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The teen years caught me off guard. Yes, I realized my daughter was going to turn the big one-three, but it didn’t register that she was officially a teen — until she was.
Many of my friends have kids who are older than my four children, and I’d heard all the warnings. Teens think parents are clueless and total dream-crushers. Teens are moody, spending hours upon hours holed up in their rooms. They are also unreasonable. They either beg their parents for money or a ride, or they’re mouthing off and slamming their bedroom doors. There’s no middle ground, they said.
My oldest is now closer to 14 than 13, and all the “advice” I’ve been given hasn’t helped me one bit. Why? Because my daughter actually wants to talk to me — often and in-depth. I wasn’t prepared for this. I figured that once she crossed over from a tween to teen, she would loathe me. We’d have a tumultuous relationship in which I would vent to my friends that my teen doesn’t listen to a word I say. When this didn’t happen, I realized how completely ill-prepared I was. I was so fully expecting one scenario that I hadn’t anticipated how I’d react to the other.
I know, of course, that things could change at any point, but for now, my teen wants my full attention (and participation) multiple times a day. She tells me all about situations that occur at school, especially social situations with her friends. She wants to tell me science facts she’s learned, ask me about my childhood, and discuss everything from crushes to college options. I am grateful that she wants to talk to me, but this wasn’t the teen mother-and-daughter relationship everyone had tried to prepare me for.
I have had several “what-is-going-on-here” moments. Maybe you, like me, have a teen who doesn’t fit the societal norm, and perhaps you are also a bit overwhelmed and puzzled. I checked in with Rachel Macy Stafford, New York Times bestselling author, certified special educational teacher, and mom of two teens. Her book Live Love Now: Relieve the Pressure and Find Real Connection With Our Kids captivated me.
First I wanted to know: is it just me, or do parents receive some deeply negative messages about what it’s like to parent a teenager? Stafford told me that, no, we aren’t alone. There’s a true lack of information on parenting teens, she says, and so much of what we’re offered as parents is steeped in stereotypes. Teens are portrayed as “moody, rude, entitled, self-absorbed, addicted to their phone.” The problem is that these negative labels not only create harm, but they also undermine both the teen and the parent-child relationship.
She reminds us that teens are in a critical stage of life where they are “growing into themselves, finding their way, and cultivating their strengths and gifts.” They need their parents to be allies; that is, “people who see the best in them, so they are more likely to see it in themselves.” So our job is actually to be an ally, not an adversary? Whew!
My own teen years, and probably yours too, resulted in getting “grounded” a lot, and I’m not talking about a meditative practice. When we made a rash decision, were deceitful, or just downright mean, our parents took things away from us or made us stay home (no social events) for a time period in order to teach us a lesson. This merely made me feel resentful and unheard. It did little to deter me from making another poor choice.
Stafford says that Live Love Now was born out of an experience she had during speaking engagements with middle schoolers. She used her special education teaching experience, making sure she talked “with” and not “at” the students. After she presented, she asked students to answer a single question, writing their answer on an index card. That question was, “If you could give the world one message, what would it be?” She’d take the cards with her to her car and read through “every brave, painful and enlightening truth” — teaching her what it was like for kids to grow up in the world today. She felt convicted, she said, to “amplify the struggles, needs, hopes, and dreams of our kids.”
Stafford empathizes with parents. After all, she’s parenting two teens herself. She acknowledges that we are “living through an unprecedented time in human history, when division and distraction have us feeling lost and more disconnected than ever.” Even though this is true, she urges parents to take small steps and pursue self-examination, because “real connection with the young people in our lives can happen today.”
Whether your teen is like mine, and wants to chat up a storm on a regular basis, or is disconnected, depressed, or over-stressed, there is hope. We don’t have to surrender ourselves to a stereotype that the teen years should be fraught with angst — from both the teen and the parent. The key to navigating this challenging season of parenting is connection, whenever and however it can happen.
Stafford shared that when speaking to students, one statement repeatedly came up. Students said, “I want my parents to be part of my life.” Yet, Stafford acknowledges that most teens aren’t going to approach their parents and say or show this in a direct manner.
Practically speaking, Stafford offers some suggestions on what parents can do to connect with their teens. First, she says we should ask our kids to do things with us. She shares that yes, her teens will decline her offer most of the time — but occasionally, they say yes.
Second, we need to toughen up a bit — not on our teens, but on ourselves. We cannot take our kids’ rejections personally. Remember, teens are trying to gain their own sense of independence, of who they are apart from their parents and families. Just because they say no, you don’t get a pass to shut out your kid. Keep asking. Stafford also reminds us that there “isn’t a single person on this earth who doesn’t want to know that someone finds them worthy of time and presence.”
What about when we’re struggling ourselves? Adult stressors like bills, relationships, careers, household responsibilities, and parenting our other kids pile up. Stafford says we don’t have to pretend. She’s a big believer in “allowing our teens to see our humanness.” We can tell our child how we’re feeling (such as “overwhelmed”) and let them know we’re going to recharge. Then promise when you plan to touch base. By sharing our true feelings in a healthy, responsible way, she says, we are modeling healthy coping skills for our teens and giving them the opportunity to be empathetic.
Stafford offers tons more ideas in her book
— but from these few examples, you get the picture. Teens need to connect with parents — even when their attitudes and actions say otherwise.
Stafford shares that her hope “is that when one of my daughters encounters something beyond her frame of reference, she will not feel helpless or hopeless.” She will know that her parents are safe and familiar people to approach. That trust and connection can make a big difference.
Connective parenting is all about just that: connection. That’s what we all crave, teenagers and adults alike. We can’t punish or lecture our kids into having flawless teen years, nor should we. This is their season to experience trial and error on repeat, and it’s our job to be there — no matter what — through this journey.