If you’re a parent of a teenager, you’ve probably experienced the eye roll or utter disgust for whatever parental wisdom you’re trying to share. You’ve seen the defensiveness when you ask that one, small, innocent question.
One day your little porcupine is open to your help and words of wisdom (often when they need rescuing from one fix or another!) but the next day that same advice is completely off limits. And now that you think about it, you can’t remember the last time you hugged your porcupine!
In researching my book For Parents Only, we interviewed and surveyed more than 1,000 teens to understand exactly what’s going on in their heads and hearts as they make their way toward adulthood. We heard them say the same things over and over, and saw the trends clearly on the surveys.
In the interests of sticking together as parents of porcupines, here are four facts every befuddled parent needs to know:
1. They know they’re behaving badly – sort of.
Teens know when they are keeping you at arm’s length. They recognize when they have internal feelings of annoyance (to put it mildly!). But believe it or not, they don’t always recognize that that in their voices and faces, that annoyance shows. (And shows. And shows!)
Dozens of times in interviews, we asked a pre-teen or teen something like, “As you described your father just now, you used a disdainful tone. What are you thinking about him right now?” About 1 in 4 launched into their disgruntlements. The vast majority, though, said something like, “I sounded disdainful?”
Developmentally, teenagers are not always fully aware of how they are coming across in their tone and body language. That said, ignorance is never an excuse. (And if they aren’t always aware of their disrespectful tone, we have to help them figure it out now before they hit the real world!) But it will help when you say, “You may not have intended it, but here is how you sounded…. Can you try saying that again?”
2. Calmness is miraculous
Here is the secret weapon for getting (and staying) close to your porcupine: a calm demeanor. No matter what you hear, or what you say. Stay. Calm.
Countless kids told us they shut down communication for one reason: they believe their parents will “freak out”, or overreact. So keep your equilibrium when your child mentions (or you find out about) the latest drama at school, so-and-so getting caught with drugs, a falling-out with a friend, or even the results of a practical joke. Keep an expression of calm interest, calm concern, calm sympathy, or calm amusement on your face and in your voice.
Especially if you’re responding to something upsetting (like that disrespect we mentioned!), your child will be on a hair-trigger. You will gain great credibility with them by remaining calm as you address it. You can issue corrections, make disappointment clear, and express worry – but when you speak in a matter-of-fact tone, they will hear it so much better.
And you will hear so much more from them going forward, because they know you are “safe” to share things with.
3. Even teens who look aloof, want your encouragement and affection
A teen may look like they are keeping you at arm’s length – or worse! But in most cases, that is just on the surface. Deep down (and not very deep at that) they still really want and need your encouragement, affection and reassurance.
Teens are changing rapidly, and all those changes are just as confusing to them as they are to you. They want you (who are still the most important people in their lives!) to notice and appreciate them as new and unique individuals. Teenage Nate and teenage Olivia may have the same name, eye color and funny-sounding laugh as five years ago, but they are very different people today. They need someone who sees them for who they are, enjoys them, and wants to walk alongside them through life. They need hugs and affection.
So take a deep breath. They don’t really want to push you away. They don’t really hate you. It just sometimes feels that way.
4. They appreciate being heard
Seven out of ten kids want their parents to acknowledge that they don’t fully understand the changes going on in their kids and then affirm, “But I love you and value you and I want to understand who you are becoming.” Go out for coffee or a meal together and leave the cell phones at home. Since side-by-side conversation is often better for boys, ask your son, while you’re driving somewhere, about what he’s feeling about the upcoming tryouts. Take the time, repeatedly, to prove to your teen that you want to hear how things are going and what they are thinking. They desperately want to know “What do Mom and Dad think of who I’m becoming?”
In a few short years, your teenager’s prickly behavior will be a distant memory. They will move from being annoyed, embarrassed and curt with you to recognizing your wisdom and desiring your friendship.
Hang in there! Your teenager is doing the hard work right now of growing and discovering who they are. And deep down, they need to know that you’re their biggest fan.
Want to know how to be kind, when you’re really not feeling it? My research uncovered three daily actions that will transform your relationships – and you. Check out The Kindness Challenge, now available!
Helping people thrive in life and relationships is Shaunti Feldhahn’s driving passion, supported by her research projects and writing. After starting out with a Harvard graduate degree and experience on Wall Street, her life took an unexpected shift into relationship research. She now is a popular speaker around the world and the author of best-selling books about men, women, and relationships. (Including For Women Only, For Men Only, and the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage).
Her newest book, The Kindness Challenge, demonstrates that kindness is the answer to almost every life problem, and is sparking a much-needed movement of kindness across the country. Visit www.shaunti.com for more.