Smells Like Teen Spirit
Why relating to your teen is every bit as important, but not nearly as hard as you think.
By Amanda Garrigus
I first heard the stories around the time my firstborn was in kindergarten. I’ll never forget the exchange that sparked it all. I’d run into an acquaintance of mine who I hadn’t seen in years. She was a doting mom of three precocious little girls. At least, that’s how I remembered it. Naturally, I asked how her lovely kids were doing. Her response shocked me. “Well, my oldest is a bitch,” she said without a trace of irony. Could I have misheard? Had I misjudged her all these years? Then, she said a phrase I’ve since heard over and over again: “The teenage years are the worst.” This encounter rocked me to my core. I spirited myself home and hugged my then five-year-old daughter. Still little, still delightful, still all about her mom.
As the years went by, my friend’s words haunted me. I wondered if my own sweet child would one day elicit a similar reaction from me. In an effort to ward off this seeming inevitability, I read many books and articles on the subject of teen/parent relationships. I attended several parent education evenings at my daughter’s school, asking questions and taking notes at every turn. By the time my daughter turned thirteen, I thought I was ready to take on whatever slings and arrows she might direct at me. Except she didn’t. As my daughter navigated the waters of her early teen years, we stayed as close as ever. Oh sure, there were moments when we annoyed each other. That’s life. But in the grand scheme of things, it seemed to me that the teen years weren’t so bad after all.
That isn’t to say I’ve got it all figured out. In fact, I think our smooth sailing has more to do with my daughter’s temperament and strong moral compass than my anxiety-fueled preparations. Nonetheless, I stand here today, just weeks away from my daughter’s sixteenth birthday, ready to attest that the teen years are not, in fact, the worst. While I’m not a psychologist, I have been a mom for the better part of the last two decades and, as such, have an advanced degree from the school of life. With that in mind, I’d like to share what I’ve learned from educators and researchers, therapists and friends along the way. These tenets have made the path a little smoother and kept the lines of communication open, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
- Never say this: the teen years are the worst. This sets you up to fail. You create a self-fulfilling prophecy, and, if you say it within earshot of your child, you’ll give them the idea that this is inevitable, and that just ain’t so.
- Have a standing date with your teen. A once monthly lunch, a weekly neighborhood walk, or even a trip to the ice cream shop once every two months — it doesn’t matter what it is so long as you commit to it. Ideally, you should institute this tradition well before the teen years. That way, when your child is older and less interested in spending time with you, you’ll have the excuse of this long-held tradition to draw you together.
- Listen more than you talk. Sometimes your teenager just wants to share with you without having you try to fix their problems. Ladies, you know what I’m talking about. There are moments when we just need to be heard. If you’re always trying to find solutions for them when they just want an ear, they may look for another, less judgmental ear to talk to.
- Talking face-to-face can be difficult, even for adults. Car conversations are a great way to have a meaningful dialogue without the pressure of unwavering eye contact.
- Let it go. You’re not going to be the first person they want to talk to every time. Some days dad will have that honor, some days grandma, other days they’ll prefer their uncle or, more often than not, a person of their own age. Your job is to be there when they’re ready to come to you. To be interested, aware, and supportive, but not nosy or demanding. One major caveat here: if your child is struggling or suffering outside the norm, they probably need you to step in. You know your child, so be ready to make that call if the need arises.
- Communication is a two-way street. Be honest, authentic, and open with your child about your own struggles and successes. Just try not to make every story an Aesop fable with a moral and a message. Teens are pretty savvy, and they can sniff out propaganda a mile away.