How to be a great parent for your teenager

By psychologist Angie Willcocks

As some of you know, I’ve written a book about baby sleep. So now I’m frequently asked when I’m going to write a book about teenagers.

My answer is “never”! This is partly because writing books is hard work and takes a really long time (so none of my friends will actually need it by the time it’s done!) and partly because there’s already a great book available. It’s called How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk. Although it’s very old and not written specifically for parents of teenagers, it’s the best parenting book I’ve read. I like it because it focuses on the factors that I think are most important when it comes to parenting teenagers: communication, connection and cooperation.

Encouraging good communication

Communication with teenagers can seem hard at the best of times, and doubly hard when you are away for days or weeks at a time. It’s easy to give up entirely and blame poor communication on the teenager, or on FIFO/DIDO. It’s also easy to pretend that talking AT your teenager is ‘good communication’. In reality, good communication takes commitment, skill, practise and persistence, and most of this has to come from the parent.

One of the best chapters in How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk is titled ‘Helping children deal with their feelings’. It’s very relevant to parenting teens. Contrary to popular belief, teenagers, like the rest of us, want to be heard and understood.

Basic communication starts with being able to listen to another person talk about what’s going on for them and what they’re feeling – without telling them they’re wrong, or starting an argument. I think this is the most important aspect of good communication between any two people. It involves being interested and accepting of what the other person is saying, and keeping your judgments to yourself. Real listening takes energy and attention. If you’re doing it well, the other person will keep on talking. If you’re not doing it well, the other person will clam up, or argue back with you.

Imagine this: your teenager hops in the car, or calls you, after a school and says: “I hate that teacher, he’s such a dick. He always picks on me in class.”

If you’re like most parents, you would come back with something like “Don’t talk about your teacher like that” or “Don’t be silly, why would he pick on you?” or “Well, you must have done something to make him pick on you?”

All of these statements will make your teen clam up, or have a go at you. They won’t open up with more information. Saying something like “It sounds like you had a bad day, what happened?” or “Your teacher is a dick? How come?” is more likely to result in additional sharing, which ultimately is the basis of good communication.

Encouraging connection

Humans are social beings by nature and connection with others is very important to all of us, no matter how young or old we are. It’s true that adolescents look for connection with their friends more than their family, but this isn’t to say family is not important as well. Teenagers continue to want love and connection from their parents and siblings, even if they sometimes behave as though they don’t!

Working away for days or weeks at a time can make connecting with your teenager seem even more daunting, but it’s really important not to use working away as an excuse for disconnection. Make sure you know what is going on in your teen’s life by keeping an up-to-date diary of events that are important to them (even if they don’t seem important to you!)

Call or text regularly so your teen knows that you know, and are interested, in what’s going on in their life. And finally, be as available as possible even while you are away. Use technology like text messaging and Skype to do this. If you don’t know how to use this technology, tell your teen you want to learn so you can stay connected with them, and have them help you set it up.

Encouraging cooperation

Teenagers have a reputation for being difficult and generally unhelpful. I think this is quite unfair, because what I have noticed is that lots of parents also develop a bad attitude as soon as their kids hit the teen years. Perfectly good parents can become argumentative and defensive at the slightest hint of teenage rebellion. It’s important that parents learn ways to stay calm and positive as their kids go through all the normal changes of adolescence. It’s also important that parents continue to expect, and encourage, their teen to be cooperative and helpful.

How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk has a chapter about engaging cooperation. The authors suggest that, instead of ranting and raving and repeating yourself, you try the following:

Staying calm and positive – and watching your own attitude – are the keys to being a great parent for your teenager. If you think seriously about how you can encourage communication, connection and cooperation, you’ll make your teenager’s life (and your own) that much easier!

For more tips on parenting kids of any age, have a look at How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

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