Parents of young children sometimes live under the illusion that if they parent well, they'll be spared the challenges common to the teen years. It's what I personally hoped for when my little ones were young. But as my kids grew and changed, I realized I needed to, too. Here's what I learned along the way.
I learned to approach beloved family traditions with flexibility.
We raised our kids with the expectation that every Saturday morning started at the local coffee shop. It was a tradition we all enjoyed and looked forward to until my kids suddenly sprouted into teenagers and wanted to sleep until noon.
Instead of taking a hardline approach, KidsHealth professionals recommend flexibility when it comes to family activities. "Think back: You probably felt the same way about your mom and dad," they advise frustrated parents.
Demanding rigid adherence to family activities will likely backfire, creating a tense situation — exactly the opposite outcome desired. So instead of an unyielding "always" tone, try the posture of "sometimes." Then identify those family activities on the calendar that rise to the "mandatory" level and let the rest go.
I learned to accept a fluid dinner hour.
It’s long been my ambition to eat dinner around the table together, but things grew to a new level of helter-skelter with high schoolers coming and going amidst sporting events, invitations from friends and other commitments.
As life bulges to unprecedented levels of busyness, stick with family dinners whenever and however possible says clinical psychologist Dr. Laura Markham of Aha! Parenting. If one teen must be absent, carry on with the rest of the family. If a partner is out of town, make the effort to gather the teens on your own.
The humble dinner hour provides a level of connectivity with teens that's been tied to better grades, lower levels of depression and suicide attempts and less experimentation with drugs, alcohol and sex, says Markham. Furthermore, teens who eat dinner with their families show a healthier approach to food, writes Cody C. Delistraty in The Atlantic. Wherever your family dinner comes from or however awkward your conversation may seem, Markham insists it's worth being intentional about eating together around the table.
I learned that conversation happens when it’s going to happen.
Great conversation may occur around the dinner table but, maybe not. The team of experts at Child Development Institute say to stop, focus and listen whenever our teens want to talk.
"Many teens feel they can’t talk to their parents because they’re always at work or busy doing something else," says the Child Development Institute. "We often forget to take time out from our hectic lives to pay enough attention to our kids."
When our antennas are up and we're ready to shelve what we’re doing and concentrate on what our teen is saying, we're showing them how important they are to us.
Listen more than talk, keeping your responses brief, adds Dr. John Duffy, author of "The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens." Duffy suggests approaching our teens from the perspective of a visiting neighbor; it'll help us view them less critically and with greater empathy.
I learned to turn a blind eye to messy bedrooms.
Reporter Jan Hoffman of The New York Times helps uncover why messy rooms are hard for parents to tolerate. Her interviews with distressed parents reveal, among other things, that parents take it personally. We’re embarrassed, she writes. We feel an acute sense of parenting failure, making the issue about us and forgetful that teens are on a complex journey to becoming adults.
KidsHealth argues that, in fact, bedrooms are teens’ personal space and should be respected, adding that resisting to intervene at this level helps teens feel trusted and cultivates personal responsibility.
I learned not to let my teens control my marriage.
Our teens go to bed when we do, or later. We're helplessly collapsing into bed. We have no energy to talk, to be just the two of us. How do we stay connected as a couple? These thoughts are common to parents with teens; psychologist Suzanne Phillips warns against becoming preoccupied with teenage struggles to the point of neglecting our marriages.
Phillips describes this danger as “abdicating” our role as a partner in order to be a vigilant parent. In reality, teens benefit from signs of affection between their parents. Phillips counsels couples to find a way of finding each other. When we do, we offer our teens a solid home environment, an invaluable gift.
Life is never static and, surely, this truth couldn’t be more evident than in homes with teens. The wax and wane of family rhythm are actually signs of growth, not to be feared or resisted. After all, the relationships within our homes — not the particular day-to-day routine — should be what we fiercely protect.