As the parent of a teenager, you might feel alone as you struggle to orient yourself to this new reality of raising an adolescent. It might feel like just yesterday that your child was a cute, precocious toddler, and now suddenly you’re being barraged by one expression of independence after another.
Your son or daughter might be struggling with serious teen issues such as depression, anxiety, or bullying, and you want to know how you can support them through this time.
Or maybe you have more than one teenager at home and you feel like you’re in a battle zone. You just want to have dinner together as a family without any drama once in awhile!
No matter what your specific circumstances are, raising a teenager is a uniquely difficult stage of life. But rest assured that this is normal, and it will pass. In the meantime, there are things you can do to facilitate the process of growth for your child and for your family as a whole.
First, let’s spend some time considering:
“What is a teenager?”
It’s important to define our terms before we start talking about practical tips. A teenager is generally considered to be someone between the ages of 13 and 19. However, the stage of adolescence seems to be lengthening in our culture, in both directions.
Young adults in their twenties are often relying on their parents financially for a long period of time, while preteenagers are exposed to “older” behavior through social media and seem to turn into adolescents younger than they should.
In a sense, adolescence has its own culture, and teens interact in a way that’s different from both children and adults. The ambiguity of these years seems to leave kids without clear expectations of how they should behave; sometimes, they’re expected to take on adult responsibilities, while also expected to respect authority and behave like children.
Cognitively, teens are forming their own individual identity at this stage and along with the pressures of their family and culture, they may find the ambiguity of their life stage to be anxiety-producing.
Also, teenagers, themselves, are constantly changing, as secondary sex characteristics appear and growth spurts take place. They may seem obsessed with their appearances, but they’re exploring uncharted territory. This is the root of adolescence; it’s self-discovery of one’s internal, external, and social realities.
Navigating and Addressing Teen Issues
It’s no wonder that the adolescent years are often full of complicated issues that affect teens’ well-being. Parents can be a great source of support and security during this time. Here are some ways you can help your child navigate these years productively:
1. Recognize differences and remember similarities
Our culture today is much different than it was even a decade ago, and it’s certainly changed from when we were teenagers ourselves. Social media and smartphones have completely altered the social landscape, in both positive and negative ways.
Regardless of your views on the relative benefits and drawbacks of social media, it’s important to acknowledge that most adolescents stay connected to their peers 24/7. News and gossip travel quickly. An embarrassing moment that happened on a Friday night might be all over town by the next morning. It’s hard for kids to avoid gossip.
Social media can also tend to be a highlight reel of our finest moments, which makes it difficult for teens who struggle to compare their everyday mundane life with their peers’ achievements. This can complicate insecurities, self-image problems, etc.
Mixed messages abound online. We often hear of how the media portrays women in unrealistic ways, but this is true of men also; they’re portrayed as strong, successful, and well-dressed, with nary a patchy beard to be seen. A man who’s slightly overweight will probably end up being a comedic punchline rather than the hero of the story.
To boys, this sends the message that if they can’t live up to the perfect hero standard, they might as well find their value in being funny. Kindness, respect, and intelligence are thrown to the wayside.
These issues exist for girls too, and often there’s an even smaller margin for error. High school is an unforgiving social crucible where kids manifest their own insecurities as they bully others and tear each other down. And this bullying can follow everyone around on social media. Before the days of the Internet, you could get away from your bully by going home. Now your bully is always with you.
Not everything has changed, though; some aspects of the teen years are still the same. You were a teenager once yourself, and you can remember your body changing and maybe the cruelty of some of your peers. Even though your teenager may think you can’t relate, you can remind them that your emotions were similar, even if your experiences were different.
You probably experienced conflict with your parents during your teen years, maybe feeling misunderstood, which is a common generational disconnect. Calling these struggles to mind will help you empathize with what your teenager is experiencing now.
2. Open communication
Even though smartphones seem to keep us constantly connecting, texting your child isn’t the same as having a face-to-face conversation. We often have a sense that we are closer than we are, simply because we’re digitally connected.
Just because you can track your child’s every move doesn’t mean you really know him or her. You might know their location and activity, but you don’t know what they’re feeling. That can only come through the face-to-face connection.
Often, parents feel like their teenagers won’t communicate with them. You have to set the example for initiating conversation. Don’t expect much in return. If your relationship has become strained over the years, your child might not feel emotionally safe enough to share things with you. It’s important for you to be proactive in regaining their trust.
Honesty goes both ways, so open up and share your own feelings and perspectives on life. This isn’t to say you should turn your child’s role into that of the parent and expect them to help you with your problems or be a counselor. The goal is simply to have open communication so your child can see your humanness and your willingness to admit that you too have weakness, struggles, and feelings.
3. Be consistent
This can be challenging. Consistency is one of the hardest disciplines for us as humans. We are affected by our moods, fatigue, health issues, the weather, work, and more. Some days you might be able to naturally tolerate your child’s behavior better than others.
Let it reassure you that even though teenagers might proclaim their need for freedom, they often really crave structure and boundaries. They also want to be able to depend on their parents. If you promise to attend an event, be there.
The more consistent you are, the stronger your relationship will be, and the more your child will rely on you. This means that when they have a problem, they’ll be more likely to bring it to you rather than to someone less dependable.
If your child wants to go see a concert they’ve been saving up for, but they’ll have to stay out a little past curfew, you might consider bending the rules and letting them do so if you believe they’re responsible enough. Help them remember to check in with you, but be willing to have discussions and be flexible with certain rules. You want to be firm but not unbendable.
4. Get to know their friends
Adolescents are quick to take their problems to their peers. Even though you might want them to bring issues to you first, that may not always happen. That’s why getting to know their friends can give you a little more peace of mind.
You can do this by opening up your home and providing a comfortable place for teens to hang out. Be present, but don’t hover or be intrusive. You might want to provide a snack and greet them, possibly have some small talk, without injecting yourself into every conversation.
If you gain the trust and respect of your child’s friends, they’re more likely to encourage your teenager to take his or her issues to you for help.
It’s inevitable that some friends will be a bad influence. This is another reason why getting to know their friends is helpful; you’ll be able to identify which ones are troublesome. Be careful starting conversations about friends who are poor influences; make sure you’ve created an environment of open communication and emotional safety, so your child will be more likely to listen to you when you have something less positive to share.
5. Cultivate support
This is possibly the most important tip of all, and a summary of all the ones that have come before. You might feel like you’re ill-equipped to deal with raising an adolescent, especially if your child is acting out in any way or struggling with depression or anxiety.
The most important facet of parenting a teenager is to cultivate support for them and you. Surrounding them with a supportive network including you and their friends will help them get through this challenging stage of life.
There are times when professional support is warranted as well. Many times, teenagers feel validated when discussing issues with a non-parental adult; this helps them feel like they’re being treated with respect, and they might respond better to advice that isn’t coming from a parent. Both individual and family counseling can be beneficial if you’re going through a particularly tough time.
Family counseling provides a setting to have difficult conversations with a neutral, educated moderator. Many teenagers find counseling to be a constructive way to work through issues that have caused arguments and tension at home.
Raising a teenager may be one of the most difficult things you’ll ever do, but learning some helpful ways to frame your approach can help you set yourself up for success. If you’re working to provide emotional support and a consistent structure, you’re already helping your child. Don’t hesitate to reach out for more help if you need to. This can be a big step towards growth for you, your child, and your family.
“Her own girl”, Courtesy of Ian Dooley, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Attitude”, Courtesy of Augusto Lotti, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “The Defiant One”, Courtesy of Matheus Ferrero, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Personality”, Courtesy of Eric Nopanen, Unsplash.com, CC0 License