Serious Advice for Parents of Teens


When Parenting Teenagers — Age Matters

Most parents easily recognize that when it comes to parenting, age matters a great deal.  If you’re not convinced, try giving your teen a nice, cuddly hug, preferably in public.  Not surprisingly, what’s fun and rewarding for one age group, is stupid, incomprehensible, or embarrassing for another.

Teens can be especially challenging for parents. Forgive the blunt language, but the truth is:  Teens often think adults in general, and their parents in particular, don’t know squat.  When I recently shared this well-known fact with a teenager, she gently corrected me by saying, “I think what you mean to say is that adults only know squat.”  I just rolled my eyes and said, “Whatever.”

In contrast to some of my teenage friends, I happen to believe that adults usually do have their squat together.  Therefore, I’ve written a short guide (with attitude) for anyone who has the daunting task of communicating with teenagers.

Principle 1: Always remember, on average, adults are usually smarter and wiser than teenagers.  This fact comes with a certain responsibility.  It means we should strive to really act like we’re smarter and wiser than teenagers.  This means, unfortunately, we have to act mature.  Sometimes we have to go the extra mile when trying to understand today’s youth.  It also means quickly forgiving them when their brains seem to malfunction.

Think about what it means to be more mature – and maybe even wiser – than your teenager.  Think of how to demonstrate your adult maturity in a way that your teen will respect.  Be concrete and specific.  For example, don’t think: “I’ll show my wisdom and maturity by trying to be more patient when he talks on and on about skateboarding.”  Instead, think something like: “I’ll make a point of asking him about his skateboarding at least twice a week. Then, if he’s up for talking, I’ll pay attention to him for at least 5 minutes before I change the subject or get distracted with something else.”

Principle 2: Many teenagers have a special invisible antenna that sticks out from the top of their head. Don’t bother looking for this antenna because it’s invisible.  It’s a “Respect Antenna.”  It functions to instantly ascertain whether a given adult likes or respects a given teen.  Consequently, although teens may act like they’re not paying any attention to you, they’ll still be able to psychically determine whether or not you like and respect them.  And if their invisible antennae signals that you don’t like or respect them, they’ll treat you miserably. Oh yeah. One more thing about this: Like everyone else, the teenager invisible respect antenna regularly malfunctions.

Principle 3: Many teens have dysfunctional eye rolls that appear completely beyond their voluntary control.  For some unknown reason, these eye rolls are triggered when adult authority figures make serious comments.  If you notice teens having this eye roll problem try your best to treat them with the sympathy they deserve.  This means you should smile while looking deeply into their eyes with every ounce of kindness left in your heart. You may think your teen is being disrespectful, but really she or he really needs your sympathy for this problem.

Principle 4: Teenagers are insecure.  Often, they cover their insecurity with a thin veneer of self-confidence and bravado.  This veneer has the effect of making adults assume that young people are confident or overconfident. Such an assumption can cause adults to back off and not offer help, when sometimes, help is exactly what your teen needs.

Principle 5: Young people are very good at tuning out adults while following the sometimes incredibly bad advice of their peers.  The best weapon we have against this sad trend is to sit and listen to young people as they talk about their lives, while, at the same time, resisting the impulse to give them our sage advice.  After listening for a considerable length of time, it can be effective to dress up one of your good ideas as one of their bad ideas and pretend that they came up with it.  If this subtle technique for influencing young people gathers no moss, then you may be forced back into the Dr. Science approach.  The Dr. Science approach essentially involves informing the youth that you know more than they do and therefore they MUST abide by your wishes.  This approach is usually effective only if you have way more money and way more valuable property than the young person.

Principle 6: Scientific research has clearly shown that, down deep, young people really want positive relationships with adults. . . AND that they greatly profit from such relationships.  Try to ignore the fact that adults conceived and conducted this research.  Instead, just go right on doing your best to develop positive relationships with as many teenagers as possible and go right on assuming they want those relationships.

Principle 7: In the end, you’ll find that communicating with teenagers is a lot like baseball.  In professional baseball, if you get a base hit 3 out of 10 times you go to the plate, you have a great chance of getting voted onto the All Star team.  The same is true for communicating with teens.  If you’re a lifetime .300 hitter, your child will probably eventually vote for your induction into the parental Hall of Fame!

If you want additional information about how to communicate more effectively with teens, we recommend parent education classes. You might discover several things: (a) there are other parents out there, besides you, who are struggling and want a better relationship with their teens; (b) many parents (and maybe even the class leaders) will have great ideas about how to improve your teen communication skills; and (c) by meeting with parents and talking opening about our challenges, we’re conspiring to prove that we’re indeed wiser than our teenagers.

[This blog is adapted from an old newspaper article in the Missoulian and from “The Last Best Divorce Workbook” (written by John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan and published by Families First Missoula, 2005)]

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