“Why won’t my son just do what I tell him to do?” “I know something is bothering my daughter. Why won’t she just tell me what it is?” “How do I get my son to listen to me when I try to talk to him?” “How can I get my kid to stop being so disrespectful and defiant all the time?” “I caught my teen doing something bad. What now?”
With therapists who specialize in family counseling and teen counseling, these are questions we hear from parents of teenagers on a weekly basis, and all of these questions have the same answer, although it’s one that tends to ruffle parents’ proverbial feathers. The answer is this: Connect with your teen. Look past the problematic attitude or behavior to the need being expressed.
I know. That’s not what you wanted to hear. You wanted a magic pill or a script for getting your teen to bend to your will because you know better. Just hear me out.
1. Connect with Your Teen
All teens crave intimacy and connection. They want to be truly known and deeply loved. (Don’t we all?) And while this connection is needed in all phases of life, it’s particularly important during the teen years when your kid is facing a myriad of both inward and outward struggles.
There are countless things that fill teens’ lives, but most don’t offer true connection. Social media is the most common culprit for this false sense of relationship. And in the face of their need for connection not being met, many teens turn to alcohol, drugs, porn, sex, self-harm, and other risky behaviors, or they become angry, anxious, or depressed. Your teenager’s need for connection can only be met through deep, mature relationships.
Parents, your teen still needs lots of physical affection from you, even when it’s awkward. They still need copious amounts of verbal affirmation. They still need to hear you tell them that you love them. They need you to be the steady anchor–emotionally, physically, and morally–in the storm of their life.
Last week, we talked about helping your teen find purpose beyond academics and athletics. Continue to guide them and help them paint a picture of what they want their life to look like, what they want to move towards in life. All of these words and actions will fortify your connection with your teen.
And when your teen messes up, acknowledge it honestly but calmly. Avoid big reactions. Whatever happened is over, and you can’t change that, so move into growth. “Ok, here’s what you did, and here’s why it’s wrong,” then quickly invite them to tell you about the WHY. Something was driving that behavior. What was it?
If your teen is not ready to discuss the WHY with you, listen to what they will tell you. Be persistently available. We talk a lot in therapy about “holding space” for clients. It involves being fully present for another person’s emotional, physical, and mental needs. Often, it involves sitting with discomfort, which isn’t easy. Holding space for your teen will allow them to more easily express their thoughts and feelings to you. It can also be helpful to disclose your own (age-appropriate) mistakes, how you handled them, and what you learned or should have learned. Being vulnerable with your teen without the expectation that it will be reciprocated builds connection.
And if your teen throws an accusation at you, consider it. They believe what they said about you is true. Why? “Tell me more about that.” If there has been a breakdown in your relationship, it’s not too late to work on rebuilding the trust that is required for true connection, but it will require patience.
2. Help Your Teen Connect with Others
The proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” remains true when that child becomes a teenager. Be intentional about helping your teen cultivate relationships with other trusted adults–ones who have the type of virtues you want your teenager to have and ones who will actively speak into your teen’s life. This could be a grandparent, a member of your church, or a family friend. However, these relationships rarely happen organically, so you will need to help facilitate them for your teen.
3. Seek Out a Counselor for Your Teen
If you feel like your teen is “too far gone,” don’t be afraid to seek out a counselor for them, even if they are resistant to the idea of counseling. Be your child’s advocate, even if it’s not received well. Emphasize that taking care of their mental health is just as important as taking care of their physical health and help them work through any embarrassment or shame they may be feeling. This is another occasion for appropriate self-disclosure; tell your teen about a time in your life that you needed outside help or when you felt big feelings and didn’t know what to do.
If you feel like your relationship with your teen is “too far gone,” or if you want insight into your specific situation, seek out family counseling. Let an experienced therapist help your family rebuild trust and heal turbulent relationships. That deep connection we all–and especially your teen–needs is possible.
Looking for family counseling, Christian teen counseling, or anxiety counseling for your teen? Worried that your teen may be addicted to social media? The Finding Place Counseling and Recovery is located in Little Rock, Arkansas. Our therapists offer both secular and Christian counseling for teens and their families. Contact us to schedule a session or book an intensive.