Q: I feel that something is wrong, but my teen won’t tell me what is the matter. I wish I could believe that he is being honest with me. What can I do to encourage him to come to me and tell me his problems? How do I help him know I love him no matter what, and that he can be honest with me?
Grow together if you don’t want to grow apart
To be gradually closed off and then locked out of someone’s inner life, a child or friend with whom you once enjoyed closeness and communication, can be very painful to endure. Many parents experience this as their children grow and change. There comes a gradual dividing of the ways, a parting. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a painful parting. Parents and their children can learn to grow together, rather than apart. This takes a great deal of communicating and understanding, plus give and take by the parents and their teens.
On their part, parents must continually upgrade their thinking, reevaluate their relationship and try to perceive the new emerging person that their child is becoming. Their child is changing, developing, growing before their eyes. Keeping up with the growth and change in a young person can be very challenging. It is not just a matter of physical changes and hormonal changes, but there are many other deep emotional, mental, social and spiritual changes taking place as well. To keep in step with a teen, parents must constantly be reassessing their relationship and looking for new insight and new ways to relate to him or her, and develop a new set of expectations. To keep up with a changing young person, you have to adapt and change right along with him or her.
Adjust your role as they grow
Your relationship with your teen can’t remain a parent-child relationship; it has to change to a parent-friend or a friend-to-friend relationship. You must let go of your parent role somewhat if you want to get through to and communicate with your teen. Your young person must feel that you understand him or her as a person.
In the eyes of your teens, individuality and independence come to them through breaking out of the parent-child relationships they had with you. They feel they need to break out of this mold in order to grow and become independent, thinking people. Parents who want to keep the parent-child relationships as they are, who want their children to remain subject to them and their ways, will find it increasingly difficult to communicate with their growing, changing “children.”
Upgrade your approach and programs
The key to keeping up communications is to keep up to date with what is happening in the lives of your children. Be aware of their activities. Pop into their world to see how and what they are doing. Do things with them that they like to do. Be considerate of them. Keep reevaluating and deepening your relationship with them. Keep monitoring yourself as to what you are doing with them and how often you spend time with them. How are you treating them? How are you talking to them?
Effective parenting is like a computer program which must be upgraded often to effectively meet changing and more challenging needs. Young people provide these challenges, which always put the “latest versions” to the test! So the parents who want to communicate best with their children must take the time to keep up with their needs. You can’t just remain as you are, where you are. You have to keep upgrading to keep up with them. That’s a lot of work, and it requires an investment on your part. Keep in tune, keep on top of your teens’ situation, and be familiar with what goes on in their lives. If you just don’t know, then stop and take the time to find out.
Build a common understanding
Sometimes teens’ lack of communication is because something is wrong or because they’re not being honest with you. Often it is not having a lot in common anymore that keeps young people from communicating with their parents. If they think there is little in common, then they think you won’t understand them.
There are many ways to build a common understanding. For example, show an interest in the age group your child belongs to. Asking your child to help you understand his or her age group can help lay the groundwork for deeper and more personal communication. Ask sincere questions and let your child explain why things are as they are, why his or her age group feels, acts, or dresses in a certain manner, or whatever. If your teens see your motives for asking as coming from a true desire to understand them, they will feel honored that you recognize them as unique individuals, and that you believe they can help you understand. Often in explaining something to you they come to understand it better themselves.
Avoid expressing very strong opinions at these times of building communications. If you feel you must give your opinion, then try to state it as dis-passionately as possible, leaving lots of indications that the door is still open for further discussion. Avoid passing judgment or laying down laws during these times. Just focus on trying to understand your teen and communicate.
View your teen as a “person”
Seeing you reaching out, trying to understand, and even asking them for help, makes your teens feel more mature, and that they have a special place of importance in your life. They feel good when they see that you view each of them as a “person” and respect each one as someone with insight and understanding, someone who can be called upon for help and counsel. They see you do not think of them as just your children, but more than that—as friends. Showing a young person respect is very important in laying a foundation for communication. When your teens feel you respect them, they feel they can trust you with the more difficult or personal matters or situations they face.
Earn their confidence by being confidential
Young people gauge how you will likely react to them by how you react to others in a similar situation or with a similar problem. How they see you react tells them if it is safe or not to approach you about something. It tells them what they can do, or at least what they can’t let you find out that they are doing.
Young people like to know that what they tell you is said in confidence—that you will not blab it around, or talk about it with others—especially those they do not want told or those they don’t have the same confidence or trust in. If they entrust a bit of personal information about their life with you, they expect you to guard it and keep it in confidence. It is very important to respect their trust in you and not carelessly repeat things they have told you in confidence to others who do not need to know or be involved. It may seem like a small matter to you, but they will not see it that way.
When to hold back on getting actively involved
When young people do share a difficulty they are going through, parents sometimes want to rush in and take control and help solve it for them. But that is usually not what they want you to do. If you are going to take action on ”their business,” you need to counsel with them first. Tell them what you are thinking and ask their opinion and consent before doing it.
Young people often have very definite opinions about what form your involvement and “help” takes, and want it kept within certain boundaries. In most cases, all they are looking for is someone who will listen to them, someone safe to bounce their problems off of: a sounding board. Your role is to be supportive, someone they can talk to and who can help them gauge their course of action. They don’t necessarily want you to become as actively involved as you did when they were children.
Your young people may be hesitant to share serious matters with you because they are afraid that you will charge in with the cavalry, and it will be hard for them to stop you, or that they won’t have any control over their situation once they let you know about it. They don’t want you to charge in and embarrass them, or crowd them out of what they feel is their life and their business.
Be a nonthreatening force for good in their lives
You can still freely express the things you are concerned about. It’s just your timing and presentation that’s important. Sometimes you do need to ask your teens straight out about something you are concerned about, but you should not appear to be suspicious or accusatory. There is a time for asking, “Are you taking drugs?” And there is a time to be less direct and say, “Drugs are out there, and I know you are going to be offered them. Drugs take over and wreck a lot of kids’ lives before they see what’s happening. I hope you will say no, but if something serious does happen, let me know, let me help.”
No one likes to be alone when he or she is in trouble, especially a teen. Teens do not want to lose everything they have gained in growing up by getting too much help from their parents. You, as parents, have to be gentle when you try to help them. Seeing how respectful you are of them builds trust and respect for you. They will then see their parents as a nonthreatening force for good in their lives—stable, helpful, dependable friends.
Excerpted from "Parenteening" by Derek and Michelle Brookes. © Aurora Productions. Photo by photostock/freedigitalphotos.net