By Pat Blackwell, Ph.D
It may feel precarious and difficult at times, but you can create a solid relationship with your teen.
There are many similarities in the ways of managing children–from toddlers to teens– during their different developmental phases including routines, reliable care-giving, solid discipline and relationships. A strong relationship between caregiver and child is vital throughout development; however, in adolescence when the child begins to detach physically and emotionally from the parent, the history of the parent-child bond is accentuated. It is represented as trust.
At the same time, the child is looking for acceptance and guidance as he tries to establish his distinct identity. This search for identity represents a stark difference from the work of the toddler. Consequently the nature of the parent-child relationship has to be different during these two phases. While this sounds obvious, it may be lost on parents who continue to be focused exclusively on asserting authority and control over their teen.
While teenagers certainly need limits and authority, they also need to be heard and respected even when they assert views that are incomprehensible to their parents. In their identity search, teenagers will deliberately try to alienate themselves from their parents and the previous generations. They already know about that way of life. Their quest is to try on various new identities to see who they are.
When this happens, an anxious parent may try to get the teen to stay put and refrain from new ways of thinking. Sadly the history of trust that has been established can become frayed when the parent is too controlling and judgmental. And what is even more unfortunate is that communication begins to wane as the child recognizes that the parents only want him to see things their way.
A teen will only accept parental guidance if he feels his drive to find his own way is respected. Consequently at a time when he needs guidance most of all, he may feel alone and misunderstood.
Parents can expect to have to work hard to have a good relationship with their child during adolescence. A child’s temperament comes into play here, too. We cannot assume that the easy teen is without pain and we cannot give up on the challenging ones. In either case (an all in between) the parents’ job is to stay connected to their teen. This requires listening and understanding.
Modeling Positive Behavior
But what about the dangerous behavior your teen will be drawn to? Well, beat her to the punch by starting a discussion about the dangers when she is young. How young depends on your child. Then model responsible behavior. (Don’t want her to drink and drive? Then don’t do it yourself.) Walk bravely into her world and do not judge! Listen to her music (without criticizing), have her freaky friends over (without being scared of them), let her question the existence of God (without telling her she is damned). Have factual discussions about sex, drinking and drugs; not scare tactics (the real information is frightening enough). Ask her about her views on things and respect them! Share your views but do not preach that your way is the only way.
When your child does make a mistake, explain the limits and reinforce with a consequence if necessary—but do so rationally, not reactively. Refrain from disciplining in the moment. An hour past curfew with alcohol on her breath is not the time to have a discussion. Wait until morning and have a discussion (with consequences) you have thought out rationally.
Refrain from put downs and rejection even if you are frightened or appalled by her choices. Most important, stay connected while she searches for her North Star, even if it seems she wants you to disappear. As she gets older, she will probably gravitate to the views of her own family. This is more likely if she feels accepted and loved by that family.