One of the barriers to communication is the naturally occurring distancing that takes place during adolescence. Communication during the teen years can be especially challenging because of the rapid changes that occur in their physical bodies and social worlds. The first thing to remember is that as your child moves through the teen years, he/she will become more private. Teens often move toward writing in their journal, hiding in their bedroom, and holding private conversations with friends via text or instant message. Recently, a mom who was trying to monitor her teen’s use of Facebook and cell phone told me, “My 12-year old hates it when I am in her business. The other day she screamed ‘Don’t read my texts! That is just weird. I don’t want you to see my private conversations!’”
Think back to your own adolescence. Were there certain things that you really didn’t want to talk to your parents about? How did you decide what to share and what to keep to yourself? The truth is, most often teen are not trying to be devious or dishonest; they are simply in the process of separating themselves from their parents. While it is important to remember that this individuation is part of how teens develop their identity and become their own person, it is also important to remember that sometimes you have to interject yourself into their world to keep them safe and healthy. This requires paying a lot of attention to what is going on in your teen’s life. Everything from school, friends, and activities to feelings, moods, and actions is important. You know it is time to intervene when you sense that something is wrong, or suspect that your teen is holding something that could put him/her in danger.
Certainly, too much distancing can have other negative impacts on your relationship by removing opportunities to share and connect with one another. Remember that giving your teen space is not the same as staying out of the way completely. Even though increased independence can reduce the amount of one-on-one time you have with your child, it does not have to translate to zero time or poor communication. Part of parenting is being able to find the balance between giving children room to grow, while also establishing a safe environment with rules for behavior that match your beliefs and values.
The difficult part of this life stage is that these changes take place at the same time that your teen requires lots of guidance and monitoring to navigate new freedoms and opportunities. Teens need continued structure, attention, reassurance, and love from their parents as they try to find their way. Often times, your life experience will help you to recognize when your child needs you. Remember, sometimes teens will push their parents away so that they will pull them closer. Let your teen know that you pay attention because of your love and your ability to use the knowledge, experience, and the resources you have gathered over time to help them grow and develop. Your teen will be more likely to share with you when the message is “I can help you” versus “You are going to be in trouble”.
Finally, don’t take it personally when your teen is quiet and distant. Focus on taking advantage of the opportunities you get to make connections and show interest in them. If these opportunities do not come frequently enough, create the space you need to interact in such a way that you have more opportunities. The virtual world we live in, and the ease with which teens use cell phones and other technology, opens up new doors for connection. Regardless of your means of communication, reaching out to your child says, “My mom/dad thinks of me. My mom/dad loves me”. Staying in touch while being compassionate and understanding of your teen’s need for independence can go a long way in building understanding and trust between the two of you.
Other things to consider in maintaining a connection with your child during this phase:
- Share aspects of yourself with your teen. This can prompt your teen to share in return.
- Be creative about how you interact with one another. Find ways to communicate regularly. You may have to schedule something a trip to the coffee shop on the way to school or a weekly lunch outing.
- Make your communication engaging by talking about things he/she enjoys. Help your teen see that you are not prying or snooping, rather you are interested in who they are as a person.
- Take personal responsibility for creating a loving relationship with your child. Making your teen feel like he/she is responsible can backfire, or make your child feel burdened with guilt, uncertainty, and/or sadness.
- If you feel it in your gut, there is probably something going on that you need to know about. Your knowing could keep your teen safe, or give you an opportunity to you’re your teen make an informed decision or better choice. Don’t be afraid to be up front with your child about your concern.