Many parents are so confused by the change in their offspring from the friendly, happy, easy-going child to the moody, uncooperative, reclusive teenager that they lose their bearings when it comes to the relationship stuff. As a parent, it’s easy to feel that your teenager does not want you (except for your wallet and your car) or appreciate you. It can often seem that they are shutting you out of their lives.
In a way, it is true that adolescents are moving away from the identity they had as a child. They are finding their own identity and developing independence by stepping out from the security of the ‘family nest’ into the bigger world. Adolescents are forming relationships with people their own age and developing their own tastes and values by experimenting with their appearance, their music, their interests and their priorities.
One way for parents to build relationships is to take an interest in what their adolescents are doing. If they develop a new passion for growing bonsai, collecting manga comics or jazz dancing, talk to them about it or watch them do it. Join in the activity, if you can.
Try not to be negative about changes in their appearance – dress and hair, especially – or about music choices. It may be that the phase is a passing one and, in any case, if you express a dislike about something it will often reinforce the choice for the young person who is seeking to define an identity separate from his or her parents.
As a parent, it’s useful to remember that you don’t need to respond to everything your teenager does that annoys you. Focus on the bigger picture and keep in mind the kind of person you want your adolescent to be as they grow towards adulthood.
Despite their seeming aloofness, adolescents still like to be encouraged and praised. Look for things your teenager does that are positive and note them. Complement them when they have put effort into something worthwhile and thank them for helping around the house. Encourage them to join in family activities occasionally and tell them how important it is to you that they make the effort. Praise them for spending time with younger siblings.
Teenagers will often be more positive with their parents if they feel good about themselves. You can help build their self-esteem by helping them to feel competent in the world. Teach them skills for living, such as how to cook, how to use household appliances like the washing machine and vacuum cleaner and how to manage money. Help them put together a resume and make a plan for finding a part time job. Support them in learning new skills and encourage them to have a go. Often teenagers are reluctant to try new things because they don’t want to look foolish in front of their peers. Be sensitive to their self-consciousness and avoid teasing them or being critical.
Finally, keep the lines of communication open. Find time to ask them about their day and to listen to what they want to talk about. Avoid giving advice or commenting when you are listening. Car trips are often an opportunity for friendly, non-judgmental chats. If you notice your adolescent is down or upset, find a quiet time to ask them if there is anything you can help with. If they feel there is a problem they can’t discuss with you, remind them that there are other people who can help – friends of the family, teachers, school counsellors, doctors or even telephone help lines.
By building a better relationship with your adolescent, you will have a stronger foundation for challenging them when their behaviour is unacceptable. At some point, all parents of teenagers will need to reign in behaviour or redraw boundaries and an adolescent who has a largely positive regard for his or her parents is likely to listen and respond to requests than one who feels ignored or criticised by parents.