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A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

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Surviving the Teenage Years? Keep Talking and 7 More Tips

Author Cheryl Strayed wrote in an essay that, “Mothering is absurdly hard and profoundly sweet.” This has been the mother of all truth for me – teens take everything you have to give, bringing you to the edges of your personality and absolutely to your knees.

Parenting teens seems like a daunting task, doesn’t it? Teens can be prickly and withdrawn; they can seem a mystery. Where did our cuddly, happy little kids go? While toddlers have their own set of challenges from tantrums to toilet training, they let their parents in emotionally. We usually know what’s bothering younger kids, they talk with us, and we feel loved and connected. Teens? Not so much.

Many years into this journey of being a parent, and with 3 teens by my side, the best piece of parenting advice I know is this: Keep talking with your kids. It’s especially true when you have teens. Most of the challenges of parenting teens can be prevented or solved this way. But even just talking can seem hard, or at times, nearly impossible.

While I don’t feel like I’m an expert in teens (or somedays like I know much of anything at all about them), I’m learning bit by bit. What I’ve found works with my kids certainly won’t work for all, but may provide some ideas to start with. Here are some things my teens have taught me:

Be curious about their world. Teens are told what to do all day long. Grown-ups tell them where to go, how to act, what to think. To foster a better connection, start instead with curiosity. What are they interested in? Ask to listen to the music they like. Explore something new together. I visited my son at college last year and one night as we sat watching the sunset together, I asked him which social media sites he was using. I figured I was stuck in my Twitter and Facebook rut and might learn something from him. He showed me sites I knew of and a few I’d never heard of, telling me about their pros and cons. We had fun and I felt much more connected than if I’d started with the usual parental, “I hope you’re being safe online” talk.

Be present. A piece of advice I got years ago was that teens need you home even more than little kids. I didn’t believe it then, but see its wisdom now. Teens don’t talk on your schedule. They open up when the time feels right for them. When possible, I try to arrange my schedule so I’m home when my teens are. Being home makes it more likely I’ll be in the right place at the right time to connect with them. I’m not above baking cookies just to lure them into the kitchen with me! And when they do start talking out of the blue, I put down my work, my housecleaning, my phone – and listen.

Accept anything. When I was a kid, my mom gave me a great gift. It wasn’t wrapped or even explicitly presented or discussed. She gave me the gift of letting me know she’d be by my side no matter what happened to me or what I did. That didn’t mean she’d approve of every action or word, but that she could handle anything calmly and productively. My kids, I believe, know the same of me. This trust has perhaps been created by being willing to talk about anything, and I do mean anything, with them. Family dinners are a great way to get that level of conversation going.

Be a sealed vault. Let your kids know that if they ask you to keep something a secret you will. They should be able to come to you for help without thinking their stories will be shared with others. You won’t tell your spouse, partner, best friend, or their siblings what they’ve confided in you. If you feel the need to share, get their permission first and discuss why it may help them for you to talk with others.

Eat dinner together. It doesn’t matter if it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner, just commit to spending at least one meal together a day. Frequent family meals have a positive effect on teens’ emotional well-being. It reduces their risk of depression and risk-taking behaviors like sex, alcohol, and tobacco and cannabis use.

Respect them. Our teens are in the process of becoming their own people. This period of life is defined by separating from parents. To pass from being a child to a healthy adult, teens have the “job” of getting ready to break away from their parents. Sometimes you may not understand who they’re becoming. Sometimes you may not like this new person. It can be difficult but try to love them for who they are – not for who you expected them to be!

Respecting your kids also means not talking badly of them to others and not negatively stereotyping teens in general. Both can be challenging! When we’re struggling with our teen’s behavior, it can feel natural to vent to our friends. Do this carefully and rarely – you never know what will be overheard or returned to your child.

Get to know their tribe. Who are their people? Who do they care about? Meet their friends. Ask how they are. As your teens break away from you, they bond with others – this is normal and necessary.

It could also be said that the “job” of the teen years is to get parents ready to let go of their kids. We can look at the sometimes challenging behavior of teens as a way of helping us with this process. And as frustrating as teens can be, even on the worst of days, I know how hard it will be to let them go.

One last tip? I find humor works well when teens are pushing their limits. Recently, on a rough day when one of my teens was being difficult, I was tempted to get cranky myself. Instead, I laughed and told her, “You’re just doing your job!” She looked confused, and I just smiled.

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