Dear Dr Justin,
"My son is 14 and up until recently we have always been close. When he got in from school he couldn't wait to tell me about his day. But everything has changed. Now he seems angry and hostile all the time, and nothing I do ever makes him happy. What can I do to connect with him again?"
Kids don’t tend to be particularly talkative at the end of the school day. That makes sense in many ways. As adults, we aren’t typically bursting with desire to talk through things either. We usually like to decompress and have a little bit of time to ourselves before we start to open up again.
The teen years, however, are notable for this. Often a previously sweet and loving child turns into an argumentative, rebellious young person. You find yourself wondering where you went wrong, where this angry teenager came from? Teens and parents do clash, but it doesn't have to become an "allergic" relationship!
As hard as it is to experience, it is developmentally appropriate for teens to pull away from their parents. It’s called identity development, and it’s essential for our adolescents to do this to become fully functioning adults, to develop their own sense of who they are and to create their own personalities, with individual opinions, ideas and experiences. But the process can be difficult. Especially for the parents!
For some teens, they feel that the best way to become ‘themselves’ is to say no to all the other humans around them (and parents are the humans they deal with the most). This leads to opposition, frustration and retaliation. Parents need to understand that this behaviour is part of the process of growing up, but it isn’t personal. And just because they may not like us at the moment, doesn’t mean they don’t love us.
A passing and not permanent fixture
Mark Twain might have said it best when he said,
"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."
Dr Carl Pickhardt describes these teen years as “an unwelcome change” but one that is a “passing and not permanent fixture”. Your teen will grow through this stage, and will love you again. It may take seven years, as Mark Twain says, but it will happen. The most important thing is to maintain a good relationship with them during this time.
How to get through the teen years
Getting through these years is really tricky. I've got three teens and three on the way so I am facing these issues every day. My advice is not just based on science, but on real life. Here are my rules for getting through the teen years:
Rule number 1 –
They need love, so stay close to your kids. They want us and need us to be involved in their lives, even if they act like they don’t. Being involved doesn't mean constantly telling them what to do though. In fact, this is the time when the parent-teen relationship should become less authoritarian and more egalitarian. If our teens feel that we are constantly telling them what to do, giving them correction and direction, it doesn't work out so well.
But our teens still need to know that they are loved. Research shows that teens deal best with the great upheavals of these years when their parents take the time to listen and talk to them. Create opportunities for communication, such as family mealtimes or driving to school, training, work, or other activities.
Rule number 2 –
They need limits. No teen wants limits, but boundaries keep them safe. Strong parents are careful to set sensible limits, but not in a way that feels like they’re having something done to them. Rather, we want our teens to feel that we are working with them. Create natural and realistic boundaries, with their input, so they feel secure but still have the space they need to feel a sense of independence. And though we shouldn’t make too many hard and fast rules, we need to stand by the ones we do make.
We can still keep them safe. We do this by watching their moods closely, getting to know their friends, and paying attention to how they are doing at school and in their activities.
Rule number 3 –
They need laughter, so have fun together! One of the best ways to develop a more equal adult relationship with your child as he grows is to find a mutual interest. Find an activity that you both love and do it together. This lets you get to know your teen in a new way, and equally important, allows your teen to get to know YOU in a new way. Best of all, it is an opportunity to feel close to each other again. Play music together, loud. Sing. Play games. Wrestle. Find ways to laugh, and do it often.
And a bonus rule: Rule number 4 –
Ensure there are other trustworthy adults they can turn to. Our teens may not feel comfortable coming to us with their problems right now. We need to make sure they have other supportive adults they can go to. This could be a teacher, a family member, or a coach.
By incorporating these rules, we can stay close to our teens, even when they are feeling “allergic” to us.
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