Teenagers are terrifying. They look like adults, often make emotional decisions like children, and judge grown-ups in a split second. Rarely do adults say, “I wonder what this teenager thinks of me?” It’s usually pretty obvious.
I have taught parenting classes since 2003, focusing primarily on Authoritative/Democratic Parenting. This style is, hands-down, the most effective for developing loving human beings and forming close family bonds over the long term. It’s based on high expectations with active parent participation, so it’s also hands-down the most work for you. But, as it evolves as children grow, it fosters lasting mutual respect through flexibility and ongoing self-reflection.
Hopefully, your own family already functions as something of a democracy. Perhaps all members are able to have their concerns heard in family meetings and open dialogue, but we know that ultimately some people (ahem, you) do have more decision-making power than others.
This may be implicit when the children are young, but it tends to get sticky when they become teenagers. Thus, raising a child is an ever-evolving contract. From first steps to them moving into their own apartment, the terms are constantly being renegotiated between parents and kids. What is different about teenagers from small children is they are able to clearly see our adult hypocrisy. Any “do as I say, not as I do” doctrine evaporates as they age.
Social drinking, swearing, running a yellow light, telling half-truths -- these are all parts of adulthood we either participate in or don’t, but they don’t make or break us as role models. Teenagers can understand that we are human and are not always making perfect choices. What they can’t understand is when adults who behave this way don’t cut them the same slack they give themselves. As a counselor, I have had two decades of listening to their point of view, and here are the takeaways:
First, let’s talk about the shouting. When was the last time anyone really lost their temper and yelled at you directly? If you can’t remember, have someone you love do it just for the exercise. It feels awful. Over the years, parents have told me they can’t stop shouting because otherwise their teen doesn’t listen. Tell your teen that. Do they think that’s true? I’ll bet they see it differently. Also, let’s not sell our own skill set short as negotiators. Do you shout at your co-worker who doesn’t listen to you? Of course not. You try to reflect on how to get their attention in a positive way. The shouting issue isn’t about temper, and it isn’t about your teen’s behavior. It’s about the level of respect you are willing to show them in the moment. It’s that decision space between stimulus and response where you make a conscious decision to “lose it” on them. And like anyone, when your teen is disrespected, they shut down. So knock off the shouting. Control yourselves. Just like you want your teenager to.
Next, our Superiority Parenting style has got to go. You were valedictorian? Fantastic! However, just remember that when we went to school almost no one was taking college-level courses. Now kids may take three AP courses at a time while in high school. It’s grueling. You paid your own way through college? The average tuition in the USA for a private school is $34,000 per year. Could you pay that now? As an 18-year-old? You almost never watched TV or played video games? Yeah. Me neither. Because my TV had four channels. But you better believe I never missed a Beverly Hills 90210 when it was on. In parenting from a position of superiority, we mistakenly think we are inspiring our children by sharing our own youthful glory. And a small dose of such stories can be wonderful. You have a right to brag about yourself. But also mix in stories of your struggles, your failings, your regrets. We have this idea that if we present an imagined perfect self from our past, our kids will follow suit. They won’t. They will feel small, and like failures for their own struggles. Do you see how their faces light up when your family tells funny stories from your childhood? They want to connect, to see you as real. Give them that.
Next is the “pile-on.” I do it. You do it. It’s hard not to at certain moments. But teens hate it. Your teen cleans their room without being told, and your response is, “It looks great in here! See, why can’t you keep it this way all the time?” Ick. Your daughter gets a new haircut. “You look fantastic! You don’t need all that hair hanging in your face.” Slam. This one is simple, just leave it at the compliment.
The next one is also easy. Listen, and try to put yourself in their shoes. Is someone being shunned by a friend group? It’s easy to say not to worry about it and just make new friends, yet we must recognize what a lazy response that is. How would you feel going to work knowing your colleagues won’t let you sit with them at lunch, and in fact are all having a party after work that you aren’t invited to? You aren’t sure why. They all just stopped talking to you. Sometimes the best response to a teen’s problem is, “I can see why you’re upset.That sounds awful.” You don’t have to solve it, but you can admit it’s upsetting.
Lastly, let's get off our phones. I have talked with many teens who complain that their parents don’t have time for them, but then they see them scrolling through social media. We spend a lot of time worrying about teens and their screen time, but check yourself. We can be just as guilty.
Parenting is tough. And hilarious. It should be joyful. We didn’t sign up to be parents during a pandemic, or to raise the first generation of aspiring Youtubers. But here we are, and the more we reflect on our own behavior and take responsibility, the happier our kids will be. Remember, as parents we are all playing the long game. Once they move out, you will want them to come visit, to share their lives with you, to invite you into the world they are creating on their own. The way you treat them today informs your relationship forever.
My advice? After reading this article, find your teen and say you just want to hang out. If they act like it’s weird, you don’t do it enough. The good news is, teenagers love weird, so you are already winning.
If you are interested in learning more about parenting your teen, email firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up for the next cohort beginning in February. All classes are over Zoom.