Things Your Teenager Wants You To Know

As a child, adolescent and family therapist, I have worked with hundreds of teenagers over the past 10 years, and they have proven to be my most challenging, most heartbreaking and most rewarding clients. Teenagers are the most vulnerable clients I treat and are the most likely to engage in self harm, suicidal ideation and need the most support from parents, therapists, teachers, and peers.

I love the time I get to spend with my teens! They keep me authentic, grounded (you mean I’m not cool), and always searching for ways to better connect with them. Breaking through to teenagers feels like a major success, and I have found myself having several conversations about all the things teens would like their parents to know. Here are a few of those requests.

1.)   Get to know us- Getting to know your child can be a challenge, and one that I think parents may not anticipate. For so long, our children are an extension of us and all of their wants are primal, we provide EVERYTHING they need for survival. Before too long, they are able to provide more for themselves, spending less and less time with their family of origin and more and more time with their peers or associates at school and work. If you spend some time talking to teenagers or listening to teenagers talk, you will notice some words that you don’t know. I see several teens in my office weekly and I still have to frequently ask what a certain word or phrase means, and more importantly, what it means to that particular teenager. Teenagers are always on the cutting edge, because they are continually creating that edge, and we just have to keep up. It’s worth the time to take to get to know them, not as if you have raised them from a helpless infant, but as if you are getting to know someone new.  

 One of the easiest ways to connect with your teenager is to listen to their music. Find out what they are listening to and join in. Even if you don’t get it, try to get something out of it. Why do you think your teenager connects with this artist? Are their songs sad, hopeful, angry, soulful? Ask your teens if they like the music or the lyrics more. Really take an interest in their music, which for most teenagers, is pretty important. Refrain from making judgements about their tastes or a band or artist—this will completely defeat the purpose! The point is to treat your teenager like an expert on the subject. There is no room for judgement when we are trying to understand another person.

 2.)   Just listen to us, give us credit, and don’t always feel the need to correct us. One of the statements I hear most frequently from parents of teenagers is, “they don’t tell me anything” while also simultaneously hearing, “my parents don’t listen to me.” Which is true? Both? Neither? I know, this is HARD! Teenagers are notorious for some pretty wild ideas about how they may be able to get their needs met (social, emotional, financial, academic), and I often have to stop myself from asking “and how do you think that is going to work out?” but I don’t *usually ask that question. Instead, I allow them to tell me the whole idea and I listen to all of it, trying to decide just what need they may have at this moment. Sometimes, their ideas are related to something that is not imperative in the long term, so that’s a no brainer, as long as they are safe, allow them to carry out their idea. For bigger ideas (no, you can’t backpack across Europe alone the summer before your sophomore year) then you can reflect back their need for adventure or independence and see if you can help re-create that in a safer, more age appropriate way.

 3.)   Teach us how to handle responsibilities that we will encounter as adults- We can no longer shelter our teenagers (it is hard enough to shelter our children these days), and lecturing isn’t working, and never really did. Your teenager likely knows more than you do about drugs, alcohol, ways to hide things on the internet, and how to get themselves into any number of negative, “adult” situations. We have to open the door to communicate about things that many parents may not think are appropriate or may find uncomfortable—drugs, sex, relationships (to name a few). This should come not from a lecturing voice, but from a curious one. Keeping with the theme of “Your teen is the expert” ask for understanding about their experiences with these topics. They may or may not be truthful the first conversation, but overtime, if they see that you will not “overreact” but will listen and offer practical guidance and action plans for how they may be able to make better decisions next time, your teens will open up more and we all may learn something. We do not want our teens to only have their peers or the internet to go to for advice.

4.)   We are trying to figure ourselves out-this may mean that teenagers change their hair, their style, or their interests between ages 12-18. This is normal to a degree. Some parents are really resistant to their teenager giving up soccer, dance or swimming after years of dedication. When parents ask for advice on how to handle it, I usually say, “Let them figure it out.” It is hard to watch our children “give up” something that means so much to us, I mean them. :-) In all seriousness, we invest a lot in our children and their activities growing up, but we have to know that at any moment they may change directions, and the more we fight, the more they fight! Life has to be experienced. Might your teen feel remorse for quitting the soccer team his senior year? Maybe, but that’s part of growing up and learning to make their own choices, and take responsibilities for their successes and their failures. If they take a break and come back, no “I told you so’s.” Practice allowing your teen to experience the fluidity of choice, without any negative commentary.

5.)   Let us be who we are going to be, and not who you think we should be- I have worked with so many families over the years in which teenagers were desperately trying to find their ways, open to new possibilities, but paralyzed with anxiety over whether they were going to please their parents/families and make them proud. I am a parent, and I understand expectations, and even encourage them in the right place and right time, but somewhere along the way we have to let go of expectations of “what” we want our children to be in favor of “who” they want to be. If given the freedom to express their hopes, dreams and fears openly and be validated just for being who they are, we are able to open up their minds and hearts so that they do not have to be burdened with choosing between what makes them happy and what makes their parents happy. That is an immensely powerful gift!

If you are struggling to connect or communicate effectively with your teenager, reach out for ways we may be able to work together!