Loving Our Teens Unconditionally
How to open the lines of communication with your teenaged kids.
Although my kids are now older, I don’t think the trauma of those years of parenting teenagers ever leaves you. So I was still intrigued by an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Right Way for Parents to Question their Teenagers”.
What was their advice? “Younger adolescents, ages 13-14, report being less likely to disclose personal information to their parents if they seemed preoccupied, distrusting, dismissive or prone to emotional outbursts.” Really? On the other hand, “when parents were accessible and calm, gave good advice and offered reciprocal disclosures about their own lives, these teens reported being more apt to talk.” Is this a new and innovative idea?
Their basic conclusion, quoting Kenneth Ginsburg, co-founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at CHOP, “the parents who know the most and who have the most influence over their child’s academics and behaviors aren’t the ones who ask lots of questions. They are often the ones who are the least reactive and who express warm, unconditional love and support.”
“Duh” is what I really want to say. But after some thought, I toned down my scorn because the reality is that even though most of us recognize these ideas to be true, and many of us may have reached this conclusion without the benefit of scientific research, the implementation of these strategies is where the difficulty lies.
We tend to react emotionally, get frustrated, be critical and engage in power struggles. In other words, we tend to do all the wrong things.
And that’s why we need the reminder. That’s why we need the affirmation that this approach works. Because it’s not instinctive. We tend to react emotionally, we tend to get frustrated, we tend to be critical, we tend to engage in power struggles. In other words, we tend to do all the wrong things, despite the evidence to the contrary. And despite what our own mind tells us.
Because so much is at stake. Because we may feel hurt. Because we may feel attacked. Because we may feel concerned. Or frightened. Because we care so much.
Our children need to know that we are a safe place, a place where they can express themselves without fear of condemnation, where they can voice their own fears and anxieties and feel understood and reassured. This is a tall order for us parents. We have our own fears and anxieties. But, like it or not, someone has to be the adult in the room. And that someone is us. Someone has to put their own insecurities aside and be there for their children. It’s a tough job, but wittingly or not, it’s actually the one we signed up for.
The good news is that the same experts remind us that our adolescents do want us to set appropriate boundaries (yes the debate over the word “appropriate” may be the arena where all those aforementioned emotions come into play), they want us to communicate concerns and have high expectations. It’s the way we do it that counts. I think many of us have found the “I trust you; it’s the other drivers I don’t trust” technique to be an effective one (even if it bends the truth slightly!).
Our teenagers know how to push our buttons but we can’t allow them to be pushed. Keeping our relationship healthy and vibrant and creating an atmosphere where they feel comfortable talking to us is so much more important than asserting our authority. I’m not saying it’s easy – we have many other demands or our lives and their behavior doesn’t always make us feel warm and cozy towards them. But it’s what we’ve got to do.
It may be what we already know, but it’s acting upon what we know that will define us – and our relationship with our children – for years to come.