Sunday, August 21, 2016

Three Things Your Teenager Needs from You

Over the past decade, I’ve worked with thousands of teenagers. I was a troubled teen myself, so I’ve always had a soft spot for them. As a counselor, I see the same story frequently. A very concerned parent brings their teenager in and tells me how they’ve always been close to their child, but recently, their teenager has stopped talking to them. So they bring them to me, and I start to work with them. I build a therapeutic relationship with them where we talk about their lives, and their parents often say things like, “How do you get her to talk to you? She never talks to me anymore.”

I believe that teenagers often open up to counselors for several reasons: how we react, our interest level and our perseverance. I have found that parents can also do these things to improve relationship with their teenagers, you just need to know the three things they need from you.

1. They need you to react in a caring and stable way. Teenagers often act very independent and tough. They act like they have everything figured out and they don’t need you. You may ask, “Why bother? They don’t need me.”

But here’s the big secret: they do need you. Teenagers are not grown-ups. They are often scared and overwhelmed. The world is big, high school is scary, and the pressure to succeed and get a full college scholarship is constant. And when they start to feel scared/overwhelmed/out-of-control, they often will try to talk to their parents about it.

Unfortunately, when a teenager shares something shocking or big, even when parents try to stay calm, they don’t always handle the news well. Your daughter tells you she’s been texting a boy, and suddenly you find yourself crying because you can’t believe your daughter is growing up so quickly. Your son admits that his grade dropped to a C and you find yourself yelling and lecturing him about the importance of grades.

And guess what? When you react in those ways, your kids will clam up.

I believe that part of the reason that teenagers feel comfortable in confiding in their counselor is that the counselor’s reactions are caring and stable. There have been times over the years where a teenager has shared something that brings me to tears (sexual abuse cases are heart-breaking), but overall, I try to maintain a calm, even, caring demeanor. Whether they share minor issues (“I couldn’t find my locker and I felt stupid”) to the big issues (“My boyfriend and I went farther than I meant to”), I try to react to their issues in a caring and emotionally stable way. I don’t burst into tears, I don’t scream at them, I don’t withdraw and avoid them. I simply say, “Wow. That’s awful. I can’t believe you’re dealing with that. Let’s talk about it.”

I get that being a parent is tough. Honestly, I’m way more emotional with my own children. I get frustrated, angry and sometimes tearful. However, if you want your child to open up, they have to be able to trust that you will listen to them and react in a calm, loving, consistent manner.

If you are prone to tears, depend on God to help you stay strong during the tough talks. If you are prone to yelling, breathe deeply and work on staying even-tempered when they approach you with something. When you respond calmly and lovingly about the littler issues, they will trust you in the future when they need to tell you about the big stuff.

2. They need you to care about their lives. It’s become a running joke in my house that I’m often reading young adult fiction these days. Not because I always love reading about werewolves and vampires, but because it allows me to connect to the teenagers I work with. There is nothing as awesome as watching a teenager’s face light up when I tell them, “guess what book I got from the library? The one you recommended!”

One day, as a new social worker, I was running a therapeutic group when I worked at a psychiatric hospital. We were discussing ways that people show they care about each other. When I asked the teens in the room, “how do you know someone cares about you?” one boy put it well. He said, “When I care about someone, I make sure I know what they like, how their day goes, what music they listen to.” Shrugging, he shared, “The people in my life, the ones that care the most about me know all that.” I realized that caring about teenagers is more than just caring about their overall well-being. It is caring about the songs they love, the books they read, the websites they visit.

It’s easy as a parent to tack on a quick, “I love you” as we say goodnight or run out the door. But for many teenagers, feeling loved and cared for goes deeper than our rushed words. They feel loved and valued when their parents remember how they like their coffee or what their favorite band is. I know the names of the boys from One Direction, I can sing at least three Justin Bieber songs, and I’ve read the entire City of Bones series. Not because I needed to, but because it makes the teenagers I work with feel valued that I am willing to use my time to learn about something that is important to them.

If your teenager keeps saying, “you just don’t understand me,” seek to understand them. Not by sitting them down and forcing them to talk to you. Instead, ask them what’s on their iPod. Find out the name of the last book they read and read it! It will mean a lot to them, and it will give you some things to talk about.

3. They need you to keep trying. Sometimes, I think that parents assume that the reason their kids talk to me is because I have a wave-a-magic-wand trick that helps them open up. I wish! You know how at home you ask them questions, they ignore you, roll their eyes and walk into their room? They do that with me too initially!  If a teen won’t talk to his parents, often, the first few sessions are pretty rough with the counselor as well. But do you know what? The more I persevere, the more questions I ask, the more angsty teen books I read, over time, they start to open up (even the really resistant kids).

The things that intrigues me about teenagers is that even when they are ignoring you, they are totally aware of you. So when they push you away, and you leave them alone, they notice. They tell me things like, “I know I’ve been awful lately, but I wish my mom would talk to me,” “I wish my dad spent more time with me,” “I hate that we used to get coffee all the time, and now she doesn’t take me anymore.” When I ask teenagers what they want their positive reward to be for good behavior, one of the number one things they want is time with their parents. I kid you not. They want to be with you. Even when they act like they don’t want you around.

Recently, I was talking with a teenager going through a rough time. I asked her what she needed. She looked at me and said, “I just want to curl up on the couch and hug my mom and cry like I used to when I was little.” I asked her, “Does your mom know that?” It broke my heart when she said, “No, I don’t want to be a burden on her, she’s so stressed, and I’m getting older. I should be able to comfort myself.” This girl wasn’t avoiding talking to her mom because she didn’t like her, she was avoiding her mom because she didn’t want act like a child or stress her mother out!

There is such a tug-of-war with teenagers. They push their parents away, but want their parents’ comfort and support. So when your teen pushes you away, don’t stay away!  Instead, keep trying to connect and interact with them. Hug them, write them a note, ask them about school, even when they are as prickly as a hedgehog. Keep trying, loving and building a relationship with them. It’s not easy, even for an objective third-party like a counselor! But the trade-off is so worth it, because when they are close to you and feel sure that you can handle their issues, you will have a truly rewarding relationship with them.

These are difficult steps to take when you are the parent of a withdrawn/sullen/frustrated teenager, but be confident. God will help give you the strength you need to love your kids when they pull away from you. When you are striving to stay calm and react lovingly, reflect on Philippians 4:13 (NIV): “I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.” You can stay calm, you can connect, and you can keep trying. Just depend on God’s strength and you will improve your relationship with your teen.

~Hilary


2 comments:

  1. Wonderfully stated! As an educator and parent of teens, I can attest that this advice is golden! Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I agree with Lanna, this is really good stuff, especially in #2.

    ReplyDelete

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