If I had a dollar for every time a parent asked me this question, I would be one of those millionaire therapists who work from their homes in the guest house offices that you see on those marvelous therapy television programs. Fortunately for you, the following words of advice are on the house!
Parents have been baffled for centuries over why their teen just doesn’t think they’re cool enough, warm enough, strong enough to “handle the truth”, calm enough and open enough to share their deepest thoughts, feelings, and concerns.
Well the answer might surprise you.
Fear. Fear of being punished, fear of being judged, fear of being invalidated, fear of letting you down, fear of crushing your view of them, and just general fear. Teens are fully aware of how they are viewed in their parents’ eyes (or at least they think they are). Their number one fear is disappointing you.
“I’m not mad at you, I’m just disappointed.”
The above sentence is a commonly used phrase among parents and teachers when instilling discipline in children and teens. Why? Because it works. Your Teens know that you love them and have had them on a pedestal since you shared that first glimmer in each other’s lives. The last thing your teen wants is to ruin that perfect, beautiful image you have of them. Sharing their inner feelings, particularly for a child who is struggling emotionally, can certainly threaten that perfect view your teen may think you hold for him/her.
So as a parent, what can you do?
First, you can set a more realistic image of your teenager. Let’s face it, they’re not the doe-eyed 1-year-old who snuggled endlessly, laughed at every funny face you made and lived to see you smile at them anymore. They are a person; a developing ever-changing person who needs to know that however they decide to change, you will accept. You have to show your teenager that you are okay with their imperfections and differences.
A B+ on a test should be praised, not scolded for “where did those extra points go?”…. Many teens report that their parents are very quick to notice the negative and rarely bring attention to the positive. Do your best as a parent to draw attention to the positive aspects in your teen’s life and quietly take note of the negative items until they become a problem.
Show interest in their differences and unique qualities. This may include but is not limited to music, arts, fashion, gender, sexuality and choice of friends. Be open-minded as your teenager explores different ideas and ways of expressing themselves. Make sure they know your home is an accepting one where however they decide to live their lives (as long as it is safely) will be accepted.
Ask direct questions without avoiding certain subjects – teens don’t always pick up on subtleties and are typically more honest when asked more specific questions. A question that is too vague can sometimes appear as probing or confrontational and may be met with defensiveness. If you’re curious about a particular topic in your teen’s life, ask the question outright and you are more likely to get a response that you are looking for. Allow the answer to be, “I’m not ready to talk about it,” as it’s possible to occur. However, even that above statement is a teenager expressing his/her feelings to you.
Respect the thoughts, feelings and concerns of your teenager. Don’t write off an opinion of a child just because they are younger than you. Children and teens often are aware of their thoughts and feelings and if they feel invalidated in any way, they are likely to seek out distance.
Building a supportive relationship with your teenager might be a challenge at first, particularly if you have not been very successful thus far. Relationship building can take time and may suffer growing pains but continuing to be a supportive and empathic parent will heighten your chances of working towards a closer relationship between you and your teenager. Family therapy is another way to help strengthen this relationship and your teen might be more willing than you may think to work on family-related issues.