Teenagers Need Space, Not Smothering

Lay your cards on the table and walk away in the hopes that your teenager will call you back to play the game. This statement sums up parenting an adolescent child. The longing for the younger, carefree child remains, but now you need to let go.

The parent child bond

It’s easy to soothe a six year old’s sadness or pain. Simply noticing and asking what’s wrong welcomes tears and an avalanche of explanations. The outcome really all depends on the parent being present and expressive enough to calm the child. 

This builds a bond and fulfills a need in the child to feel loved, valued and supported. It gives kids room to speak about their feelings which may not be revealed without being asked. Their confidence grows and by the time they are teenagers, self-expression is barely a thought, it just is. If they find themselves challenged, going to mom or dad with it is still a good option. 

When the bond ruptures

For some teenagers though, this emotional umbilical cord, more often than not, is abruptly cut. Asking or intimating an adolescent requires a skill that can only be learnt after enough snubs or silent rebuttals. This stage is hard for parents who are so used to being the go to for every incident. 

Now the doors and mouths are shut. Verbal and non-verbal communication lines are closed. At this point, parents start hovering and asking kids “What’s wrong?”, “What are you feeling?”, “Why don’t you talk to me?”

Instead of being overly anxious and wanting so desperately to get back the dependent child, this is where parent’s need to learn restraint and allow the child to process their own issues and come to you when they choose. This approach lessens parental burden while silently consenting to the child’s emotional growth. 

You run the risk of clipping their wings when you continuously and prematurely block them from experiencing their growing pains and asking them to let you in. You also run the risk of being lied to, because in interrupting their vulnerable moments, they might say something to quell your desire to know they are ok, as opposed to say what is really going on. 

This is especially pivotal if they are in the beginnings of an experience that requires a full circle for them to learn something. Pre-empting children is a sure way to get them into more trouble if they are let off before the lesson is learnt. 

Hold back and give it time

Giving it time then, allows for a transfer to occur as the parent watches the child experience their individual pains and lets them come after considering several solution scenarios in solitude. There is also the sad possibility that they won’t come to you. At first it’s heartbreaking but this too will get better. Just give it time. If they do come to you, the engagement will be more thoughtful, mature and meaningful. 

When asked for help, take the opportunity to listen, teach and show love. Because the moments of bonding become fewer, you will most likely be fully present and use thoughtful words on your parental part. Of course this might not always be achieved. Adults are emotional beings too, but having given the child time to simmer in their personal realm will surely gain you some respect, so that if the conversation escalates emotionally, they will give you another chance. 

As a parent, you quickly learn self-control is most often your responsibility. Teenage hormones, emotional reactivity and selfishness overpower the entire being, making it almost impossible for the child to calm themselves in order to have a sensible discussion. 

Simply put, you have to guide the conversation, because you will be asking your child to do something unimaginable at their developmental stage. In this parent-child evolution, there’ll be many trial and error periods till you get your right balance and go to guide for handling your teen in crisis. One of the biggest insights, is understanding that your child will come to you if you elicit four main attributes:

  1. They feel they won’t be judged

From time immemorial, it seems parents were doused with an internal judging barometer meant only for their offspring. A common sentiment kids have and you might have heard yours say, is “you make it seem as if you never did any of the things I do.” We know very well they are onto to us there. 

To the parent’s credit, setting judgement on a child’s behavior is meant to scare them from doing it again because you said so, but it rarely works. Kids don’t do things because you tell them not to. They don’t do them because either they don’t want to; they agree with you; or have the sense to understand that mom is right, this is stupid and I should stop. 

When your natural response is to label your child bad, irrational, foolish, irresponsible, careless, the list is endless, most kids will feel attacked as opposed to it being a wake-up call. Remove the labels and instead make it clear that what they may have done is wrong but they themselves can rectify it and choose a better way next time. 

  1. You are trustworthy and will not use the narrative against them.

When a child feels safe to share, they will tell you. They might not say the whole truth but they will give enough to get some feedback they can use to progress. If you can silence your inner critic that wants to explode with tongue lashings, information will flow. It’s probably one of the hardest things to do, listening to a child reveal their transgressions. 

No longer are these stories involving sharing of toys, pushing and shoving or simple fights with other kids during a play date. These are now real stories of online bullying, emotional abuse and budding romantic curiosities that will make you squirm. If you find it hard to endure, either let the other parent be the listener if you are a two parent home or learn to endure. Your child needs you, so get over your fears. 

  1. They have no other option but to come to you because you are the solution.

Money, parental permissions and school related activities among other things, are the keys that only the parent has access to. What children conveniently forget, is that they are minors and can barely make real life decisions without their parents consenting. They will come to ask for something only you can give. Use this opportunity to connect.

For the occasional overspending, skipping class or altercations at school, the opportunity to impart some wisdom or even the much longed for reprimand is yours for the taking. I think the sweet spot is in balancing educating and saying I told you so. It’s good to leave room for continuing the conversation beyond the problem itself.

  1. They respect your opinion on a particular issue.

Though kids may not say it, they do know their parents strong qualities. When they appreciate you know what’s what, you’ll be the first person they’ll seek out for guidance on an issue. This is the one time you get to be raised on your dusty super-power pedestal, where your child sees you as the superhero you once were. 

The key here is to make sure you practice the first three attributes described above and then you can have the parent-child dialogue of your dreams. Here you can light up as you speak on a subject you know well and because you know your child needs the answers, you can take your time and really dig deep. 

In a nutshell, teens need an environment where they grow into their own, in their time, with non-judgement and in the safety of their parent’s wise and loving presence.

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