Do you feel shut out by your teens? (What parents of teens DON'T?!) Are you anxious about what's really going on as they sweep past you to go hole up in their rooms? Are you angry at their hostile rejection of your concerned questions, as they spit out "WHAT?! NO!" or, "I'm good --Nothing!" or "Whatever -- I GOT it!" The relationship starts to feel broken after a while.
Parents usually respond in one of two ways:
Out of love, worry, anger and lack of control, parents pry, probe, hover and interrogate: What is the problem? Are they depressed? Addicted? What are they hiding?! Of course, the more invasive parents are, the more evasive teens become, inciting more interrogations from parents and more avoidance by teens. And so the gulf between parent and teen grows.
B) Passive resignation:
Beaten down by failed attempts to connect, parents give up trying. The danger is that parental withdrawal gets mistaken by teens as uncaring indifference, which further fuels their reckless abandon to self-destructive activities. Again, the parent-teen gulf only grows.
On top of it all, parents unfairly condemn themselves as "bad parents" and their teens as ingrates. But anger is the enemy of compassion. And compassion is the only means of reconnecting with our alienated teens.
In times like these, it helps to pause and reflect on how well or little we really know who our teens are these days. (They are, after all, constantly evolving). For example, what are their greatest fears these days? Joys? Disappointments? Regrets? What's the toughest feeling for them and as such, often lies at the bottom of their worst emotional blow-ups: Neediness? Anger? Shame? What kinds of things make them laugh? What are their dreams? What are their favorite bands, movies, teams, books, candies, shows? Where are they on gun control, abortion, the death penalty, gay marriage? What are their beliefs about the nature of God and afterlife? Who do they turn to when needing solace? How do they wish their relationships with their parents were different?
We cannot be expected to know, nor should we necessarily ask for the answers to these questions. Teens guard their privacy vehemently, particularly around parents. But the very act of asking ourselves these searching questions prompts us to think about our teens more three-dimensionally, and can open portals of desire to understand and thereby love them better.
"Off-Duty Time" With Your Teen
To bridge these parent-teen gulfs, we need to adopt an entirely different mode of relating, one that is paradoxically "un-parenty." Once a week for at minimum an hour, parents should release all preoccupations with work and domestic burdens, put away phones and computer screens, and exist for the sole purpose of being with their teens. I mean being with them, receptively, companionably, best of all, even playfully. No parenting agendas.
Parents who have diligently carved out this kind of weekly time report they see much mending of their fractured bonds with increased mutual understanding and affection, greater lightness of spirit, more authentic exchanges and less conflict.
How does it work?
1) Introduce the idea of grabbing an hour or so a week to be with your teens to hang out however THEY wish (as long as everyone is off the communication device "grid") You might say: "I've been thinking; I've been so busy lately that I've missed really being with you. Could you just humor me and give me an hour or so of your time this week so we can hang out? Your call about what we do. Truly. I've got no agenda and in fact I solemnly vow I will NOT interrogate you!"
2) Then shock your teens by truly doing precisely that -- being with them in a low-key, relaxed nondirective way, "following" their conversational and activity initiatives.
3) Be 100 percent present. No phone distractions, no multi-tasking. Try to be fully in the moment, carefree, warmly available. Yes, this will feel weird. But try to plunge into a spirit of playful abandon, the way you used to when they were little.
4) No interrogating; no directing; no sneaky indirect probing. Our teens sniff out our maneuvering motives and manipulations and will instantly shut us out.
Why no interrogations? Because we're trying to create a new space within which our teens can relax in our presence and trust that their privacy won't be invaded by intrusive questions. One of the reasons teens dive for cover when they see incoming parents is precisely because of those annoying parental questions about homework, test results, college apps, extracurriculars, grades. For parents it's like being asked: "So how's that diet coming along? Is that a Weight-Watchers Cinnibun there? Have you scheduled your colonoscopy yet? Got all your health claims all filed?"
This "off-duty" time gradually bridges the gulf of estrangement by enabling parents and teens to enjoy each other's company in a pressure-free zone. You may discover, over time, that your teens disclose painful experiences and feelings they had hidden from you so far. But don't dig or pry or they will clam up.
If your teen is a non-talker: Try sharing the silence companionably, at peace in the quiet. Alternately, you be the one to supply the content to engage about. (e.g. "ugh -- I had the most awkward encounter with a co-worker today: listen to this; and tell me how you'd handle this...." Or " "I learned that rats live for two or three years but squirrels live for 25 years; I wonder what the science is behind that difference...") You are modeling what you hope your teen will do in time -- engaging openly about matters of concern or interest.
If you're too angry to be with your teen with calm availability: Practice self-calming relaxation techniques. Also, try calling up the old love for your teen that is buried beneath your bitterness. Reconnect with the child your teen used to be (and somewhere, still is). Old photos and family videos are the most powerful means of tapping into those dormant tender feelings. Viewing them with your teen can be particularly moving and bridge-building. Be prepared to be awash in waves of wistfulness for the pure and easy closeness you used to enjoy. (But don't glamorize the past by forgetting what pains they were back then too!)
If your teen is too angry and guarded to commit time to being with you: Try to find small unobtrusive ways to infuse the space between your teen and you with lighthearted kindness. Go to Stumble Upon or YouTube and send clips your teen will find amusing. Find and share media tidbits about public figures they like or loathe. Leave Guinness Book of World Records or Darwin Awards out on the kitchen table to be appalled and impressed by together. Join him in watching funny TV programs with favorite snacks. Write your teen a letter or email that conveys that you miss being with her. The tone should be light and non-blaming. For example, "Dear Gina, I'm realizing more and more how, in all our busy day to day absorptions, I'm missing out on being with you. I wish there was a way we could step out of our chaotic schedules and just hang out, relax, watch a show or game or whatever you felt like doing to blow off steam. If you could stand it, I'd sure love it. No pressure; just wanting to let you know." Through these "successive approximations" you can coax your teen to trust your intention to just be together, not judge or correct.
We are the adults. The onus is on us to try to repair strained or broken bonds with our teens. Time and acceptance are two gifts teens long for and need most from their parents. In return, parents receive the gift of knowing, enjoying and loving their teens better. Try it weekly for two months and note the differences. Then keep it up.