Originally published in the Marina Times.
I used to think the toddler years were hard until we had teenagers. Toddler years are taxing physically, but the teen years can be challenging in a different way. Teens are finally back in school, in person, and life for them is returning to normal. My daughter attended her first high school football game, and it almost brought tears to my eyes to see the student section where there were cheers, smiles, and laughter for hours. This return to normal also has shed light on just how complicated our teens and their lives can be. They are balancing school, extracurriculars, family, and a social schedule much different from the last 18 months, and with continued concerns about Covid and social media, it’s a whole new realm.
Our teens need us now more than ever, but how do we strengthen a relationship when most days it feels like we are the last ones they want to talk to or be with? Communication is the key to your relationship, and although this is a daily work in progress at our house, here are some helpful tips:
Finding time to connect with your teens can be challenging, especially if it seems like they are always in their room with the door closed. It can be an adjustment for parents who may have been the go-to for stories about their day, friend problems, or homework questions to have that role suddenly shift to their friend group. This is normal, albeit difficult.
Try to carve out time when you notice they are open to talking. We have found that to be in the car, because we spend a lot of time there. If we are both in the front seat it also helps with those difficult conversations when they don’t have to make eye contact.
Timing is also about being available, and often it is not on our time schedule. I have learned that when one of my teens wants to talk or tell me something, I should drop everything and become available because the opportunity may not come again.
Ideally, you also want to time tough conversations when both you and your teens are calm. Try not to get emotional or stoop to their level if they are being rude or passive aggressive. I have a mantra I repeat in my head during those moments, Do not engage. This is a reminder to stay calm and try to model good communication skills. This doesn’t always happen, but it is a good goal.
It can be our first inclination to want to share all our advice and wisdom with our teens. This can be helpful especially in demonstrating we weren’t perfect and made mistakes, but the most powerful tool for this age group is to listen more than we talk. Listen with understanding and without judgment, and try to stay open and interested.
Another trap parents fall into after listening is we to try to solve their problems. Try to resist that urge. Give them the opportunity to solve their own problem or help them come up with ideas, and to understand some of their decisions will have consequences. We do them a huge disservice when we are constantly trying to save or rescue them from their decisions or mistakes. As painful as this can be to watch, it is part of growing up and how they learn to survive as adults in the world.
The key to good communication is trust, which goes both ways. This is especially true when building bonds with our teens. We recently learned our daughter lied to us about her plans, and when confronted and asked why, she said she didn’t think we would let her go. We shared that she didn’t give us a chance, and we would always prefer having an open dialogue as opposed to sneaking around.
There will be a lot of things we would rather our teens not do, so establishing trust and open communication is so important. Teens want to be taken seriously, so look for ways to show that you trust them. One way is by asking for a favor or letting them do something, which shows you rely on them and trust them to do it.
I fully acknowledge these tips are much easier to write than to implement, but don’t give up — you can do this! Parenting teens is hard, so having a good, trusting relationship is more important than ever. Take a deep breath, and put yourselves in their shoes. They aren’t perfect, and they will make mistakes; our job is to help guide them and to constantly reassure them that we will be there for them through their triumphs and their stumbles.
Liz Farrell is a monthly columnist for San Francisco's Marina Times newspaper. She is a busy mom of three kids--a high schooler, middle schooler and a grade schooler. Liz is also very active in her community serving as Board Chair of the San Francisco Parks Alliance.