Aware Parenting with Teenagers
The teenage years can be really challenging for children and parents. It is a time of significant change and growth and our teens often experience difficult struggles. This can include school stress, exams, peer conflicts, harsh discipline at school, bullying, puberty, dealing with the pressure and stress of social media, and navigating all the inevitable challenges of teenage life as they start to increasingly individuate. Our children are facing big questions of who they are and why they are here, with the knowledge that they are approaching adulthood with all the responsibilities that that includes as well as the fun and freedom. Our teens so often feel judged, criticized, misunderstood and complained about by adults. At this time in life, many of their needs are different to when they are younger, with different physical needs, such as longer sleep time, risk taking, independence, autonomy and expressing their own unique selves. But they also still really need love, support, closeness, kindness, comfort, gentle respectful guidance, understanding and space and acceptance of how they are showing up.
Parenting teenagers can often feel hard – sometimes we feel unsupported or unclear about how to help them best. Fortunately, Aware Parenting gives us so many solutions and tools to help parents to build strong connections with their beautiful teenagers to support them to be resilient, cooperative and psychologically well. The same 3 core principles of AwP still apply to parenting our teenagers: Focus on attachment/physical closeness/bonding, Non-punitive discipline/peaceful conflict resolution and Supporting our teenagers to heal from stress and trauma through empathic listening and play. It just looks a little bit different to how it looked when they were little.
What our teenagers really need from us: Aware Parenting recognises that our teenagers need empathy, unconditional love and acceptance, to know they are safe even when they make mistakes and do stupid things. It’s still true that they need it the most when they deserve it the least. So how we respond and interact with them needs to show them that. This time of growing independence does not mean that they don’t need us anymore – quite the opposite. They need to feel understood, that we are grateful for them, that we love spending time with them, that their feelings and opinions matter and that we love them unconditionally.
Tools for building and strengthening connection with our teens:
- Our primary goal in our interactions and connections with our teenagers is strengthening our relationship, not controlling their behavior. We need to find ways to show our kids that our relationship with them is our highest priority in ways that allow them to really feel that.
- Follow their lead and welcome and appreciate any attempts by them to connect. Drop everything and seize the moment if they suggest anything that involves spending time together! My daughter at 11.30 the other night came into my room to chat. This is not my preferred time to have a conversation when I have work the next day but I made listening to her my priority.
- Be your kid’s ally, demonstrate our loyalty to them, show them they can count on us, come to us for support and know they can trust us to be on their side.
- Making time to be together, not to teach or change their behavior, but just to enjoy being together. This lets them know that they are wanted, special, significant, appreciated, missed, enjoyed, adored.
- Having “Collection moments” is now especially important because, more and more, we are having time apart now when they are off with their friends, having their own adventures or having partners etc. Increasingly their time, energy and focus is away from the family. So particularly after time apart, make it a priority to reconnect – first thing in the morning hugs, cuppas and chats, when they get home after being away, make time to connect and chat about how they are feeling.
- Rewinding after arguments. Rebuilding that bridge is always our responsibility so when we lose our self-control or fight, make time once you are feeling up to it to reconnect with love, appologise for what happened, explain how you were feeling, ask how they are feeling. Offer apologies with softness and love, a gentle tone of voice, touch and loving vibes. Gordon Neufeld in Hold on to your Kids written with Gabor Mate, describes this rewind as “drawing patiently and faithfully on our infinitely deep fount of unrequited love and hoping for a better day”. Aletha Solter, founder of Aware Parenting, says “The mark of a healthy family is not the absence of conflicts, but the manner in which conflicts are resolved”. So we are forgiving of ourselves when we screw up and we keep trying to choose connection and compassion as often as we can.
- A lovely question I recently came across to ask our teens is “How’s your heart feeling?”
- Connection through attention and interest. Show our teenagers warmth, delight, enjoyment and interest in what they are doing. Join them in their world e.g. listening to music together, watching silly memes together, sharing jokes.
- Physical closeness is still really important, even if they can’t curl up in your lap anymore! Cuddles, massage, lying down to watch TV together, 10 second hugs and lots of eye contact.
- Finding ways to stay connected when you are apart, especially important coz we are now physically apart more. Sending text messages – “I know that x and y have been really challenging for you at the moment and I just want you to know that I love you and I care and I trust you will find your way”. Sending silly memes to each other, snapchats, Facetime. Not stalking and making sure it’s moderate but a little bit goes a long way!
- Love gestures – doing really lovely thoughtful things for them from time to time e.g. when my son goes off to camping weekend gathos with his mates I might put clean sheets on his bed or if my daughter has been away with friends for a few days, I cook her favourite dinner when she gets home.
- When they mess up it’s really important to show them that our relationship is more important than anything and it matters more to us that what has happened. This may mean holding back those critical words initially and making them feel that our connection and relationship are safe first. Keep reminding ourselves that our primary objective is not to correct or teach but to connect.
- Check in regularly with ourselves to ask “Are our demands and expectations of them reasonable?” Are we modelling that behavior too – e.g. yelling “Stop yelling”? Have we asked in ways that encourage and elicit cooperation or are we shouting “just do your bloody jobs for god’s sake”!
- Family time is now even more important. Create rituals that promote family connection, birthdays, Sunday night family movie night where we take turns to choose, holidays, day together days, sit down time with meals – no phones. Anything where the agenda is connection – no nagging, no criticism, no yelling, no unsolicited advice, no rushing. We need to also understand that at these times, when our kids are feeling connected and safe, feelings may come up so then we just listen with empathy.
- Heart to heart conversations after connection. When our kids feel loved, connected and understood, they bring their worries and stresses to us. Then we need to listen without judgement, blame, consoling, advising, fixing but with love, curiosity, care and invite them to share more. “That sounds really tough my love. Tell me more”. Acknowledge how they are feeling, and let them know that we care and can see how hard it is for them in the moment. At the end of these conversations we can offer our help “How can I help you? What do you need from me?” This is then the time where we can express how we are feeling - after our children have been fully heard, we can then talk about our concerns/worries/thoughts.
- Family meetings – once a week/as required but time where everyone knows that they get to talk about anything and everyone will be listened to. Everyone’s needs, feelings and opinions are equally valued and if something is identified as needing to be different in the family, we make mutually agreed ideas and rules about how best to do that.
- Make sure our children’s friends and partners feel welcome, comfortable and safe at our place. Allow our kids to have their friends come over for parties and make deliberate efforts to connect and build relationships with their friends and partners e.g. we just took our children and their girlfriend and boyfriend out for dinner.
- Just as with younger kids, don’t use punishments, rewards, threats, tough love (there’s no such thing!). These all promote disconnection and they damage our relationship and don’t work!
- When we feel we are on the verge of losing it, acknowledge that something is coming up for us right now, that it’s not their fault but that we need to take ourselves away to deal with it now. This teaches them that they are not responsible for our feelings.
- Create a blame –free, safe environment. Make sure they know that they are not in trouble, that if they need us, they just call and we will pick them up with no punishments or criticism.
- The connection dance also has another side which is respecting their privacy – don’t snoop, don’t check their phones, respect their confidentiality etc.
- Also allow them to have freedom, to make their own decisions (with our loving guidance) to take risks and to have autonomy, choice and agency over their lives. If we have strong connected relationships then it is so much easier to trust them, trust that they will make good choices, and that they can sort it out and rebound when they make bad ones. By prioritizing connection with our children, they will bring their stuff to us and it will lead to us having the big conversations too about purpose, meaning of life etc.
- Play with teenagers: it is so important to keep connecting in playful ways with our teens when they invite it or when they are behaving in ways that show us they are stressed and disconnected. They thrive when we approach them with light-hearted fun and make time to laugh together. Power-reversal games are still really important e.g. getting them to teach us tik tok dances that they are really good at and we are not! 1 to 1 special time is crucial so prioritise time together – tell them that you want to spend some quality time with them and let them choose when and where. Weekends away. Laughter is also so important – silly jokes, goofiness, family jokes, anything when we aren’t taking ourselves seriously but instead are willing to be ridiculous always brings out the best in us all. Some examples are the Odd’s on game, rough and tumble – sits on me, tickles me etc, Find the Song, Joke words and phrases, taking the micky out of ourselves!
- When challenging things come up in the family, take time to check in and ask yourself “what did I need most when I was a teenager?” How can I make this feel loving for them? What do I want them to feel now after I respond to them? This will allow us to empathise more with our children, respond more lovingly and therefore meet their needs more effectively.
And last, but definitely not least, we need to get support for ourselves. Find ways to share how we are feeling and have those feelings heard with loving care. Take time to identify what needs of ours are not being met and then try to find ways to meet some of those needs. When we feel supported, heard and that our needs matter too, it is so much easier to be the parent we want to be for our teens.