“You just don’t understand!” ~ a teen’s lament

TeensSound familiar? And I have to agree. We don’t understand. Most of us have locked away the pains of our teen years and approach this raising children business with a hindsight perspective (read, I now know better). Teens feel misunderstood, angry and detached from the most important people in their lives when their parents appear clueless to what is important to them.

Parents are at their wit’s end with fear and worry about their children’s activities (or inactivities) once parental supervision is reduced. We want the best for them. We want them to be safe and smart and make good decisions. We want them to do well in school so they have opportunities for success in life. It drives us crazy when we see that “I don’t care” attitude at our cautions.

Brain research tells us that the prefrontal cortex is not complete until age 25, which means the ability to look ahead, gauge the consequences of particular choices, and make decisions based on those assumptions is trumped by the excitement of risky activities. And what’s more—this delay is apparently biologically important for the evolution of the species. (Learn more in Dan Siegel’s, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.)

But when our teen is experimenting with drugs, staying out all night, driving recklessly, and ignoring homework, the evolution of the species is the last thing we care about. So how do we deal?

The more we blame, threaten, ground, and take away cellphones, the more we push our teens out of our sphere of influence. We worry about the dropping grades of a daughter in love, ignored household chores, reclusiveness and non-communication, rude attitudes, drinking and driving, not to mention the drugs (legal and illegal), sex, pregnancy, and addictions. We worry—that’s what we’re best at.

But teens worry, too. About their futures in a not-too-welcoming world, what their friends say about them, what their hair looks like, the pants that someone looked at funny, name-calling, rejections. Academics sometimes tops their worry list and sometimes comes in last. They want independence desperately and recoil from it at the same time.

Both parents and teens have it hard. But when we perceive our kids as problems, we lose compassion and understanding and move directly to control and criticism.

Studies show that connection—communication, empathy and acceptance—is the strongest protective factor against dangerous teen behaviors. There is no guarantee that your child won’t be in a car accident, won’t become addicted to drugs, won’t get pregnant. But even if the worse case scenario occurred, wouldn’t you want to get through it together?

Some things to keep in mind to stay connected instead of clueless when your surly teen announces he’s not going to pick up his mess because he doesn’t care about it:

• Don’t react in the heat of the moment. No lesson is learned with emotional reactivity. Walk away and take care of yourself. Acknowledge your feelings without blame. Breathe and wait for a return to calm.

• Own your problem and don’t dump it on your teen. She doesn’t care if you are going to be late or have too much to do. That’s your problem.

• Start with “I”, never “You”. “I am scared about you driving in a car with a new driver.” “I saw your grades online, and I’m very concerned.” “I don’t like feeling ignored when I ask for help.” “That feels disrespectful to me. Is that what you mean?”

• Problem-solve. “I want this done and you want to do that. How can we both get what we want?” “This doesn’t work for me. What other choice can you make so it works for both of us?”

• Make plans and agreements and put them in writing. When your teen is engaged with the structure of your family life, he is far more likely to cooperate.

• Allow a certain amount of reclusiveness. They want privacy. Their room is their domain.

• Maintain family meals, vacations, etc. even if your teen is moody and quiet.

• Be firm and strong. If something hasn’t been done that was agreed on, don’t sweep it under the carpet to avoid an argument. Motivate don’t threaten. “As soon as the dishwasher has been loaded and the food put away, I will be happy to take you to your friends.” Then walk away, instead of, “If you don’t do what I asked hours ago, you can forget about me taking you anywhere.”

• Respect and be considerate of your teen’s agenda as you would like her to be considerate of yours. Pay attention to what your teen is doing and is interested in—even if it’s something you don’t like.

• Make sure they feel that they belong in your family. Find windows of opportunity for connecting, talking, listening. Own past mistakes and reactions.

• Encourage friends and activities under your roof. Be inviting.

• Consider relationship above all else. When you are connected, you will hear more about the angst of school, the worries about what the boyfriend said, the confusion about what choice to make. Your child will be more likely to listen to you, if you first listen to her.

• Always maintain the perspective that unacceptable behavior means your teen is having a problem, not being a problem. Compassion will carry you miles in your relationship.

Note to parents: You must grow too—right alongside your teen.