Sometimes it can seem like teens completely tune out (or want nothing to do with) adults, especially authority figures, even more so--their parents. This can leave parents feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. “He’s not getting his homework done, but how am I supposed to get him on the right track when he won’t listen to me?!” “She seems irritable and agitated a lot these days, but when I ask what’s wrong, she rolls her eyes or grumbles, ‘nothing.’ How do I get through to her?”
Parents and teens come to a very natural impasse. Developmentally, teens’ brains are wired to pull away from their family and to move toward their peers. Biologically and socially, this is to prepare the teen to be able to leave the family group and have social support in the world. Simultaneously, teens are developing their ability to think abstractly, which can lead to questioning the world around them and challenging the status quo, and are exploring their own identity, which often means trying on different “hats” to figure out who they are and what they believe. All of the above can lead to massive head-on collisions when teens and parents try to communicate.
What can be done to ease the tension?
Gradually, start to treat your teen more like an adult. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean letting them run wild or call the shots. It does mean engaging their brain in problem-solving and decision-making.
When problems arise, ask your teen what their ideas are for solutions. You still have the final say, but this involves them in the process. And, teens really, really like to feel heard and respected. If you’re trying to help them solve a problem related to something outside your family, ask if they’d like your advice. If they say yes, feel free to share in a non-judgmental way, and if they say no, respect their wishes.
If your kid breaks the rules and needs a consequence, you can even ask them what they think an appropriate consequence would be. Again, you get to decide if their idea fits the crime or not, but this helps your teen increase their sense of autonomy and control over their own life, which, in turn, helps them recognize their responsibility in outcomes--positive or negative.
Give them more mature chores and responsibilities. This might be mowing the lawn, cooking dinner, doing their own laundry, giving younger siblings rides to and from, paying for their own cell phone or car insurance, etc. These responsibilities help them become more prepared for living on their own after high school. Have a discussion with your teen ahead of time about what will happen if they don’t follow through, and listen to their ideas.
Begin explaining your point of view more, and allow your teen to negotiate for what they want. Because teens’ brains are growing and learning so much, an answer of “because I said so” is often maddening for them. If you’re feeling angry or frustrated, try to take a moment to calm down (which is great modeling for your kid), and then explain calmly and rationally why you’re doing what your doing. You both may or may not agree with each other, and that’s perfectly fine. The key is to calmly and respectfully discuss your points of view and really listen to one another. Then, you get to make the final determination about what works best.
Even if you’re thinking your teen is being incredibly immature (which they sometimes can be) or is completely missing the point, do your best not to put them down or insult their thoughts or opinions. When I was 16, nothing infuriated me more than having an adult say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “Wait and see; you’ll learn,” or “I hope you have a child just like you” as they grumbled about how awful teenagers are. (In fact, I’d still be furious if someone diminished what I had to say like this!) These kinds of reactions are dismissive and disrespectful of your teen’s feelings and experience (which are, of course, different than yours), and they instantly make teens get defensive or shut down, which brings any opportunity for communicating to an abrupt halt.
Ask open-ended questions and really show your curiosity and interest in their answers. (This also helps strengthen your relationship for the times when you have to set boundaries.) You can ask their thoughts on current events like political or social issues. Teens often like to think about big-picture topics, especially if it seems relevant in their life. If your teen expresses dislike for a school project or how a teacher handled something, ask what they would recommend or how they would change the situation if they could. You can even ask their thoughts on family life, like what rules they agree and disagree with, what’s already going well, or what they think would make things better. These kind of discussions help develop your teen’s ability to think critically and problem-solve, and they can bring you closer in the process!
Even though your teen is certainly not an adult yet, especially since their brain will keep growing until about age 25, they really will appreciate having more involvement and dialogue over what happens at home, and they’ll feel a greater sense of control in life, which tends to make all people happier. They’ll probably still test some boundaries, and it’s still a very important part of your job to hold those boundaries, which helps prepare them for the requirements they’ll face in college, work, or just as a member of society. But, approaching discussions and challenges from a place of comradery and respect will likely help you and your teen feel more heard and understood, which opens channels of communication, and it teaches great life skills at the same time. Win-win!
As always, if you could use some more support, we're here for you!
Ivy Griffin, LMFT # 51714, Director
Thrive Therapy & Counseling
1614 X St., Suite A
Sacramento, CA 95818