By Angie Holstein, MSW, RSW
Most parents of teenagers will tell you that it’s hardly a stress free period in the parenting journey. It’s difficult to think back to your own teenage years but upon reflection, you may remember it as a time of idealism, risk taking and conflict within your family.
When you consider the teen years as a period of intense mind and body development (physically, emotionally and intellectually), it is understandable that it is a time of confusion for many families, as you help them grow into the unique individuals that they are striving, and sometimes “fighting” with you, to be.
Research shows that teens are at a higher risk for mental health challenges during the adolescent period. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, social and spiritual well-being. It affects how we think, learn, feel, act, and even our physical health.
Mental health is important at every stage of life from childhood and adolescence right through into adulthood.
A consistent message, from both pioneers in parenting research and current researchers, is this: the attachment and connections that our kids form with us as parents/guardians is a central predictor for their mental health and emotional well-being and makes them feel valued. In turn, they can learn to love themselves. In fact, this is the very foundation for mental health. Additionally, these connections will set them up for healthy relationships in their own adulthood.
Connecting can be difficult for parents when hearing ‘leave me alone’ and ‘can’t I just be in my room by myself?’ It often seems like for teenager’s, their only non-school related motivation comes from their friends and social media. As a parent, this can be tough and feel rejecting. It doesn’t seem that long ago when their sticky fingers were pulling at your sleeve and asking for you to ‘come and color’ with them.
Teenagers tell me that there are things that their parents do to help foster a connection with them and things that their parents do that drive them away. Feeling connected to their parents means that they feel their parent is a safe person to talk to when things are not going well in their lives. Teens advise parents to:
- stop comparing them to other kids or to you at that age (it is a different time!)
- don’t scold them when they come to you for help
- let mistakes happen and let them try to figure things out first.
Meaningful change takes time, consistency, evaluation and effort. Research tells us that behavior and emotional changes can take anywhere from 30-90 days of consistent practice. Remember not to give up as there will be moments when you will feel discouraged.
So, what can you do as a parent to stay connected and help safeguard your teen’s mental health? Here are a few strategies to consider:
Breathe and practice self-compassion: Parenting is difficult and it’s not meant to be easy. It’s full of negative emotions such as anger and resentment. It’s normal, so give yourself a break, be good enough and know that you are exactly what your kids need.
“Connecting is best before Directing”: Gordon Neufeld (in his book Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers), describes “collecting” our kids emotionally with some basic strategies such as physical closeness, touch, eye contact, nods and smiles. Think of trying these when you are saying hello again after work/school.
Share failures and mistakes as a family: Sharing our mistakes lets kids know it’s ok for them to do the same and gives you a dinner time or car ride topic when it’s often hard to find one. This is a great opportunity to provide some important role modeling.
Roses and Thorns: At the end of the day, ask ‘what was a rose today (something positive)?’ and ‘what was a thorn (challenge)?’ This teaches kids that you are interested in the process of their endeavors, the challenges they have experienced, as well as the successes.
Be available: Although it goes without saying, it can be hard to do. Carolyn Webster-Stratton (The Incredible Years Parenting Program), one of the early pioneers in parenting research, tells us that 15 minutes of connection per day adds to kids’ emotional currency. For teenagers it can be just hanging around at bedtime, when they brush teeth, or driving to activities. The key is making it a time without instructions, teaching or agendas.
Be OK with when you are not available: These are busy times. When you can’t be there, let them know by a note, text or email that you miss them and when you will be able to have some connection time next.
Limits and support: Boundaries and rules create a secure attachment and support a healthy parenting relationship. Giving kids everything they want creates feelings of insecurity whereas rules, routines and consistency support their mental health and resiliency.
Avoiding the Perfectionism Trap: Let your relationship be good enough. Know you are what they need.
Listen and resist the urge to problem solve: Actively listening sets the stage for a relationship where they can feel heard and that they are taken seriously.