy can be a valuable resource for supporting teen identity formation as well as for promoting healthy communication between teens and their parents. For more information, click here.