What type of parent does my teen need me to be?
Think back to when your child was an infant – they were perfect, and you could never anticipate having to discipline them. You felt an innate need to protect and cherish them at all costs. When children start to develop a sense of themselves as a separate being around 12 months of age, the honeymoon is over. They realize they can act independently and learn the word “no” quickly. We call it the “terrible twos,” but this change represents their emerging sense of identity. How we parent our children shapes the type of person they will become and the quality of the relationships they will have.
How do we learn to parent in the first place?
Even though we tell ourselves we won’t make the same mistakes our parents made, we often surprisingly utter a phrase to our kids that we heard often in childhood. It feels right and familiar, even if we were adamant we would be different, better with our children. Unless we have had a particularly bad experience – abuse, neglect, separation, trauma – we typically adopt our parent’s style.
So how were you parented?
Research lists 4 identified parenting styles that exist along the dimensions of control or demand and responsiveness. An authoritarian parent is high on demands and low on responsiveness to their child’s needs. They use control and punishment to gain compliance, rarely explaining their reasoning and allowing little discussion. An indulgent parent is low on demand but high on responsiveness. They are quick to respond to and satisfy their child’s needs but do not discipline (teach) or make demands for age-appropriate behaviors. Neglectful parents are low on both responsiveness and demand. They are disengaged from their children, lacking in warmth and discipline. An authoritative parent balances control and demand with responsiveness and warmth. Authoritative parents and their children tend to have fewer, less intense conflicts and higher levels of compliance. Children of authoritative parents have high self-esteem, lower rates of depression and anxiety, and fare better on many measures of emotional development than kids raised in the other 3 styles of parenting.
A renegotiation of the parent-child relationship
The emergence of adolescence requires further adjustment in control and demand, a renegotiation of the parent-child relationship. Adolescents often want more independence than their parents are willing to grant and criticize attempts to control their behavior. An authoritative parent facilitates healthy adolescent autonomy and respect for parental authority by allowing the opportunity for debate and negotiation of appropriate boundaries. Working together setting rules and consequences decreases the amount of conflict and improves the relationship between parent and child. Instead of pushing back, teens with authoritative parents are more likely to accept parental authority and a lower level of autonomy than those with other styles of parents.
Communication is key to parenting teens. However, at times it can seem like parents and teens are speaking two different languages. Ask a teenager to clean their room, for example. The teen considers their room their personal domain and doesn’t understand why it should matter to others what condition it is in. The parent considers the dirty room to be a lack of respect, an unfulfilled duty to others. Teens push back, protecting their privacy, while parents are trying to teach their child a larger lesson about living in community with others. They have different perspectives on the issue, and neither are getting their message across. Understanding that teens often are talking about something entirely different from their parents highlights the importance of clear communication skills. It is important to ask what your teen means when they say something like, “I don’t care how my room looks.” Start with the many reasons why they should care about keeping their room clean as a sign of respect and family cooperation and they won’t hear a word you say. In general, when you feel you’re not understood, communication breaks down. Ask for elaboration on what they mean and listen to understand their perspective; this can open the floor for sharing your view and asking how you can work together to solve the problem.
Listening for the message behind their words
Another method in communicating with teens (and others) is listening for the message behind their words. A teen makes a provocative statement such as “I hate Alex!” Responding with “you don’t really hate Alex – they’re your best friend” is a conversation non-starter. They may answer you with all the things they really hate about their best friend and never get to the real thing they are trying to say which may be “I’m feeling really lonely” or excluded or other underlying emotion. How would they respond to, “Wow it sounds like something’s really bothering you – tell me about it.” Trying to talk teens out of their feelings and cheering them up is not what they want or need – to feel heard and understood.
Another communication trap is trying to fix problems for them. Teens need the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, navigate bumps in relationships, and feel they’ve accomplished something. When they tell you about a problem, first listen for understanding and make sure you’ve heard what they’re saying. After you understand the issue, you can ask if they want to tackle it themselves or if they want any advice. Regaling them with how you handled a similar situation when you were their age often falls flat. Kids are growing up in a much different world than you did and often feel parents don’t get what it’s like to be a teen today. Let them tell you about their experience and listen with an ear to understand what it’s like for them. Recapping their words and feelings before responding with your own thoughts makes them feel heard and accepted. Remember listening to understand does not mean agreeing or condoning their opinions or behavior. But it is the way to start a conversation and an opportunity to really get to know your child.