by John Hoffman
I am by no means an expert on teenagers. Even so, I helped raise three of them and I’ve done a fair bit of research on adolescent development, including picking the brains of a lot of teenagers and young adults. Here are the three most important things I think I’ve learned. I hope they might be helpful to you.
Stay Connected (In other words, keep talking)
If there is one idea I have pushed over and over again throughout my career writing for fathers, and parents in general, it’s this: any sort of positive influence you could ever want to have in your child’s life is rooted in a good relationship. Developing good relationships with little kids is relatively easy (usually) because they need us so much and want to be with us. As children approach the teen years, they spend less time at home and they start to be more influenced by their peers and pop culture. So, staying connected with teenagers requires more work.
A big part of that is good communication. And one thing that really helps in that department is showing kids that you’re willing to listen. If there is one parent behaviour that is a big turn-off for teens, it’s constant criticism. I’ve had conversations with a number of teenagers who felt they really couldn’t talk to their parents because their parents could almost never listen without being critical and judgmental. That’s very sad. Sure, we are going to criticize teenagers sometimes. It’s part of our job. But try to be open to opportunities for more positive, easy-going conversations too. That requires turning off the criticism at times and just listening to their ideas. Ask questions. Show them you are interested in what they think.
But whatever you do, keep talking – during car rides, at meals, whenever you have the chance. The opportunities for good conversations don’t come all that often with some kids. So we need to be ready when it happens. In fact, the best advice I ever got about teenagers came from my wife’s Uncle Jim who said, “Be ready to listen, when they are ready to talk.”
Learn how to have influence when you have less control
For me, this is the central challenge of raising teenagers. It’s not that hard to influence four-year-olds. And if you need to control them –like, if they’re about to run into the path of an oncoming car — you’re a lot bigger, so can just pick them up and stop them. Parents can stop teenagers from doing things sometimes. But if teens really, really want to do something, they’ll usually find a way to do it when you aren’t there to see.
There’s no easy answer to this. What you want to do is find your balance point between over-control and over-permissiveness. I’ve seen situations where parents say, “Well, he’s 17, he’s going to do what he wants. Not much I can do about it.” Those parents seem to almost abdicate their responsibility. As a result, they have very little ability to influence their children. That’s pretty risky.
On the other hand, I’ve seen parents try to exercise tight control over teenagers. The results are usually not good. Often the kids just “go underground” and do what they want, behind the parents’ backs. The other risk with over control is that it can cause resentment that pushes your child away from you As one teenager said to me, “The kids I’ve known whose parents are the most restrictive usually care the least about what their parents think about them. They assume their parents will be mad at them no matter what they do, so they may as well do what they want.”
The middle ground involves learning to have influence when you don’t have as much control as you once did (or would like to have.) I like the way psychologist Antony Wolf put it in one of his newspaper columns several years ago. He said kids need to know what your rules and standards are even though they don’t always follow them. The goal is not so much obedience but to convey that you are paying attention, that you care how they behave and that you will respond to misbehaviour.
As parents we often feel that if we set a rule, or give an instruction, and our child doesn’t obey, it means we have no influence. But Wolf believes, and I agree, that all that stuff you tell them – so long as it’s reasonable and expressed in the context of a good relationship – gets “inside” your child and becomes part of who they are. It influences them in the long run, even though we can’t always see that influence in the short run. Walking this middle ground requires a certain amount of faith – faith in your child, and faith that you all the work you’ve already put into raising them had an impact.
Whatever happens, don’t give up
I’ve known several kids who went through some pretty wild and crazy stuff during their teenage years, and I’ve seen pretty well all of them come out the other side into young adulthood in pretty good shape. They all had one thing in common. Their parents didn’t give up on them. There may have been times when the parents felt like they were having no positive impact whatsoever. But even so, they stayed as connected to their child as they could and they kept trying to be a positive and supportive influence. I have to think that that had something to do with those kids being OK in the end.
Several years ago I wrote a booklet for the Psychology Foundation of Canada called Straight Talk About Teens. If you’d like to do more reading about raising teenagers, you can find the booklet online on the Foundation’s website.