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It’s All About the Quality of the Relationship

In our previous blog, we shared a tragic event that happened in our own backyard. Whether your teenager has had to endure a similar incident at their school or they are dealing with more typical stress, he or she will tolerate it best when they have access to you: a strong, kind and committed parent. 

It is difficult to be a teenager. Teenagers’ brains give them conflicting information about being self-reliant while also needing to be quite reliant on parents. Hormones surge – making friends and dating more important than ever while also adding drama and chaos. The pressures to be available on multiples forms of social media, to deal with sexualized behaviors, to bully or not be the target, to make good decisions, and to perform well at school and extra curricular activities are massive.

It is also difficult to parent a teenager. Your sweet, loving child is now looks more and more like an adult but swings back and forth from making mature decisions to having complete meltdowns. From an adult perspective, being a teenager is much simpler than being an adult. So when your teenager becomes demanding or moody, it’s easy to see them as being ungrateful and exhausting.

In “Raising A Secure Child”, we speak to the quality of relationship frequently and there are three parts to focus on – especially when you are navigating the troubled waters of the teenaged years. First, emotional regulation is foundational. Teenagers’ moods fluctuate at an impressive rate. While we don’t have to Be-With them in every single emotion every single time, it is important for them to feel like they can bring all their emotions and we will stay tuned in and engaged (even when we are busy, it doesn’t necessarily interest us or we think it’s not that big of a problem). Although it may seem like they don’t care about us, they are highly tuned into us. If we aren’t interested in the small things they bring us, they won’t bring us the big things. 

When a teenager needs to talk to us, they may not give us direct cues. They may hang around us, they may get in our way a little, they may pick a small fight. Don’t believe the miscue! Find ways to gently invite conversation and connection. Don’t get intrusive but casually go about your business while showing your interest. Ask questions rather than make statements. Wonder about how that must feel. Avoid lecturing or telling them you know exactly how they feel. Teenagers need to feel autonomous within the connection, so listening will let them know you get it while letting them have their own experience. 

A second part of a quality relationship is Taking Charge. “Being the hands on the Circle is certainly about being available and sensitive to needs. Yet underlying this availability and sensitivity is our commitment to being someone our child can count on to be in charge. Sensitivity towards your child is essential, but Being-With the child does not preclude stepping in when he is just too little to deal with whatever is happening.” (“Raising A Secure Child”) Our teens will act as if they can handle everything and yet, of course, they can not yet handle everything. This is where some structure and boundaries can be very helpful to the relationship. 

It is not until we are in our mid-to-late twenties that we have full access to wisdom, perspective, logic and reasoning skills. Therefore, even though your teenager’s brain will tell him or her that they absolutely know what is best, they do not actually always know what is best. Set up family rules and boundaries around curfews, homework, family time, screen time, chores, etc. Decide and communicate with your teen about spot checking (or more) on their grades, cell phone, internet and social media use. While your teen may dislike boundaries, it supports a predictable environment that is easier to navigate. Having established rules will alleviate pressure on you as a parent because there will be a framework for you as well. There is a bonus… many, if not most, teens experience some pressure when it comes to requests for inappropriate pictures. Having an involved parent who occasionally monitor texts, internet use and social media means that teenagers have an “easy out” to not engage. Your teenager may act annoyed with you, but if he or she can turn down a request “because my dad/mom spot check my phone and I’ll get in trouble”, it’s a win-win for you and your teenager. 

Lastly, quality relationships involve reflection. Reflection means that you are willing to look at the interactions between you and someone else with some objectivity and perspective. It means you can keep yourself in mind and the other person in mind at the same time. When you do this with your teenager, your reflective ability will allow you to notice if you missed an opportunity when they were ready to talk, jumped to lecturing rather than connecting, dismissed a feeling or story, or should have stepped up to take charge and didn’t. When you notice it, then you can do something about it. “People who can’t admit their errors and work to repair misunderstandings and hurt feelings leave their partner feeling misunderstood – and alone. Children need to see those who raise them as simply human and simply flawed, with a willingness to reflect on their part in what goes wrong.” (“Raising a Secure Child”)

This is what Ami Strahan did for her son the morning of the school shooting. Without knowing it, they would be their last words: “They had argued the night before about typical teenage stuff, she said, but she worried she wasn’t being a good enough parent, the kind of parent that Sam needed. The next day when Sam came downstairs ready for school, she hugged him and told him she loved him “with every ounce of my being” and was just trying to be the best mother she could. Sam hugged her back and said he understood.” (Spokesman-Review)

Teenagers who struggle with being bullies or victims, who struggle with depression or anxiety, who struggle with aggression or violence all report similar thoughts and feelings: they are alone, they don’t belong, no one cares, it will never get better. Secure attachment helps protect against these thoughts and feelings. Forming and maintaining a quality relationship with your teenager through emotional regulation, taking charge and reflection may not prevent every tragedy from occurring – the issues involved are more complex than that – but it is a significant step in the right direction. It is a step each of us as parents can do and the ripple effect of it just may be enough to make some real change in your own community.