Teen comes out of bedroom. Parent asks, “How’s everything going?”
“Is something wrong?”
“Where are you going?”
“Hang out with friends.”
“Be back by eleven.”
No response. Door closes.
Shortly after 12:00, the child comes in the door.
“Where have you been?”
“Hanging out with friends.”
“I asked you to be home by eleven.”
“I lost track of the time.”
“What were you doing?”
“Why didn’t you call?”
“I don’t know.”
“You need to remember when I tell you things.”
“Can I go to bed now? I’m tired.”
Teen goes off to room.
Whether teenagers act like it or not, they want to connect with their parents. They want to feel their love and acceptance, and they want to share their life with them.
Some parents get along great with their teens. But for many, there seems to be an impenetrable wall of disconnect. Some may feel like there is nothing they can do to break the wall of silence and estrangement that stands constantly between them and their son or daughter.
If you find yourself in this situation, recognize that you are not alone. Not only do other parents struggle with this, but your teen is suffering from the lack as well. In a way, you can empathize with what they are going through. They don’t like the wall any more than you do.
When your son or daughter is struggling, it may seem easy to recognize what they are doing wrong, and it’s even easier to tell them what they are doing wrong. But often, rather than fixing the problem, parents damage their relationship with their teen in the attempt to help.
Your ability to help your teen depends on the quality of your relationship. If that relationship is damaged, the teen may run into more trouble than they would have otherwise.
The first step is to recognize your role in repairing the relationship. You cannot expect your son or daughter to start talking more openly or contributing more time to the family – in fact, you can’t count on your teen to do anything different than they have done before. But you can change your attitude, and your behavior. Don’t blame yourself, but take on the responsibility of changing. And if you’re diligent, and your efforts sincere, your teen will likely change their behavior, too.
It’s not that young people can’t repair the relationship they have with their parents. It’s that whoever recognizes the need and feels the desire for change has to take on the full responsibility for change. You must focus on what you can control, and the only person you can completely control is yourself.
If your relationship with your teen is in a rut, consider this acronym for what may be missing:
RUT: Respect, Understanding, and Trust. Chances are, one or all of these are lacking between you and your son or daughter. As you begin demonstrating these three things toward your teenager, you may find these attributes reciprocated.
Chances are, both you and your teen have struggled with demonstrating respect toward each other. Your teen might not respect you, but remember, you have to be the one to make the move.
Your son or daughter wants to be treated like an adult, and will respond much more favorably if you talk to them the way you would talk to another adult. Obviously you have to teach them right from wrong, and the consequences of their choices, but don’t preach to them. Share your feelings about what is going on. Share your concerns and help them discover where their choices are taking them, but don’t preach. There is a difference. Share your thoughts, your fears, your needs, and communicate an understanding of theirs.
Remember that no matter what your teen is doing to make things worse, this is not about their problems. It’s about restoring or improving the relationship. Respect doesn’t mean you have to agree. In fact, if your son or daughter’s choices are wrong, you must make sure not to agree, but it also means that you need to validate their views and feelings.
To borrow an analogy from Stephen R. Covey, understanding is like emotional air. Consider your hopes and dreams. Think about what matters most to you – perhaps your family, loved ones, your health and happiness. Now, imagine that while you are thinking about those things, suddenly the air in the room vanishes, and you can’t breath. What do you do?
Obviously, with the air out of the room, you would instantly forget about your hopes, dreams, and happiness. Suddenly all your thoughts focus irrationally around, “I NEED AIR!!!”
Air is to the body as understanding is to a relationship. If there is no understanding, then the emotions lose all sense of reason, and cry out for that one thing above all others. If your teenager thinks you don’t understand them, there is nothing you can do for them. They need understanding before they will listen to anything else you say. You need to rebuild in your teen the confidence that you understand them. That might not be easy, but it is crucial. If they can’t find understanding with you, they will seek it in friends, many of whom will not be the best influence on them.
When you speak to your son or daughter, don’t interrupt. This can be especially hard when your teen is being irrational. You would be irrational too if there was no air the room. They are reaching out for understanding like you would reach out for air. Let them be irrational, just listen. When they do give you a chance to speak, don’t fill it with your thoughts, rather use the opportunity to confirm that you do understand. Say something like, “So you feel that…” and repeat in your own words what they just told you. Then wait for their response. If you understood wrong, let them clarify, and when you get another chance to speak, use it again to make sure you are understanding – completely. If you stay calm and keep all forms of sarcasm out of your words, it might just open the lines of communication between the two of you. Your willingness to listen patiently, even if their words involve criticism or hurtful language, will show your son or daughter that you really do want to understand. Try to discover why they feel the way they do. Don’t jump to conclusions.
Once you get the communication lines open, keep them open. Make opportunities to talk often. Don’t be afraid to talk about the struggles you experienced as a teenager (besides walking uphill to school in -23 Fahrenheit weather), and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable in front of your teen. Saying you’re sorry or asking forgiveness can go a long way in securing understanding between the two of you. You will know the lines of communication are remaining open when your son or daughter begins coming to you to talk.
Making time for talking and playing together can provide a good opportunity for building understanding. This is important whether your teenager is having problems or not, because if they see you as the most understanding person in their life, they will come to you before problems start, and they will talk to you before their friends.
If your teen has a particularly difficult time speaking to you directly about problems they are having, start a letterbox. Any time they have a question, concern, or problem that they need to ask you about, they can write a letter and put it in a letter box. When you read it later, you respond back in a letter. Make it clear when you introduce this idea that you will not speak about issues discussed in letters unless the teen brings it up in conversation. That way they don’t have to worry about your initial reaction. They can take the time to express their thoughts in a way they are comfortable with, and you can respond in a way that they will be comfortable receiving. Just make sure you never break your rule of not confronting them face to face about what they wrote in a letter, or that method of communication is shot forever.
Trust is the glue of any relationship. Without it, even love can’t keep the relationship in tact.
Everything we do either builds or breaks trust.
If your teenager has tuned you out, then whether for good or bad there is more going on in their life than you know about. In the best case, this may just mean you don’t know what’s happening in their school work. In a worse case, there may be drugs, sex, or crime in their life that has been taking place without you knowing it. Obviously in the latter case, there can be some major trust issues to deal with. Yet without trust, your teen will never open up and tell you what’s happening.
Don’t assume trust. You can’t just suddenly pretend your son or daughter is totally trustworthy. You have to rebuild trust. Take the time and energy necessary to rebuild the trust you have in them. If your teen has proven completely untrustworthy, communicate your desire to trust them, and your willingness to work with them to rebuild trust between you.
This doesn’t mean softening or getting rid of rules (unless the rules are unnecessary or unrealistic), but it does mean you need to help your teen understand why the rules are what they are. If they understand that – truly understand it, they will live by the principles whether there are rules or not. Don’t get rid of your rules, just communicate them with love, respect, and understanding. Depending on the situation, you may even have to make more or stricter rules. Just keep the respect, love, and understanding at the forefront of your discussions. If possible, have your teen help you decide on rules, so they will want to be personally committed to them. If they feel that some rules are unfair or unnecessary, negotiate until you come up with some that you are both willing to stand by. Also, have your son or daughter help you come up with appropriate consequences for the violation of the rules. Make sure the rules you decide on serve their intended purpose – to protect the teen, strengthen the family, and work toward the goals of both. Having the teen help decide the rules and consequences of their violation can help the teen take ownership of their actions, which can begin the restoration of trust in the relationship.
As your son or daughter demonstrates trustworthiness, communicate that in everything you do, and give them opportunities to exercise the trust you have in them. Allow them privileges that match their level of trustworthiness. If your teen feels respected and understood in the relationship, they will work to gain your trust.
The Emotional Bank Account
To borrow another Covey analogy, relationships are like bank accounts. When you are kind to someone, keep your word, or do something that they appreciate, it is like you are making a deposit into their emotional bank account. When you do something that they find hurtful, you make a withdrawal.
Just as with a real bank account, if you make too many withdrawals, then the account goes into the negative, and you may build up so much debt that it will take a long time, and a lot of deposits to get back into the positive. If your son or daughter feels that you are deeply in the negative in their emotional bank account, it will take a lot of deposits, a lot of sincerity testing, and a lot of patience to get that account back into the positive. Once it does get back in the positive, understanding can return, and the relationship can be salvaged.
Your teen may have a different idea of what constitutes a deposit than you do. That’s why you have to strive continuously to build understanding with your son or daughter. Also, some deposits and withdrawals are larger than others. If your teen’s emotional bank account is in the positive, and you make a major withdrawal, such as by betraying their trust, then you may go from positive to deep in debt in one quick move. If, however, you are in the positive, and make a small withdrawal, the offense might be easily forgiven.
If you find that you are deeply in debt in your teenager’s emotional bank account, it is going to take a lot of time and work to pull out, and every withdrawal you make is going to severely hinder your efforts to get out of debt. You need to focus your effort on making deposits. Show respect. Show understanding. Be kind. Be gentle. Sincerely compliment, and always, always keep your word. Find out out what love language your teen speaks, and speak it often. If communication is important to your teen, talk to the a lot. If they need hugs, offer them often. If they need compliments and affirmation, give it to them regularly. Don’t assume that your teen communicates love in the same way you do. Find out what means the most to them and pour it on them.
Keep it Real
Your efforts to respect, understand, and trust your son or daughter can’t be considered a technique. We’re not talking about a method to change your teen’s behavior. We’re talking about changing yourself to connect with your son or daughter so you can deeply connect with them, because you love them. Young people are extremely perceptive. If you are trying to improve the relationship in order to save your own reputation or to come across to others as a good parent, your kid will know. If you don’t have a true, deep empathy (not sympathy) for your child, and all they are going through, they will sense your insincerity. Check and double check your motives often. You need to keep working at it until you deeply sense the worth and potential of your teenager as a human being and as an irreplaceable member of your family. The idea is to communicate that worth so clearly that your son or daughter comes to see it too.
If all your efforts backfire, then your teen is probably testing your sincerity. If they feel like you have betrayed them at some point (whether or not you really did) in the past, it’s going to take a lot of deposits, such as patience, empathy, and understanding before they know that you’re for real. What you need to decide is that you will reach out to your son or daughter and be there no matter how much they reject you.
You will probably not have to sacrifice your rank in society in order to reconnect with your teen, but you need to be willing to do so. You probably won’t lose friends while trying to prove your love to your teen, but you need to be willing to if that’s what it takes. Your efforts to reconnect with and understand your teen will probably not hurt your reputation or business, but if you are willing to give those things up, they will sense your true sincerity, and will respond positively. When your teenager realizes how much they mean to you, you may be pleasantly surprised at the things they will be willing to do, like talk, hug, cry, and laugh with you. They want that. They just have to know how badly you want it, too.
Take Interest in Their Interests
One of the quickest ways to connect with someone is to take interest in the things they are interested in. You might not like football, but if your son does, learning to like it might open doors and give you the opportunity to get to know your son in ways you couldn’t have otherwise.
Find out what’s really important to your teen – not just what you want them to consider most important. Again, you don’t have to agree with what you discover, but finding out your teen’s true priorities will help you understand and relate to them better.
To many teens, friends are very important. If your teenager values spending time with friends, then make an effort to get to know their friends – carefully, of course. You don’t want to turn your teen into “the one with the weird parents.” But seek opportunities to get to know your teen’s friends. Consider inviting them over for a pizza party or taking them to ice cream with your son or daughter. Doing so will help you understand the influences that your teen is facing, and will communicate to your teen that you value their friends. When their friends are around, make a special effort to treat your teen with respect. Be sensitive to your teen’s reaction – if they are embarrassed by your presence, tone it down a bit. If they like having you involved in what they’re doing with their friends, then you know you’ve come a long way in connecting with your teen.
Try New Things
If you find that some of your efforts to connect with your teen don’t work or make things worse, try new things. If something is working, keep it up, and if not, try something different. If they are active on the Internet, find out what social networks they are using. Sign up for a Facebook account and become their friend. Try texting positive messages to them on their phone. Try taking them to dinner once in a while. Be creative, be patient, and most of all, never give up. If you are persistent, understanding, respectful, and sincere, you will be amazed at the depth of your relationship with your son or daughter. That friendship is likely to last the rest of your life, and the influence you have will last generations.