As a child and family therapist, I have met with many teenagers who have shut down. It looks like they have put up 2-foot thick concrete walls around themselves to keep their parents and other concerned adults at a distance. By the time parents contact me, months or even years of damage has already happened in the family and the interactions of shutting down and pushing away have become habits. Sometimes the parent and the child don’t even know or remember how to connect with each other anymore.
Here is a list of 8 strategies parents can use to help break through the walls and enter into the hearts of their teenagers.
- Listen Attentively – Oftentimes teenagers (and people in general) don’t shut down at first. Most of the time they ask for what they need or want and then, when they don’t feel heard, they get louder and start to scream or yell to get what they need or want. If that still doesn’t work, eventually they shut down and try to figure out a way to get what they need or want without you. When parents listen more attentively to their kids, their kids don’t need to be so loud and they usually don’t get to the point of shutting down.
- Show Empathy – Coupled with listening should be showing empathy and understanding. Some of the things our teenagers want are not good for them or the family. Some of the things they want are contrary to the parents’ value system and are not healthy for the child in the long-term. In these situations, parents should be strong enough to say “no.” However, if we say “no” without showing empathy and understanding, our teenagers may look at us as being uncaring and mean. By understanding that it is hard not to get the things we want and showing empathy for our kids when they don’t get the things they want, we will be more likely able to maintain a strong relationship even if there are momentary frustrations.
- Regulate My Own Emotions – it is easy for parents to get frustrated by a teenager in a bad mood or one that pretends that you don’t exist. By getting offended, feeling disrespected, taking their mood personally, or getting angry we become emotionally unsafe for our kids and it leads them to justify their behaviors, and to continue to put walls between us. By looking at my child’s behaviors as clues into how they are doing emotionally, rather than personal attacks, and by realizing I don’t need to handle most behaviors immediately, I can buy my time and calm down. Then, when I have more control over myself and the situation, I can respond to my child more appropriately and effectively which shows my child that I can handle them and their misbehavior. It also models for my child how to handle their emotions.
- Provide Opportunities for Closeness – Some kids are so upset by their situation that they don’t want to be close to their parents. Subconsciously they feel that the closer they are the more the parent can hurt or irritate them. So they may openly make it know that they would rather die than to be in the same room with us. Finding moments to give a child a ride, taking a few moments to connect with them before bed, or picking them up from school to go have lunch are opportunities for a parent to have some one-on-one time with their child and connect.
- Look for Other Entrances Besides the Front Door – Kids that are so guarded that they would rather walk 5 miles to school rather than be in the same car as their parent may reject our bids for closeness. With kids like that, we need to be more creative with our efforts to help them feel our love. Rather than trying to give them a hug or tell them how wonderful they are, a parent may put a piece of their favorite candy in their shoe with a small note tied to it saying “from someone who loves you very much.” Or a parent might prepare a breakfast on a Saturday morning that is their child’s favorite and say something like, “I needed to cook this up before it went bad. Do you want some?” This will make it seem like you were planning on cooking it and it just so happens to be their favorite meal rather than you are trying to get them to like you.
- Be Willing to Talk About Conflict without Fighting – Unresolved conflicts over time damage relationships. Being able to bring up a past conflict and bringing it to a resolution is a characteristic found in healthy families. It prompts family members to forgive one another and strengthens relationships. Exploring the conflict from the child’s point of view often helps parents understand the hurt or fear that was caused that ended up triggering the child’s defenses. Supporting and organizing the upset emotion that led the child to shut down can often help soften the child to opening up again.
- Repair Past Hurts – If there has been a rupture in the relationship where trust has been broken or where a parent has overreacted with intensity, the parent should repair that hurt. Being able to apologize to a child will model for the child how to apologize to others when they have done something wrong. And, although apologizing is great, some wounds are bigger than what can be covered by a simple apology. Remember, when we are repairing wounds, the bandage has to be at least as big as the wound even if we didn’t create the wound in the first place.
- Be Willing to Be Vulnerable – Opening up to a child, apologizing to a child, and providing opportunities for closeness all have the potential risk of backfiring and leaving us feeling foolish and rejected. Families that shy away from talking about conflict or other topics that are uncomfortable to talk about tend to have superficial relationships that lack depth, understanding, and security. When parents can be vulnerable and find strength in that vulnerability they model healthy self-confidence and the ability to recognize their own faults, how to learn from them, and how to move forward in their lives.
When repairing relationships and getting past teenage walls, parents may find it beneficial to look past the fear of rejection and the notion that relationships should be fair; and instead, focus their efforts on effective ways to get to the heart of their child. Keep in mind when working with teenagers that repairing things sooner tends to be better than waiting for things to get better on their own.
Thanks for reading and good luck with your teenagers.