Think back to when you first brought your baby home. There you sat, fully responsible for the livelihood of this child. You may have felt exhausted, or even a little overwhelmed by all that had changed. Yet, you loved this baby more than anything in the world and very quickly realized how much he/she enriched your life. I remember people calling my house, saying “What are you up to?” Often, my reply was “Just sitting here watching my baby sleep” I thought to myself, who would have believed that I could just sit and watch someone sleep for hours at a time!”
The following video is a profound illustration of the importance of parent-child interactions, and the impact that our responses can have on the actions and behaviors of our children. While this video shows a mom and her infant, there is an important message to parents of teens; how we respond to our teen influences their behavior.
As parents, we try to do all we can to nurture and provide for our baby’s needs. When they smile at us, we smile back. When they cry, we try to sooth them. We play, touch, laugh, coo, feed, clean, rock, and tickle them. These interactions play a very important role in both their social-emotional development, and their attachment to their parent. It is through these interactions that they begin developing a relationship with you. And, it is through that relationship that they develop patterns that guide their perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and expectations in relationships they will have as teens.
We have very different interactions with teens. We typically don’t coo, tickle toes, or rock teens, but they still need us to respond to them in a way that connects and builds relationship. And just like the infant in this video, teens may pull away, act out, or cry for help when we don’t pay attention and respond to their needs. They simply act out and cry for help in different ways. In fact, psychologists suggest that even rule breaking or delinquent behavior is often a wake up call for families that their teen needs something that he/she is not getting.
The following tips can help you pay attention and respond to your teen in a way that strengthens your relationship and prepares him/her to have good relationships with others:
- Pay close attention to their emotions. They will not be as transparent as infants. Give them lots of opportunity and room to talk about how they are feeling.
- Listen with an open mind. Make a big effort to understand where they are coming from, even when you feel differently.
- Understand that adults tend to use logic, while teens use emotion to explain their behavior. Often times, you must connect with your teen on an emotion level before they can even hear your logic.
- Learn to identify the cues they use to show you that they need you. For example: While a baby may shriek to engage you, a teen may withdraw, play basketball, or draw a bath.
- Realize that teens may not see or understand their own behavior. Help them to recognize what they are feeling and thinking by making observations and asking gentle questions like: “You look sad. Is everything ok?” or “I imagine you feel overwhelmed with everything that is due at school this week.”
- Listen without trying to solve things for them. It can be helpful to ask permission when you really want to offer your advice: “Can I share with you what has worked for me?” or “I have some thoughts about that. Would you like to hear them?”
- Be mindful of your body language. Just like the mom showing no expression in the video induced a desperate response for her infant, your body language will communicate how you are hearing your teen. Showing sincere interests and not overreacting communicates trust that they can keep talking.
- Show empathy. This demonstrates understanding and normalizes their feelings. Teens can feel guilt and/or shame when they feel like the only person in the world to experience something or feel a certain way.