“Amma ...the Batman movie is finally here!”, says my excited 15-year-old. “Shall I book tickets for us?”, I say equally excitedly. My response is met with an indignant violent reaction – “ Who said I want to go with you and Appa.” I find it tough to keep a straight face, my heart breaking. My husband reminds me for the nth time, “Don’t take it so personally”!
I have two teenage children, a 19-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son. Over the years, I have discovered (the hard way many times) that the teen years are as turbulent for parents, as they are for the children. We seem to need a different set of skills when working with them!
So often, parents feel hurt by the way teenagers respond and interact with them. However, knowing about how the teen brain develops helps us to not construe our teen’s behavior as a rejection of all that we are. It also helps us better understand them. Today, studies in Neuroscience tell us that the thinking brain develops fully only by the mid-20s. Teenagers do not have impulse control and most of their behavior is an attempt to discover their own identity, or for peer acceptance. So, when our teenagers are hell bent on getting that crazy haircut, dressing differently, or wanting to go for a party, it is literally a matter of life or death for them. Their brain is pushing them away from their parents, towards their peers, in the pursuit of preparing them for adulthood. This is a natural part of evolution and not a reflection of whether we are valued by them.
With this new awareness, here is my attempt to list a few crucial things a parent with teen children could keep in mind while interacting with them, and still building the bond.
Being mindful of our responses when teens share things: “Amma, my friend and I are doing a challenge for the coming school break. We are going to be binge watching a TV series.” I earnestly find myself saying, “What a waste of time...instead you should be challenging each other to learn a skill or something constructive.” My response gets a roll of the eyes and a firm, ‘I knew I shouldn’t have told you about this plan!” In another instance, my daughter who studies in another city said she was going for protests in the midst of communal tensions. My worried interrogation was countered by a matter of fact response, “Amma, all my friends are going without telling their parents. At least I’m telling you.”
Disapproval or strong opinions from us parents makes teens defensive and unwilling to share. As they are growing into adulthood, we have to train ourselves to be open to their thoughts and choices, and find common ground, or agreeing to disagree. This is challenging, and yet one of the key elements to ensure connection with our teens. It makes them open to receiving advice and guidance from us when needed.
Connecting with teens by taking interest in what interests them: When my children were younger, they would organically go along and participate in activities we suggested, whether it was a sport, music or art, relatives and friends homes, temple visits, or beach walks … whatever we planned. Through the teen years, I found that as they discovered their own identity, their own likes, dislikes and interests, they were gradually less involved in my plans, and absent from conversations. A colleague shared how she had started learning about cars so that she could converse with her 17 year old son.
This made me realize that it was time for a role reversal. Now, we parents need to be curious and enthusiastic about our teen’s interests, available when they are in a mood to chat. Over the years, I have found myself learning about pokemon, anime, origami, rap music, poetry, football and much more. It has been a rewarding experience, and has also helped strengthen the relationship.
Being vigilant: At a school meeting, my children’s school principal said that though teenagers look grown up, now is the time they need us the most. How true! Having a brain that is still under construction, frequently experiencing strong emotions and dealing with the pressure of building a bright future can be really daunting. Our children need us to be around, watching over them with empathy. However, this is tricky. One really has to be alert whilst respecting the privacy of the teenager.
I go to my teen’s room frequently, always knocking before entering. Having conversations with our teens is another way of gauging their understanding of things and assessing if they are stressed or need help. Alcohol or cigarettes, if any at home, could be locked away to avoid teens from getting tempted to try them at an inappropriate age. Rules around screen time need to be arrived at collaboratively with the teens and upheld firmly.
Each of us with teen children will have our own manuals which keep evolving as we grow alongside our young ones. My experiences teach me that after a long innings of holding my children through childhood, it is time to rework the relationship as two adults. Can we detach ourselves while keeping the attachment?
Prerna Kalra is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families.