Positive parenting a teenager? A terrific teen who’s responsible, considerate, shows good judgment, at least most of the time? Yes, it is possible! You may not feel like you have much influence on your child these days, but teens’ behaviour is highly correlated with the strength of their bonds with their parents. Good relationships between teenagers and their parents, as rated by both, are positively correlated with school success and general happiness as rated by the teen, and also by those around her.
By contrast, weak or conflictual parent/teen relationships are correlated with early sexual activity, experimentation with drugs and alcohol, the teen’s involvement in violence, (as either perpetrator or victim) and suicide.
How do you parent this blossoming person who sometimes seems to be becoming a stranger? Here’s 14 essential tips:
1. Remember you’re a parent AND a friend.
Teens crave the security of knowing their parents understand them, appreciate and love them no matter what – so they do want the relationship to be a form of friendship. But they also need to feel like they have some independence, so sometimes you may feel a bit shut out. If you can navigate your closeness in an accepting way that doesn’t take advantage of your role as parent to tell your child what to do, he’s more likely to open up and share with you.
Does a close friendship erode your teen’s respect for you? No. Don’t you respect your friends and treasure those who are really there for you emotionally? If you offer your teen respect, consideration and authenticity, that’s what you’ll receive in return.
And as close as you want to be to your teen, sometimes you will have to pull rank and say “No”. If you’re doing it often, that’s a red flag that something is wrong. But sometimes your teen will be looking to you to set limits they can’t set for themselves. Sometimes you’ll need to stick by your values and say “No”, whether that’s to an unsupervised party or a very late bedtime. And of course, sometimes your teen will be able to use your guidance to come up with a win-win solution that answers your concerns.
2. Establish dependable together time.
Be sure to check-in every single day. A few minutes of conversation while you’re cleaning up after dinner or right before bedtime can keep you tuned in and establish open communication. Even teens who seem to have forgotten who their parents are the other 23 hours a day often respond well to a goodnight hug and check-in chat once they’re lounging in bed. In addition to these short daily check-ins, establish a regular weekly routine for doing something special with your teen, even if it’s just going out for ice cream or a walk together.
3. Parent actively and appropriately.
Don’t invite rebellion by refusing to acknowledge that your son or daughter is growing up and needs more freedom. But don’t be afraid to ask where your kids are going, who they’ll be with and what they’ll be doing. Get to know your kids’ friends and their parents so you’re familiar with their activities.
4. Try to be there after school.
The biggest danger zone for drug use and sex isn’t Saturday night; it’s between 3:00-6:00 p.m. on week days. Arrange flex time at work if you can. If your child will be with friends, make sure there’s adult supervision, not just an older sibling.
5. Keep your standards high.
Your teen wants to be his or her best self. Our job as parents is to support our teens in doing that. But don’t expect your child to achieve goals you decide for her; she needs to begin charting her own goals now, with the support of a parent who adores her just as she is and believes that she can do anything she aims to. Support your teen’s passions and explorations as she finds her unique voice.
6. Make it a high priority to eat meals together.
Meals are a great opportunity to talk about the days events, to unwind, reinforce and bond. They’re also your best opportunity to keep in touch with your teen’s life and challenges and to spot brewing problems. Finally, an important factor in kids’ happiness and overall success is whether they feel they get time to “just hang out and talk” with parents every day.
Dinner is the best predictor we have of how kids will do in adolescence. The more frequently kids eat dinner with their families, the better they do in school and the less likely they are to get involved with drugs or alcohol, suffer depression, consider suicide or become sexually active during high school.
7. Keep the lines of communication humming.
If you don’t know what’s going on, you lose all hope of influencing the outcome.
Most parents of teens will tell you they regret not talking more with their kids between the ages of eight and thirteen. They may have moved their kids along from homework to baths or from church to soccer, but always assumed they’d have the deep discussions when their kids were a little older. But most parents are shocked to realize that teens have other priorities and the opportunities for family discussion and parental influence dwindle unless you’ve made deep discussions a habit all along. How? Commit now to focusing on your kids when you’re with them and put energy into creating real discussions.
8. Encourage good self-care.
Self-care is vital for well-being. Every teen needs nine and a half hours of sleep and a good diet. Coffee is a bad idea for early teens because it interferes with normal sleep patterns. Too much screen time, especially in the hour before bedtime, reduces melatonin production and makes it harder for kids to fall asleep.
9. Continue family meetings.
Held regularly at a mutually agreed upon time, family meetings provide a forum for discussing triumphs, grievances, sibling disagreements, schedules, any topic of concern to a family member. Ground rules help. Everyone gets a chance to talk; one person talks at a time without interruption; everyone listens, and only positive, constructive feedback is allowed. To get resistant teens to join in, combine the get-together with incentives such as post-meeting pizza or ice cream or assign them important roles such as recording secretary or rule enforcer.
10. Keep kids safe and connected to the family by keeping computers in your common space.
It can be hard for parents to track what teens do online because they usually know more about the computer than we do. But research shows that he’ll be less tempted to spend time doing things you’d disapprove of if the computer is in a common space where you can walk by and glance at what he’s doing. Kids live online these days but he can still stay connected to his family if online is in the heart of your home.
11. Don’t push your teen into independence before he’s ready.
Every teen has his own timetable for blossoming into an independent person. Real independence includes close relationships with others and it never needs to include rebelliousness. It is NOT healthy for your child to feel that you’re pushing him into independence – that only leads to him becoming overly dependent on the peer group for validation. If he isn’t ready to go to sleep away camp for a month, then he isn’t ready. Sooner or later he will be. Respect his timetable.
12. Make agreements and teach your child to make repairs.
If you’ve raised your child without punishment, he will almost certainly be close to you. Because he doesn’t want to damage the trust between you, he won’t lie to you and he won’t usually infringe on your limits. If he does, ask him how he can make repairs, including repairing your trust.
13. What if you’ve raised your child with punishment and nows she’s breaking your rules and lying to you?
It’s never too late to help her learn to take responsibility, but to start, she has to value her relationship with you. That means you need to stop punishing and start listening and connecting. You also need to insist that she find ways to make repairs. That’s a tricky dance, because punishment will make things worse, so she has to choose the repair – and yet you are still insisting that she do so. No, it’s not a punishment – it’s a way for her to make things better when she messes up, which is what all adults need to learn to do. But she’ll only understand it this way if she wants to please you, so if you need to go to counseling together to create that relationship, don’t hesitate.
14. Stay connected even as she moves into the world.
If we’ve accepted our child’s dependency needs AND affirmed her development into her own separate person, she’ll stay fiercely connected to us even as her focus shifts to peers, high school and the passions that make her soul sing.
It’s appropriate for teens to want to spend more time with their peers than their parents as they get older, but kids who are well grounded in their families will respond well to parents’ efforts to stay connected. And parents who have bonded adequately with their children at each earlier stage will feel invested enough in their teens to stay connected, even if a lot of effort is required.
It’s critical, during the teen years, for parents to remain their children’s emotional and moral compass. Kids will begin to experiment with intimate relationships outside the family, but to do that successfully they still rely on those intimate relationships at home remaining solid. That means that a fourteen year old who focuses mostly outwards is probably looking for something he wasn’t getting at home.
We need to invite our children to rely on us emotionally until they’re emotionally ready to depend on themselves. Too often, in our culture, we let teenagers transfer their dependency outside the family with disastrous results. Teens often give up a great deal of themselves in pursuit of the closeness they crave, only to crash against the hard reality that other teens aren’t developmentally able to offer them what they need to flourish as independent young adults.
You may not be at the top of your teen’s list nowadays, but work like the dickens to stay close and don’t take it for granted that your child will now push you away. That’s a sign of a damaged relationship. Don’t give up. It’s never too late in your relationship with your child to do repair work and move closer.
Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How To Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, and now her latest book, The Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids Workbook: Using mindfulness and connection to raise resilient, joyful children and rediscover your love of parenting.
Dr. Laura Markham earned her PhD in clinical psychology at Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless families across the world. Over 130,000 moms and dads enjoy Dr. Laura’s free weekly coaching posts via email. You can sign up on any page of her website, AhaParenting.com, which serves up Aha! Moments for parents of babies through teens. Dr. Laura’s aspiration is to change the world, one child at a time, by supporting parents. The proud mother of two thriving young adults who were raised with her peaceful parenting approach, she lives with her husband in New York.