What you need to know as a parent to a teen
As a parent of a teen, it's common to feel discomfort as your child becomes more independent and begins separating their identity from yours. It's an incredibly important time for teens to practice maintaining boundaries and learning about what it means to be in a relationship.
As such, I've compiled a list of things to consider as a parent with a child in the transition to adolescence:
1. The way you treat your teen is what they learn is normal for relationships.
Your teen is learning right now what relationships look like. According to attachment theory, your relationship with your teen is a mirror for what kind of relationship they will have in the future.
Yikes! This can seem like a lot of pressure, but it is actually an amazing opportunity for you to help set your teens up for a future of success and healthy relationships. You can protect them from abuse and neglect in the future by showing them respect and compassion in the present.
Does it seem healthy in an adult romantic relationship to have a partner who goes through your phone, barges into your space without asking, or otherwise intrudes upon your personal space? No, this would be inappropriate and signs of abuse and it is important as a parent that you begin to build these boundaries into your relationship with your teen now. Unless there is an imminent safety concern, allow your teen to have their own space and privacy.
2. Have empathy for your teen.
One of the biggest mistakes I see parents make is when they try to offer their teens "insight or perspective" as to why the teen's problem that they're really worked up about is actually not that big of a deal.
Perspective comes from personal experience. Teens only have a little over a decade of personal experience to draw on. When they experience a break up with a friend, it might be the first time this is happening to them. Even if you've experienced friendships dissolving over the years, this will not help your teen with the pain of going through it for the first time.
Trying to provide your teen with perspective is often felt by them as condescending and belittling and they will be less likely to go to you in the future when they are struggling. You are also teaching them that it is OK in relationships for someone to belittle them and ignore their concerns. Instead, offer your teen validation and empathy for whatever they bring up, regardless of how silly or trivial you think it sounds.
3. Allow for natural consequences.
Natural consequences are the natural result of a choice. As parents, it can be tempting to relieve our teen's emotions by trying to save them or solve a problem for them when something goes wrong, but this can inadvertently teach them that there are no lasting consequences to their choices. It can also undermine their own sense of self and resilience to hardship.
Allowing your teen the opportunity to figure out how to resolve their own issues with your support gives them a chance to learn a difficult but important lesson about responsibility while avoiding power struggles. Offer your teen support through guidance and empathy but avoid taking on their problems as your own or bailing them out completely.
4. Know where you end and your teen begins
Similar to teaching your teen about a healthy relationship by mirroring one with them, it is important to teach them to have their own sense of self by maintaining your own sense of who you are.
Your teen's emotions are not your emotions, no matter how much you love them. Vise versa, your emotions are not your teen's emotions. You must allow your teen to have their own identity, feelings, and experiences. If your teen desires more privacy or independence, do not take it personally. They are doing what they are supposed to do. Your teen is practicing setting boundaries and figuring out who they are. It does not mean that you are failing as a parent or that they don't love you.
5. Your role is to support and guide your teen.
When our children are young, they need us to do everything for them and so much of their life is up to us. As your child ages, however, this role shifts. As a teen, your child still needs you to keep them safe, meet their basic needs, and help guide and shape them as they age.
They need to know that you love them unconditionally and that you are on their side no matter what. This gives them a strong enough sense of safety that they can go out and explore and become their own person because they know they can always come back to your love and comfort.
Despite any attitude that may come from your teen, they still want your approval and support and letting your teen know that you love and support them always, even what you are disappointed or frustrated.
Raising a teen can be frustrating, irritating, and triggering. It is a time when many parents notice more explicitly the ways they are like their own parents, even (or especially!) when they try to avoid being anything like their parents. But it is also a beautiful time of brain development and you can help your teen thrive and become a successful adult by empowering them in the ways above.
Charlotte McKernan is an individual and couples therapist in Fort Collins, CO.