Keep Calm and Parent On: Teen Edition
Teenagers…am I right?! Being a teenager is hard, and sometimes parenting a teenager is even harder. As a parent of a teen, you may look back at your own youthful years and feel newfound empathy for your parents. But why, exactly, is parenting teens so hard? Is there a way to make it easier on ourselves, and them?
Let me start with upfront honesty. I am a parent of young children and haven’t quite made it to the “raising teens” stage of life. However, I do work closely with teens—more specifically, teens who are hurting or are going through a difficult season—through a ministry called "The Harbor" at Chase Oaks. So I know teens pretty well.
Overwhelmingly, I hear teens say the following statements: “I feel like my parents don’t get me.” “I feel like my parents don’t understand me.” “I feel like my parents don’t listen to me.” Sound familiar? I know I said each of these statements when I was a teenager, and I meant them. I felt misunderstood, unheard, and at times, like I was an inconvenience. How can we as a new generation of parents do better?
In his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” Stephen Covey says, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Covey then tells us that we should “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
So, the first and most important thing we can do as parents of teens is to listen. Listening is a learned skill; as parents, it’s our job to lead and show our kids how to do it by modeling it ourselves. Our kids may be moving quickly toward young adulthood, but they still learn by example. Hopefully they have seen you listen well since they were young, but it's never too late to start.
For example, we need to give our children space to share as we sit patiently and quietly. Don’t scroll through your email or watch tv while your teen is talking to you. Instead, turn to them, look them in the eyes, and give them your full attention.
We can communicate we are actively listening by offering only mild/minor interjections, like saying “I see” or “I understand.” Or we can simply nod so they know we are engaged in what they are sharing.
Clarify Instead of React
While they are speaking you can also ask clarifying questions like, “So what I hear you saying is this _____. Is that correct?” When you can repeat their words back to them, it shows them that you are in fact listening and engaged in what they are saying…and not thinking about what you are going to say next.
One of the hardest things about listening is to fight the temptation to immediately respond to what is being said. But asking direct questions, arguing with what is being said, or disputing facts will discourage further sharing. You can come back around the facts later.
If a teen has decided to open up to you, they need to be heard in that moment. So concentrate fully on what is being said and how your teen feels. You may not fully agree with everything they say. You may even catch yourself thinking, "The world is in trouble with these young people." But if we can stop and hear what they have to say, it builds trust and can help us understand them better. Teens long for empathetic listening.
Be a Student
As you listen, I also urge you to be a student of your teen’s mental health. If your teen comes to you and tells you that they think they may be depressed, or that they are struggling with anxiety, stress, or the general pressures of life, listen. If they share something bigger like thoughts of wanting to harm themselves, listen. Listen to them. Take it seriously.
People give Gen Z a hard time, but I have to say that I’m so proud of this generation of students who have the courage to raise their hands and ask for help. Comments like those above aren’t just typical moody teenager behavior. They are a cry for help. It’s better to spend the money on a co-pay or counseling than to be wrong—and to find out the hard way that it wasn’t just “moody teenage behavior”.
Feeling heard leads to feeling understood, and feeling understood leads to connection. And building deep connection leads to trust.
I also encourage you to find out your teen’s love language and language of apology. You can take online quizzes together to help you understand how to show love and how to say “I’m sorry” in a way that they will hear and receive.
(Sharing YOUR love and apology languages with your teen will be helpful, too! How many times do you feel unappreciated or like they gave you a half-hearted apology? It may not be disrespect or lack of care; you just might not be speaking each other’s languages! If you take the time to do this, it will change your relationship.)
Here are a few additional resources:
- “When Sorry Isn’t Enough” by Gary Chapman
- “A Teen's Guide to the 5 Love Languages: How to Understand Yourself and Improve All Your Relationships” by Gary Chapman
- “The 5 Love Languages of Teenagers: The Secret to Loving Teens Effectively” by Gary Chapman
Finally, look for points of connection and do things that interest your teen. What are they into? Is there something you can do together that they would enjoy (and wouldn’t feel like torture for you)? Maybe it’s going to an arcade like the one in downtown McKinney or going watch a band perform that your teen loves. Make memories with them. This quality time helps build trust.
If you can listen to your teen and spend time with them engaging in their interests, it will take your connection to another level. In the process, you will teach them how to interact with others, how to effectively communicate, and how to show respect. That will make all the difference to helping you and your teen make the most of this unique parenting stage.