Staying emotionally connected to your teen is essential both for you and for your adolescent. It may feel impossible at times but it is a crucial relationship task. A deep dark secret of adolescence is that being a teenager is often a lonely time, more than anyone cares to admit. The necessary loss of a dependent role with parents and the adult world in general is a stunning blow for teens.
Although being with peers to experiment with future adult roles may be exciting at times for adolescents, it’s often less fulfilling than it’s cracked up to be. Teens hanging out with each other can sometimes be like the blind leading the blind. Some of their loneliness is due to the loss of special cuddling in childhood they once enjoyed with their parents. Interestingly, while parents receive no medals for their efforts, adolescents always say on scientific surveys that the most important people in their lives are their parents—even when they are strongly conflicted with them.
Staying psychologically close to older kids is something parents need too. As parents, we have fewer gray hairs when we’re sure of our emotional ties to our kids. Keeping an eye on teens is an impossible and unenviable task and we need some way to know they have our core values inside of them to guide their decisions. Parents can let go more easily and trust their teens when they are joined at the hip with their budding adults. Some parental loneliness is also alleviated when parents know their emotional connections will bring their kids back home again. Out of sight need not be out of mind.
Understanding adolescent minds—theirs and yours
The second secret of teen years is that parents and their kids go through these times on parallel tracks but are often not fully aware of their concurrent journeys. While teens are completing the last 10 percent of their adult brain development between the ages of 13 and 18, their folks are often losing their minds—or what remains of their minds—during these years.
Don’t feel your job is over and go to sleep as a parent. It has only just begun.While teenagers may seem weird, incomprehensible, moody, and exquisitely provocative they are in fact going through an important life task. Adolescence is a review and consolidation of all their previous identities throughout their lifetimes—hopefully not all in the same day—so that they have what it takes to make it in the adult world. It is liftoff time for teens as they prepare to be launched into a scary adult world. They are normally self-preoccupied, self-conscious, peer-driven, emotionally labile, sex-preoccupied, unaware of the needs or feelings of others, argumentative, entitled and expensive—exactly the qualities we least like in ourselves. But teens are still enjoying their last hurrahs of their privilege to childhood—as they deserve to—and it’s up to us adults to weather the storms of change with them. It’s best to remember that we, too, once survived these times and haven’t turned into monsters; neither will our teens.
However, parents can often feel themselves turning into monsters as they grow jealous of the freedoms, youthfulness, and good looks of their adolescents, especially when they themselves are just about to go “over the hill” in terms of their own physical attractiveness and vitality for life goals. Some of the anger parents have toward their teens is due to hidden jealousies, especially if parents’ adult lives are not all they’re supposed to be.
Parents relive their own adolescence and all that life promised them through their children’s journey through adolescence. Some anger results from boundary confusion with teens. Frequently parents are unclear where their teens begin and they end and they get into heated and unproductive wars with their beloved sons and daughters. Often, at the core of such battles is unresolved dread from parents’ own pasts and how such pasts get relived over and over through their teens’ lives. As Carl Whitaker, a famous family therapist once said, “Adolescence is necessary insanity.” When it comes to craziness during these years, parents often get the worst of the deal.
Today’s cultural challenges for teens and parents
The “Leave It To Beaver” days of Eddie Haskell innocently manipulating his way through the Cleaver family have long since passed. Teens today are expected to be anything but innocent and are bombarded with pressures former generations never dreamed of. The threat of AIDS, global and domestic terrorism, corporate dishonesty, the Internet, the telecommunications explosion, and media-driven living have all made the world very uncertain, less meaningful, and substantially more dangerous than in years past. How are teens to have any hope for their own personal futures when the world overall seems less promising?
Also, adolescents who are already going through their own personality uncertainty have more difficult time integrating their own identities when the world around them is falling apart. And finally, teens today are wealthy consumers who get preyed upon by the media. They’re supposed to look thinner, have perfect bodies, get plastic surgery, wear the right designer clothes, and live at the mall. The social pressures of perfectionism, conformity, and cutthroat competition leave teens with no way to accept themselves and they are prone to eating disorders, substance abuse, and depression. Actually, these disorders are ways that adolescents cope with social brainwashing and media exploitation and have less to do with personal psychopathology. When our society is sick, our children become sick as they have an incomplete ability to separate fact from fiction and happiness from being used. Indeed, many of us adults have the same dilemmas as we, too, model being zombies of the culture.
The good news about cultural corruption of our kids is that what worked for Eddie Haskell will also work for today’s teens. When parents and their children have caring, honest, and compassionate connections, the corruption of culture is much less harmful. Teens need an emotional tie to their parents now more than ever.
Staying in charge as a parent
Teens don’t need friends; they need parents.Respect is the basis for any connection to teens. It is always a two-way street. Teens cannot take in our love until we act like responsible adults around them and treat them with the same respect we expect from them. Hypocrisy is the kiss of death to trusting relationship with a teen. As adults, we need to regulate our own emotions and impulses, be fair and open-minded in dealings with our kids, and always be willing to trust our adolescents unless they give us reasons not to. Perfection is not required. Scrupulous honesty and admission of our own wrongdoing and limitations will keep us in charge and allow adolescents to accept their own faults and errors. Adolescence is a time for errors for parents and kids alike as it allows teens to know it’s OK to be human and that we all must take responsibility for our mistakes. Our children want to know that we are the real thing so they can be the real thing. We will be tested by them many times over. If we stay in charge of ourselves, we will pass the test and all of us can be real.
Obviously, our adolescents need to be taught to regulate their own emotions and impulses. A collaborative approach in coming up with a joint discipline plan is often best. Rules about curfew, drug use, sexual behaviors, driving, schoolwork, staying in touch with family, participating in family functions, and house duties need to be made explicit and consistently enforced. It’s best to give teens natural consequences rather than catastrophic punishments when kids break rules. Remember, it may be more important that they break the rules to see that you are awake and in charge, than for them to follow the rules. It’s best to be curious and collaborative with teens as it honors their budding identity and mystery. Teens don’t need friends; they need parents.
Being tight with teens
It’s always best to run after your teens to have emotional relationships with you, even when they run away faster. You may get sick of each other sometimes but keep pursuing. That way your kids will always feel wanted and you will feel less guilty about wanting them gone. Don’t feel your job is over and go to sleep as a parent. It has only just begun.
The marvelous child you see in front of you is slowly but surely turning into an integrated miraculous blend of you, your partner, and the many fine people who have loved your child over the years. The final curtain of parenting is the most essential as you now are relating to a young adult and everything is coming together. You are changing too. Let yourself be less responsible and more emotionally involved with your young adult. Be intensely curious and foolishly trusting of the amazing human being you’ve help create. It’s often best to put aside old conflicts, rebellious times, and grave disappointments in your relationship. Behaviors don’t define people. Instead, relish that you and your child have the same eyes, the same expressions, and that your hearts beat at the same unique rhythms. Such ties last beyond lifetimes.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul, MN and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.
Last Updated on October 1, 2021