When I meet with parents and teens in my family therapy practice, it’s usually because they're struggling to get along.
There's been arguing, stress, unhappiness, and tension. Parents talk about how frustrated they are and about the negative changes they’ve noticed in their teen. Teenagers tell me that they feel like their parents are rigid and unwilling to give them independence or respect.
At some point during the first session, I always ask two questions, both directed to the teenager:
- What’s the relationship like between you and your parent(s) right now?
- What kind of relationship do you wish you had with your parent(s)?
When I ask this second question, teenagers always soften. Their outer shell starts to crack, and we start to see their real feelings. Most of the time, they get tears in their eyes - genuine, heartfelt tears of longing and sadness. Every teenager I’ve asked this question to has responded with an answer similar to this: “I wish we could be close, talk more, and spend time together without fighting. I wish the arguing would stop. I wish they would see me for who I am.”
So What’s the Secret? Listen and Empathize
It surprises most parents to hear how much they're still needed, and that their teen wants to spend time with them. I encourage parents to really connect with their teen in this emotional space, in the moment, without worrying about the past or the future. Doing this gives the relationship a chance to heal. Teenagers (like children at any age) need empathy and compassion. They especially need these two things from their parents. The more we meet them where they are (in an empathetic and compassionate way), the easier it is to connect in a meaningful way.
Consider asking your teen this question in a loving, open-minded way:
“What kind of relationship do you wish we had?”
Let them know you are genuinely curious to hear what they have to say. Try to really listen to their response about what kind of a relationship they want with you and then empathize, empathize, empathize.
Most importantly, I tell parents to see their teen as a young adult, someone with valid opinions who is deserving of respect (even if they don’t always act like it!). Of course they still need boundaries, guidance, and support, but, they also need nurturing, a listening ear, and a loving place to return when the world hurts them. Being there for your teen in this way can open the door to building the type of relationship you both want to have.
For more tips about parenting teens, click here.
I’m here if you want to talk. Take care!