Developing Close Relationships With Our Teens

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In an era of increased drug use, teenage pregnancy and youth suicide, it's little wonder that most parents are very concerned about their teens. Very often they ask: "How can I protect my teens from these things?" An important key is to develop close, caring relationships with teenagers.

Teenagers who have close relationships with their parents are less likely to use drugs, abuse alcohol or become pregnant out of wedlock. These teens are more likely to adopt the beliefs and values of their parents. Teens who are close to their parents resist peer pressure better and are less likely to commit crimes.

How do we develop close relationships with our teens? Here are some ideas from experts in adolescent development.

Be honest. Adolescents are developing their thinking abilities. They want to know the reasons for everything, and they expect consistency from their parents. They are critical of the parent who is dishonest or two-faced.

Be open. Adolescents want to be able to talk with their parents, but they also need their privacy and independence. The adult-adolescent conversation needs to be two-sided, with both people sharing their thoughts and feelings. Adolescents want to know if, as adults, we are struggling over the same concerns they are. If we are doing most of the talking, we're talking too much.

When it is your turn to speak, watch your language. Sometimes we talk to teens in ways that say "you would be OK if . . ." or "we will love you more if . . ."(you go to church, clean your room, get good grades, etc.).

We order, warn, nag, threaten and preach to our teens to try to teach them to be more responsible and more sensible. However, this can backfire and actually encourage our teens to be less responsible and less sensible. Teens are more likely to be responsible and follow our wishes if they feel accepted. Speaking politely conveys acceptance. For example, we can say, "I'm sorry to interrupt you, but . . ." or "I realize you may not want to, but it would help me so much if . . ."

Also, catching teens doing the things we want and praising them for it fosters feelings of acceptance. For example, instead of praising them for "a nice report card", say "You've done very well in art and science. You must really like those subjects."

Be calm. Adolescents like to try out their arguing skills. If you get angry and yell or scream, this is an ideal time for them to practice. Avoid getting into power struggles and arguments with your adolescent. If you talk calmly, your child can see you as in control of the situation.

Set clear and consistent limits. Younger children abide by the rules set down by the parents just because they are rules. Adolescents are more likely to question the importance of the rule and why there has to be one at all. You should respect your child's need to have the rule explained. Take time to explain why this rule is set and allow time for negotiation of certain rules such as curfew. However, don't hesitate to say when something is not open to negotiation, such as riding in a car with kids who have been drinking or taking drugs.

Remember that growing up means becoming independent. In situations where your child's well-being is not in danger, you may need to accept that your child makes choices you wouldn't have made. Or that your child has behaved in ways that you don't approve. That's independence. Your child may temporarily dress weird or follow a strange hairstyle trend. Your teen is showing individualism and independence from you. Try to overlook some of the outside appearances and concentrate on the inner strengths of your teenager. When teens plan a party, leave the planning to them and don't interfere unless asked or unless the plans become unacceptable to you.

Be supportive. Independence does not mean isolation. It means establishing a different kind of relationship with parents, not terminating it. Almost all adolescents say their parents are the most important people in their lives. Adolescence is a time when you are needed--when teens are trying to figure out who they really are.

No matter how frustrated you may feel at times, your teen needs you as a base of support, as much now as during the early years of life.

For Further Reading…

Steinberg, L. D., & Levine, A. (1997). You and your adolescent: A parent's guide for ages 10-20.New York: HarperInformation.

Written by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.