Building a Relationship with Your Teen
A common myth about adolescence is that it is necessarily a very stormy period in one's development. Research has not verified this view for the majority of teens, but rather calls it a period of exploration and experimentation as one moves toward adulthood. Another myth to be dispelled is the belief that adolescents need to be detached from their parents in order to develop their own identities. This particular viewpoint leads parents to the conclusion that teenagers need to be left alone for the most part, and that peers should be the primary group to which they relate. Along with this view is sort of a "hands-off" policy in which parents shy away from conversing with their teens about their lives in an attempt not to pry or invade their privacy, which parents believe to be necessary to the teen's development. This is a dangerous viewpoint because it deprives the teen of the very source of dependency, guidance, and support that is still needed from parents during this period of transition and adjustment. Although the peer group does take a prominent place in the adolescent's world, parents still play an extremely vital and necessary role in helping the teen with the most important areas of growth. So not only can adolescence be successfully navigated without (or with less of) the intense emotional and behavioral turmoil with which it has become associated, but one of the primary factors necessary for this successful transformation into adulthood is the very real involvement of parents. This second point cannot be emphasized enough, particularly in view of more recent biases that peers are the most if not only real influence on adolescent development. Let's turn our attention to how parents can and should be involved.
Talk to Your Teen
A parent must know what is going on in his or her teen's life, and this knowledge must be acquired continually, or updated regularly. This is accomplished most simply by talking to your teen on a daily basis. If you have not made a habit of this prior to adolescence, it may be a little difficult to begin, but it can be done and should become a regular and automatic practice. I'll tell you what to talk about in a minute, but first let's establish some basic guidelines for when and how to have regular conversation. First, pick a regular time of day most conducive to relaxed conversation for both of you such as dinnertime, early evening, or late afternoon depending on what works into your schedules. Be sure to allow at least fifteen to thirty minutes and more if you can. The more you allow your teen to converse with you under relaxed circumstances, the more time they will want to spend in this activity. Secondly, adopt an open-minded and curious attitude. Your goal here is to find out what your teen is thinking, what they fantasize about, what is going on with their peers and in school, and what might be sources of distress or struggles for them. Third, do not use this time for disciplinary discussions - not ever! If you do, you will see your teen begin to avoid talking to you. Keep the disciplinary or limit-setting discussions separate. You'll note that I didn't say not to have these discussions, but just that they must not pollute your attempts to get to know your teen well and to build a relationship that is open and trusting. Finally, most of the talking should be done by the teen. Your job is to get the conversation rolling and then to let them direct the flow and content of the interchange.
What Do You Talk About?
This part is a little easier. The number one subject is peers. Most teens, given the chance, can chatter endlessly about what goes on at school in the peer group. If you have the type of teen that is very chatty, you only need to ask a leading question or two and they will eagerly provide a detailed description of what's going on with their friends. If you have a quieter, more introverted or secretive teen, you can start conversations about peers in a broader sense such as what the trends are among peers rather than about individuals. A second good subject is to ask direct questions pertaining to your teen's self-image. Remember that adolescence is a time when our identities are forming, and as such, teens have endless interest in thinking about who they are, who they would like to be like, what their assets and shortcomings are, and so forth. They are hypersensitive to their appearance and to what others think about them. Find out who their role models are, or ask if they like the way they look. Take whatever they offer and expand it. If your daughter says she thinks she's not pretty, then find out specifically how she arrived at that conclusion and what or who she measures herself against. You may uncover many things you didn't previously know, and your daughter will find some relief in having this discussion with you. Third, ask about how your teen is dealing with basic areas of struggle such as peer pressure, drug use, drinking, sexuality, etc. It's very unwise to avoid these subjects, as all teens must deal with them on some level. They need your help with these pressures, which can become daunting depending on the school setting, peer group, and age. The more they can be open with you about their fears, concerns, and struggles, the better they will be able to deal with them. Finally, encourage conversations that deal with ideals or future fantasies. What does your teen think about politics, religion, current events, marriage, career, and becoming a parent? What does he or she think about capital punishment, welfare reform, homelessness, global warming, national security and other social issues? You might find that your teen has very strong views about some of these things. These discussions can give you tremendous insight into what is important to your teen as well as how his or her mind works in terms of higher level thinking.
Be a Parent
What is meant here is that you must maintain your role as a parent in your relationship with your teen as opposed to taking on the role of a peer. You can be a confidante and friend, but within the confines of being a parent. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is actually a difficult one to carry out. There is some confusion involved in trying to be the person who sets limits, and also the one who listens with an open mind much as a friend would. The truth of the matter is that you are always a parent and to some degree this will color your relationship with your teen - but that's not a bad thing. It is what your teen needs from you: someone who can listen and understand, but also someone who has life experience and knowledge to provide guidance that can't come from peers. A parent must also offer a safety net even when that means setting limits that seem confining, because it is these very limits that keep the teen from getting too far out on a limb where they could come to harm. Will your teen tell you everything? Absolutely not, but they will expose enough of who they are and what's going on that you can establish a relationship built on trust and responsibility, and more importantly, on a positive interpersonal connection that is maintained even in the event of conflict.
Know Your Teen's Friends
It is true that in adolescence the peer group has a tremendous impact on the development and daily functioning of teenagers. This is inevitable and normal. Therefore, it is important for parents to know as much as possible about what kinds of influences are being exerted on their teen by the peer group. The best way to gather this knowledge, outside of direct conversations as spelled out above, is to know who your teen's friends are and what they are like. An easy way to do this is make room in your home for your teen to have friends over. You can structure this so that rules are maintained and you are comfortable with the activities that go on, but at the same time the teens can interact and enjoy themselves in your presence. Generally there are several good friends that you see most often. You may get to know them very well, in fact, especially if they spend a good amount of time in your home. You might want to include them in on some of the conversations you have with your teen as was suggested in the first section. Most teens welcome attention from adults who show real interest in them and who are willing to listen to what they have to say without trying so hard to impose their own views first. You can extend your knowledge also by moving out of the house into the sphere of school activities or extra-curricular activities. If you have a teen that plays a sport, attend the games and get to know all the players. You'll learn a great deal about your teen and his or her friends this way as well as show your support for and interest in your teen's accomplishments.
Here's a final bit of advice on working with teens. You must be willing to see your teen as close to the way that he or she actually is as opposed to the way you would like him/her to be. This can be quite difficult, because parents are highly subject to feelings of guilt if they perceive that their children have problematic behaviors or characteristics. Parents also have a tendency to want to see their children as "chips off the old block." Understand that your teen has his or her own individual temperament, characteristics, tendencies, ideas and beliefs, views, and so on. Some are like yours, some are not. Know what these are and you will be in a position to have a greater as well as positive influence on your teen. Moreover, you will build and preserve a relationship that lasts well into adulthood.