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:

  • Describe: what you see, or what the problem is, without anger, accusations or personal criticisms. For example "you spilled the milk, and you need a sponge" or "your school uniform wasn’t put in the wash basket, and now you have to wear it dirty".
  • Give information: This is about giving factual information, again in a calm and non-critical manner. Because teenagers say "I know" so often (they can’t help it!) parents often assume they know more than they do, and can easily become annoyed if their teen doesn’t read their mind or know why they’re annoyed or stressed. For example, instead of shouting about how your kid always makes you late for work, say "I start at 9 o’clock. It takes me 35 minutes to get to work if I go past your bus stop, and I like to have a quick coffee before I start. So, if you want me to drive you to the bus, we’ll need to leave at 8.15." (I even tried this with my eight-year-old, who often has me running late in the mornings, and it worked amazingly well!) Of course, it’s important that any information is given in a genuine and kind way, not with a sarcastic or demeaning tone.
  • Use one-word statements: I’m told this one works a treat for teens. Instead of giving a big description, if you know your teenager knows the information, just use one word to tell them what you want. For example, if it’s their turn to feed the dog or do the dishes, just say "dog" or "dishes" rather than the usual lecture.
  • Describe what you feel: As we want our kids to be able to talk to us about their feelings, the teenage years is a time that we can also talk to them about ours. This is a bit like giving information, above, but relates specifically to your feelings. For example, instead of assuming that your son knows you’re stressed, try telling him direct: "I’m sorry I can’t pick you up from your friend's place tonight. I have been having a hard time at work and I’m quite stressed and tired. I really need an early night."
  • Write a note: This one can be quite fun because it’s not just about leaving a list of jobs, but adding in some humour if possible. If you work away, think about maybe leaving your teen a note letting them know you’re thinking of them, or telling them something you love about them, along with notes about jobs you’d like done! Here are two examples given in How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk: 1) DEAR BILLY, I HAVEN’T BEEN OUT SINCE THIS MORNING. GIVE ME A BREAK. YOUR DOG, HARRY; 2) ALISON, I’M BOILING!! MY NEW CD WAS TAKEN WITHOUT MY PERMISSION AND NOW IT’S FULL OF SCRATCHES AND DOESN’T PLAY ANYMORE. MAD DAD.

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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