Letting Go Is All About Letting Your Teen Grow – Part 2
Worried your teen is breaking away from you? Wondering if you will be able to re-discover the bonding you used to share with your child? Here, we look at how you can truly connect with your teen.
By Arundhati Swamy *
14-year-old Rishi wants to go out with his friends to watch the latest superhero movie.
“Dad, I need Rs 250. My friends and I are planning to go for a movie tomorrow.”
“Rishi, did you even ask for permission first? You cannot just decide to go without telling me or your mother,” his father, Kiran, replies.
“But Dad, I am telling you now…,” begins Rishi.
Kiran does not want to hear anything the boy has to say. “Also, have you finished your school project? I haven’t seen you working on it at all.”
“Dad, that is so unfair! Just because you have not seen me work on it doesn’t mean I have not finished it. So, now you won’t let me go for the movie? I don’t need your permission! I hate you, dad!” Rishi runs to his room and slams the door.
“How many times have I told you not to do that, Rishi!” his father shouts back, at the closed door. There is no response from the teenager’s room.
Rishi’s mother Reena has been listening to the exchange between father and son. She is worried and upset. Not so long ago, the duo used to love spending time together. Father and son would play football, cricket or badminton. But now, all they seem to do is fight. It’s seems like they cannot talk without snapping at each other, she thinks sadly. We have no idea how to get back the loving relationship we used to share with our child, the mother realises.
Have things turned volatile at your home too? Has your child suddenly transformed into a sullen, prickly adolescent? Now, it may feel as if every conversation is filled with conflict. That means, like Rishi’s parents, you also struggle to reach out and connect with your teen.
The teen brain
According to Dr Daniel Siegel — psychiatrist and author of several bestselling books including Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of The Teenage Brain — your teen’s brain is changing and evolving at a tremendous pace. It is a phase when several unwanted and unused neural connections that were formed during childhood, are being pruned and trimmed to allow for strengthening of the core neural networks through a process called myelination. This activity is preparing the brain to become more efficient for the teen years.
These changes in the brain are responsible for your teen’s ‘new’ and unexpected behaviours — intense and fluctuating emotions; a spike in peer interactions; taking risks as they chase exciting and adventurous new experiences; and exploring his creative abilities by questioning ‘what is’, thinking of ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions to problems, innovations and new ideas... So, know that when your teen disagrees with something you say or, when he argues and debates with you, he is busy sharpening his creative thinking skills. This understanding will help you respond with awe and appreciation, rather than with impatience and frustration.
The teen years
For far too long, parents have been living with great apprehensions about the teen years. Now it’s time to let go of some outdated ideas about teens and open our minds to new information about the teen years, backed by cutting-edge research in the neurosciences. Your teen’s changing behaviour is a natural response to the bidding of her brain and there’s not much you can do to change that. But, yes, you can certainly begin to think differently — to regard adolescence as a period of great opportunity. This new viewpoint will hugely change how you communicate with your teen — from reaction to response; from conflict to problem-solving, from distress to de-stress. This time of ‘opportunity’ urges your child to explore and discover many new things, not just about himself but also about people, relationships, thoughts, ideas and ideologies. Therefore, he must spend more time with his peers.
As parents you need to allow this natural process to fulfil your teen’s journey of growth. Through this complex phase of his life, most importantly, your teen needs you to be there for him to lean on. It’s just that he will dictate when and in what manner he wants your support. That is the message Dr Laura Markham — author of parenting books such as Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting — has for parents everywhere. The clinical psychologist believes that teens need their parents more than ever during these tumultuous years. But that the bond between parent and child also depends on how you connect with your child.
On her blog, Aha! Parenting, Dr Markham writes: “Our job as parents is to meet our kids' emotional needs at each stage of their development so they can advance to the demands of the next stage. In the teen years, everything we've done right and wrong comes into sharp focus. If we've accepted our child's dependency needs AND affirmed her development into her own separate person, she'll stay connected to us even as her focus shifts to peers, high school and the passions that make her soul sing.” For this, says Dr Markham, as parents, you first need to recognise your teen’s “fierce need for independence”. However, there is a delicate balance parents need to maintain. “If you can let your teen exercise his own judgment and be himself, rather than how who you want him to be, he'll be able to grow into age-appropriate independence without cutting you off,” she writes on Aha! Parenting.
How to raise a responsible teen
When you teach responsibility to your growing child you are also training him to take on responsibilities as a teen. Begin with the simple things you can do to help your teen become responsible for herself.
What you should not do
Your teen will not learn how to be responsible if you do the following:
- Never let her make decisions for herself.
- Never let her help around the house
- Never let her face the consequences of her choices
What you should do
Teach your child to practice being responsible by:
- Letting her take care of her things, clothes, her room — she learns to value and take ownership of her belongings
- Getting her to help around the house — she learns to contribute and participate in the home
- Sending her on small errands — she learns how to manage herself in public spaces, and handle money
- Allowing her to face the natural consequences of the choices she makes — she learns to make careful choices and decisions for herself. You may instinctively want to protect your child, ensure she does not get into trouble. Your teen must understand that the freedom she enjoys does come with limits.
Connecting with your teen
For all this to happen, it is vital that you first build a strong and positive relationship with your child. Then, your child will become a willing and cooperative learner. In the absence of warm and nurturing parenting, your child will interpret your efforts to teach responsibility as a means to control her. What’s more, control is what teens are trying to break away from! So, when talking to your teen about responsibilities, it also matters what you say and how you say it.
- Sit down with your teen: If you say: “We need to sort this out right now”, your teen is probably going to say, “I don’t want to”. And walk off or shut down. Instead, say: ‘Hey you know what, we need to get certain things in place here. How can you help us to do it?"
- Take the example of Rishi and his parents. Instead of scolding the teen for making movie plans without telling them first, his father Kiran, can ask Rishi for more details about the outing. Once satisfied with the details of the plan he can say, “You can go for the movie with your friends, as long as you have finished your school assignment, Rishi.”
- Outline what he can do at home: You could say: ‘Here are the various tasks to be done at home. Let’s each of us take responsibility for certain tasks." This is one way of getting your teen to take on little responsibilities around the home.
- Rishi and his parents have a chart for chores around the house. The teen is also expected to keep his room clean and run small errands — going to the nearby supermarket to buy bread, milk, sugar, so on.
- Rotate the tasks: If your teen is setting the table and clearing it up during the week, then perhaps he could clear the garbage out and make sure the lights are switched off, the next week. Let your teen choose. Rotating the tasks every week allows your teen to experience various aspects of home life and helps break the monotony of prolonged repetition.
- This week, Rishi has chosen to do the laundry. His mother tells him he has to put all the dirty clothes in the washing machine and then hang out the washed clothes. It doesn’t end there. He also has to fold the clothes and put them away. This helps him understand the effort that goes into ensuring that he has clean clothes to wear, every day. It also makes him more careful while changing his outfit for the day — he would simply chuck clothes into the washing machine, without bothering to turn them the right side out. Not anymore.
Involving your teen in this way, becomes a learning process for both parent and child. You realise that these are skills your teen will not automatically develop — someone (meaning you), must show her the way, first. Also, while making choices about what chores to do for the week, your child is learning to make responsible decisions.
Don’t try to be a buddy, bond with your child
Yes, teenage is a delicate period for parents to negotiate. To stay connected, you may at times, cling on to your child to retain control over her. Or you may try to become friendly with your teen — dress like her, talk her language, try and get close to her friends. But do remember that your teen wants you to just be her parent. To your teen, you are the rock she can lean on whenever she needs the support. She is thinking: ‘Even if I just stay with you in silence, or just be near you, it’s reassuring to know that I have the freedom to talk to you.’
While your teen seeks independence, he still needs your support. Get your teen to discuss with you the limits and responsibilities that go with his search for independence. Ensure that your teen knows you are always there. A question such as, “You seem to be upset about something. Would you like to talk?,” lets your teen know that you notice and care; that, if anything goes wrong, you are there to back him up. Then, your teen too will know: ‘No matter what happens, I have my parents to rely upon.’
It is also natural and quite likely that your teen may make mistakes and break your trust in her. Focus on re-building the trust in your relationship. Give back the freedom one small step at a time until the two-way trust is restored. Have open conversations about sensitive topics such as relationships, sex, smoking, alcohol and drugs. The knowledge and perspectives that he gains will come in handy when he must make important decisions, especially when he is out on his own.
Further, a trusting relationship gives your teen confidence to confide in you when she is going through a struggle or grappling with a problem she cannot handle on her own. To build trust, calm yourself; be an interested and non-judgmental listener; show empathy; discuss and problem-solve together. Remember, a connection with your child that is built on trust, love and affection will provide the space for you and your child to learn from each other and, grow together.
Managing and supporting your teen through adolescence can be an overwhelming experience. That is why it will help to talk to your spouse; don’t keep it all in. Also, reach out to others who are parents to teens. Then you will realise these changes are happening in their lives too. Compare notes and share experiences. This will also help you better understand how to support and nurture your child’s natural pursuit of independence.
* as told to Divya Sreedharan
About the author:
Written by Arundhati Swamy on 10 April 2019.
Arundhati Swamy is a family counsellor and Head of the Parent Engagement Program at ParentCircle.
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