Dear Mom and Dad,
I need to teach you a few things about parenting.
Love, your Teenager
Not only do I research and write about teens, but I am, in fact, parenting a teenager in my own home. Truthfully, that’s what drives most of my research. I take what I am struggling with, as a mother, see what the research says, try it with my kids, and report back. What worked? What didn’t work?
I generally consult with the experts, not only academic ones, but the ones in the battlefield. My mom friends. What do you think about this strategy? Do you agree with that philosophy? I read a lot. I visit conferences. I listen to podcasts. I pride myself on being pretty well informed. However, it recently occurred to me that I was ignoring a large and important demographic, a wealth of opinion and knowledge. I had never consulted the teenagers, themselves. What do they think about how they are parented? So, recently, I decided to do just that.
Meet my teenage son, Jackson. He is 13 years old, just dipping his toes in the water of the high school experience. In the last few months, he has been exploring new freedoms and responsibilities, defining new boundaries and enjoying new experiences and making new friends. Our relationship has changed and evolved in the last year. I am no longer the centre of his world, but am now stepping back and acting as a guide, a sounding board. At times it is exciting, others it is uncomfortable for both of us. We’ve had many conversations about the fact that we are each learning as we go, that we will each make mistakes and will each need to practice compassion and forgiveness. He is learning how to be a teenager and I am learning how to parent one. It’s quite an adventure.
I recently took my son for dinner and picked his brain for an adolescent perspective on everything from technology to sex. It was one of the most valuable conversations I have ever had. I think he enjoyed it, too. Here are some tidbits of advice from my insightful, charming and painfully honest son.
On maintaining meaningful connection with teenagers:
“Just because we don’t spend as much time with you or with the family, doesn’t mean that we don’t love you anymore. We need to go out into the world and find our way, but we will always come back, especially when we need to feel safe or need help solving a problem. If you want to spend more time with your teenager, find out what they are interested in and experience that with them. I like going on holidays with my family because we like being at the lake together, but spending time together doesn’t always need to be a big adventure. Come to my soccer games, take me for a hike or find a TV show that we both love and can watch together.”
My take on this: Teenagers still need their parents and crave connection with the family. These moments may be fewer and farther between, but they’re still important. Finding a mutually agreeable activity may take more work than it used to. We need to meet our teens in their comfort zone. The bonus is, when we are spending time together in an atmosphere that is relaxed and enjoyable, conversation will flow. Teens will let their guard down and give us a glimpse into what is going on in their world.
On respecting privacy:
“Parents ask too many questions, especially moms. I get it. You are trying to find out what’s happening in our lives, but sometimes it feels like an invasion of privacy. Sometimes, it’s important to wait until your kid brings something up. If they want to tell you about their life, they will. It’s okay for you to ask, once in a while, especially if your kid doesn’t tell you anything, but, you need to respect them if they say that they are not ready to talk about it.”
My take on this: Teenagers process every day. They navigate academic expectations, social pressure and family dynamics. When they get home, they need to unwind and their version of decompressing may not be having a heart-to-heart with their parent. I love the term “holding space.” As parents, we essentially need to stand ready, arms open wide, for at any moment our teens may be ready to disclose or start a dialogue. At that moment, we drop everything and listen.
On high school:
“It’s important for parents to back off once we reach high school. It’s embarrassing for a parent to be constantly emailing my teachers. I need to learn how to handle things in my own way and make my own decisions. You can guide us because we might not always make good choices. You can tell me to smarten up and do my homework. You can explain the consequences of not doing my homework. But at the end of the day, it’s my choice whether I do it or not.”
My take on this: We need to resist the urge to micromanage. Teenagers need room to make mistakes, to own their actions and to learn from them. If we are always fixing their problems and making decisions on their behalf, how will they learn to be resilient? My son is right. His choices, though I may not agree with them, are his to make. They will evolve into his problems, which are essentially, not my problems. Though they may feel like my problems, or a direct reflection on my parenting, the consequences that follow are for him to suffer and the responsibility to restore justice falls on his shoulders, not mine.
On having “The Talk”:
“It’s best to have that conversation before kids start dating, otherwise the awkward level goes way up because it seems like you are thinking about my sex life. All kids know that they need to have ‘The Talk’ but we want you to keep it short. Be honest and direct. You can even be graphic. But don’t drag it out. I would rather have a few short talks than one long one. Also, it’s helpful to have it some place where I don’t have to sit across from you. I don’t want to look at you. Maybe in the car, where I can look out the window is a good place.”
My take on this: Well said, Jackson.
“I understand why parents want to check our phones. You want to keep us safe and make sure we are not getting into a sticky situation, especially when it comes to texting. It actually makes me feel like you care about me. What we don’t like, though, is you snooping and doing it when we’re not looking. Just respect us enough to ask us first. We’ll usually hand over our devices. If not, the phone belongs to you and you can take it away at any time.”
My take on this: Need I say more?
On parents being real and making mistakes:
“I get that you have your own problems. You’re human. Sometimes you lose your patience or yell or swear and it’s okay. Just say you’re having a bad day, although I don’t need to know the details. If you lose it, apologize and explain why you lost your temper. We can learn from that and you are setting a good example. It makes me feel like I can tell you when I screw up. When I do make mistakes, sit and listen. Help me find a solution, if I ask you. Or, you can ask how I am going to fix it. But try not to say too much. I already feel bad. You don’t need to make it worse. Then, move on. Don’t keep bringing up all the mistakes I have made.”
My take: Parents need to normalize mistakes so that teens feel safe coming to us when they need help. None of us are perfect, so we should be modelling ownership and restorative action. Try not to judge the person, only the behaviour, and help your child find the lesson that lives within each failure.
I highly recommend having this conversation with your teenagers! Take them on a date and ask them to share their perceptions of the teenage experience, of your relationship with them and of how you are supporting their growth. In having this conversation with my son, it showed him how much I value his opinion. It demonstrated that I am also learning and that we are in this together. It has been said that we can learn as much from our children as they can learn from us, so put those words into action and prepare to be amazed!