I think of this as something of a companion post to one from a week ago. Hopefully, taken together, they can help you get closer to your teenager.
Parenting in general is anxiety-provoking. But there’s a particularly intense anxiety to parenting a teenager. And I’ve noticed in my practice that one of the things parents often do in response to that anxiety is try to seize more control over their teenagers’ behavior. Here’s why that strategy doesn’t tend to work out so well, and an alternate way to respond.It’s best to start by remembering yourself as a teenager. Odds are, you wanted to be treated with respect by your parents. You wanted to feel that your perspective was valued, and your judgment was not constantly questioned. If your parents had concerns, you would want them to be voiced with a sense of curiosity rather than condescension.
Maybe you got that from your parents. In that case, you’ve got a great model.
But if you didn’t, that can be even more instructive. Think about how it felt to be doubted, and questioned. Then consider how you’re approaching your own teenager.
Because–shocker!–teenagers are actually people. They may be hormonal and mercurial and difficult to understand. But they’re people, and what people want is to be treated with respect. Your children will have a much easier time taking your feedback if it’s offered as feedback (as one potential course of action among others) rather than an edict.
Of course, there are times when you will have to tell your teenager that they can or can’t do something. Safety issues occur, and you have to maintain parental authority. But maintaining authority doesn’t mean lording it over your teenager. You can tell your child what has to happen in a way that’s empathetic, that shows understanding for why they might wish it were otherwise, and respects them enough to explain your reasoning thoroughly and compassionately.
The more you try to crack down and overtly control your teen, the more he or she will rebel (either outright or through deceitful behavior.) Isn’t that just human nature?
Despite the fact that parents know that, deep down, they often continue to use overt control tactics. It’s often prompted by anxiety: Fear makes us want to clamp down, to force the outcome that we want. That’s just human nature, too.
But it’s an impulse that can harm your relationship with your teen. Most significantly, if your child sees you as trying to wield your authority with an ax, he or she won’t want to share with you. You won’t be an ally, you’ll be the enemy. And if your child won’t open up to you, you lose the most crucial ability you have as a parent, which is the power to influence.
By offering our opinions tentatively, by not assuming we know the right way, by leaving our children the opportunity to correct us or to tell us how their experiences differ, we will be able to influence their decisionmaking process, in the present and into the future. If all we do is lay down the law, we’re not laying down a foundation for our children to figure out for themselves what’s right and what’s wrong.
Now, I know every situation is different. I don’t know your children, or your relationship with them. But what I know is that starting from a place of respect can never be a mistake, no matter how many mistakes you feel your children are making.
What you need to find out is how your child sees the world, and where those mistakes are coming from. That won’t occur through control tactics, but through respectful dialogue.
Teen talking to her mother image available from Shutterstock.