In my novel, “Don’t Try to Find Me” (out today!), Rachel’s 14-year-old daughter Marley runs away, and during the social media campaign to bring her home, many secrets are revealed. Among them: What Marley thinks about her mom is radically different from what Rachel believes she’s communicating.
While my novel presents a high stakes fictional situation, many parents can relate to the idea that we don’t necessarily know what our teens are thinking about us as parents and as individuals, and that can really cost us in terms of our relationships. So what’s a parent to do?
If you don’t know something, ask. That seems like good advice, right?
In this case, it’s not likely to be terribly fruitful, though. Think about what it would feel like for you, as an adult, to have someone ask point blank what you think of them. Pretty awkward, right? Now imagine that as a teenager, being asked by someone who has the power to ground them.
But it’s not just about power. Your teenager likely doesn’t want to hurt you, and may not yet have the communication skills to tactfully and constructively express traits and tendencies of yours which bug them. Or your teenager does want to hurt you because there’s some underlying anger and/or resentment, and would take the opportunity to kick you when you’re vulnerable. That’s not necessarily going to produce an accurate answer either.
To gauge what your children actually think of you, look at their behavior. Do they come to you for advice? Do they want to please you, or to provoke you? Do they listen when you talk or tune you out? Do they seek out or avoid time with you? Do they appear to enjoy your company? Do they appear tense or nervous in your presence? Do they feel proud of you and your accomplishments? Embarrased by your perceived faults? (These last three go to whether you’re liked, feared, and/or respected.)
Look at what your children value. Who do they admire, and what do you have in common with those people? Who do they dislike, and what do you have in common with those people?
Something I’ve found to be fairly universal when working with teenagers is that they’re highly astute when it comes to hypocrisy. They notice when you say one thing and do another. They also notice that you are pretending (or hoping) they won’t see it. But living with integrity is one of the most important things we can do as parents. That means aiming to live in accordance with what we’re trying to teach, as well as acknowledging when we’re not able to.
Because sometimes life is complicated, and you don’t behave in line with your ideals. Sometimes we’re given lousy choices and we need to make the best of them. Teenagers can understand that if you’re up front about it. It recognizes the complexities of life (which they’re certainly contending with) and models for them that it’s okay to own your strengths and your weaknesses, and to be candid about areas for improvement. It lets them know that personal growth is a life-long process, and that’s a valuable lesson.