Communication is key in any relationship and there is no greater chasm in communication than the one you find between a parent and teen (or pre-teen). I don’t think anything can adequately prepare a parent for the challenges that creep in while raising a student between the ages of 11 and 19. Most students during that time have resorted to a confusing communication style. If eye rolls, foot stomping, door slamming, silent treatments, and exasperated sighs could be turned into a sort of Morse code then as parents, we might actually have some idea of what’s being said. Instead, we are left to interpret those actions and I think we, at the expense of the relationship, tend to misread them. There are so many things your student isn’t telling you…not because they don’t want to, but because they aren’t sure how to manage the tension between dependence and independence.
I’m writing this article based on my experience as a parent and the many hours that I’ve worked with students. I have been far from perfect as a parent. In fact, most days I’m still working at decoding the signals from my four boys.
And if I’m gut honest, I still feel like I’m messing it all up. However, I think these five things are pretty universal when it comes to kids during the adolescent years. And I think we can learn so much from these statements, myself included.
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- “I need you.”
I know it seems contradictory to what their actions are saying, but they need you. Yes, they are pulling away, yes they are wanting independence, but we misinterpret that to mean they don’t need us. They DO need you. They just need you in different ways. Each student is different in the ways that they need you during these years. In fact, I have open conversations with my boys regularly and ask them “what do you need from me in this season?” Most times they answer with a mumbled “I don’t know.” So, I use this time to ask more specifically (based on their personality and what I’ve observed in our relationship) what they need.
Do you need me to…?
- help you work on a skill (guitar, football, math, etc.) **You don’t have to be an expert in these areas to find YouTube videos, pay for lessons, or find a friend that can help.
- cook you your favorite meal this week – buy you your favorite things (for my boys this can range from Chapstick to a special candy)
- listen while you process (they don’t always need our opinions or solutions) – help you organize your room
- “I want to be close with you.”
I can’t tell you how many students I have sat with over the years that are in tears describing the distance they feel between them and their parents. And it’s not always the students you’d expect. On the outside they look like they don’t care, they don’t want to talk with you, and they have a “don’t even look at me” stare in their eyes. But when you look past that, they are crushed that they aren’t close with you. Many of them are filled with so much shame and regret over how they’ve complicated the relationship with you. They KNOW they have messed up, given you reason to mistrust them, and have under-appreciated you. They are very aware of their disrespectfulness. But they are desperate for you to love them anyway, push past the hurt and disappointment and work hard at redefining the relationship.
It’s important for us to look for new ways to connect with them. As a five-year-old they may have jumped at the opportunity to build Legos with you or read a book. But as a young adult, that’s probably not where they are at. It’s important that we find new ways to connect with them and make the most of the small amounts of time we get with them. Although busy teen schedules also require your professional taxi skills, that time is precious. We can either resent having to be their chauffeur or we can become a taxi driver with a purpose. I do not regret getting up early, staying up late, or any other momentary inconvenience to my schedule that gave me the opportunity to connect with my kids. Sometimes we rode in silence. Other times we talked about meaningless things. And then there are those moments that things got real… my heart sharing with his heart. No matter what type of conversation we were having, through consistency I was trying to intentionally communicate my desire to connect with them in this new season. They may not TELL you that they want to be close to you, but you can tell THEM through your actions that you want to be close to them.
- “I want rules but I want to understand the why behind your rules.”
Most students feel like some of the rules we have as parents are unreasonable or confusing. And let’s face it. Sometimes we adjust those rules based on how we are feeling, their recent behavior, the last two hours of work, the weather, if we are hungry, and well…just about everything can play a factor into our decision-making. I have talked with students whose parents have little to no restrictions for them. Do you think they love that? Nope. They tell me how they wish their parents would tell them no sometimes. To them, the lack of rules communicates a lack of care, concern and love for them. AND, in some cases, I’ve had students wish their parents said no more often so they wouldn’t be stuck in some situations.
Rules are important for kids during this time. But I’ve also found that helping them understand WHY you said no is just as important. They may not agree or understand fully, but at least we aren’t always communicating “because I said so!”. During this stage in their lives, students are trying to learn how to make decisions on their own. We aren’t giving them the tools to equip them if we aren’t helping them see why we say what we do. In essence, you are teaching them to fish rather than feeding them for a day. This also helps with the big gap in communication. When they can hear our heart…that it’s not because we don’t want them to have a good life, then they will hopefully begin to see a bit of the why.
Often, I have shared with students this particular story of one of my boys. As a toddler, he LOVED to play in the busy road by our house. As a parent, it was my worst nightmare. He hated my rule: No playing in the road. And he would break that rule as often as he could get just out of my line of sight. I didn’t have that rule because I didn’t want him to have fun (although that’s what he claimed). I had that rule because I loved him and wanted him safe. Each time I would tell him my “why” he would kick and scream as I carried him away from danger. But with time, he came to realize that the rule was meant to keep him safe. When we can talk openly about the why’s behind our rules, hopefully one day they will realize that your rules are meant to keep them safe. Until then, it’s our job to live through the kicking and screaming as we continue to carry them away from danger.
- “I don’t just want freedom, I want to be trusted and empowered.”
Although rules are necessary during this stage, so is freedom. Based on our student’s personality, maturity and level of responsibility, we should be slowly releasing them to make some of their own decisions. Parents, it does not help your student to mature if you are making the decisions for them. I tell my boys often that as they build trust with us, we will give them freedom. Whenever they show us they can’t handle that freedom, we will have to give them restrictions or discipline. This helps them to see that #1) you are trusting them with privilege #2) with privilege comes responsibility and #3) freedom is given and kept by the choices they make. We should be giving them more and more freedom as they mature. As we do that, we are communicating to them that we trust them and in turn, they begin to trust themselves more.
I’ve seen what happens to students when they aren’t used to making decisions by themselves or aren’t used to having freedom. As soon as there isn’t someone looking over their shoulder telling them no, they don’t know what to do. Often times they choose to do all the wrong things because they’ve never been empowered to make the right decisions…only to follow the right rules as long as there is someone close to enforce it. Our goal should be to hand off decisions as they are ready. And when they do mess up…because they will…we can lovingly coach them through the consequences of their decision and help them see how they can learn from their mistake. Through it all, we should be communicating that our end goal is to empower them to be the incredible young adult we know they can be.
- “You just don’t understand.”
I realize that this may have been screamed at you or said under their breath sometime in the last month so technically they are already saying it. But I think we, as parents, aren’t hearing it. The truth is, we DON’T understand. They are scared, hurting, and overwhelmed. They are struggling. We tend to dismiss these things because their book report that’s due seems pretty insignificant compared to our stress of the electric bill that’s due. We can’t dismiss or minimize their pain. Not all their emotions can be blamed on hormones or overreactions to their current circumstances.
Life for a student is hard. The pressure they feel this year is unlike any pressure they’ve felt up till now. And although you were once their age, they face many pressures that we didn’t. Technology has added a whole new level of stress and pressure to students. We don’t understand that. And we may never understand what they are experiencing. But we can give them a safe place to process…a place where they will not be judged or told that life isn’t “as bad as they think”, or given a million things that they can do to not feel so overwhelmed.
Sometimes they just need you to listen and say “I’m sorry. I know this isn’t easy.”
One thing I learned to do (after messing up a bunch), was to say “Is there anything I can do?” Sometimes they have specific things that you can do, sometimes they will ask you for advice and other times they will tell you that they just need you to listen. But as best as possible, it’s our job as parents to model empathy so they know although we may not always understand, we care, we will listen, and we are safe; they don’t need to carry the weight alone.
Originally Published on June 13th, 2018.