When parents first welcome their little bundle of joy into the world, they never imagine he or she will grow up to be a moody, broody, swearing-under-the-breath teenager. This adorable little baby? This toddler who sticks to you like Velcro? This adorable mini-me who needs your help reaching the sink or tying their shoes? No way! But, inevitably, every parent finds out that yes, it does happen. It won’t last forever, but the teen years can be so grueling that they feel like they move slower than others.
The teen years are so fragile because they absolutely fall under the category of formative years when every experience the kid has can shape them forever. But, they also come with new freedoms. So, while when kids were in their younger formative years, you could at least control their experiences, once they become teens, you lose some of that control. Kids get drivers’ licenses. And smartphones. They get later curfews. They have older friends who can buy cigarettes or alcohol. They aren’t under your watch, or any adults’ watch, all of the time, the way they were when they were little. And this is why communication, and fortifying your relationship with your teen, is so important.
It’s your way of being in their minds, even when you can’t physically be there. We spoke with Demetrius Cofield, a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor who works with Black Clinician Network, about how parents can improve relationships and communications with their teens.
Give measured freedom
“Parents should remember the importance of autonomy and social interaction to teens,” advises Cofield. “They have that need for more independence which will drive them to do things to get it that might not be okay. This is the time to start allowing them to have more freedom but also be mindful of what they are doing with that freedom.”
Help them understand what they see and hear
“[Parents] should also remember how impressionable teens can be,” says Cofield. “Social media, friend groups, and intimate relationships will significantly influence them and they are going to make some bad decisions because of it. This is where the importance of talking to them comes in.” He adds, “Parents should remember that teenagers are going through an emotional stage of development and they will have those emotional days, even teenage boys, so being more understanding of this will be helpful.”
Listen without judgment
“Sometimes [teens] just want to be heard,” says Cofield. “Parents may not always understand what their teens might be going through and it might seem irrelevant to them, but they should still be open to listening and validating their teen’s feelings. Parents should remember that the teenage years are significant to identity development and self-esteem. Talking down to teens or making them feel inferior will be detrimental to their self-esteem and have more long term effects on their identity and emotional development.”
If it matters to them, it should matter to you
“One of the biggest mistakes that parents make with teenagers is not listening to them,” says Cofield. “Oftentimes, parents are dismissive of their teenager’s feelings and opinions. The lack of validation only makes things worse for the strained relationships most teens tend to have with their parents. This is a time in their lives when they are starting to develop their identity and figure out who they are.”
They aren’t self-centered; they’re becoming self-aware
Cofield mentions adults writing off things teens discuss and care about and seeing those topics as inconsequential, noting it’s important to treat the things that matter to your teen as important to you. Understand that, at this age, “They become more critical thinkers and start to develop their own views on life. With the need for more freedom being so important to them, feeling as if their emotions and opinions are not validated can only make things worse.”
Reflect on your teen years
“Parents should also remember what it was like to be a teenager. A lot of times parents get caught up with the mentality of raising their kids the way they were raised but they forget how their parents may have negatively impacted them when they were teenagers,” says Cofield. “They should remember how they felt towards their parents and try not to be the same way.”
The impact of childhood lasts a lifetime
“One thing that comes up a lot with my clients whether they are teens or adults is their relationship with their parents growing up and the impact their parents had on who they are,” notes Cofield. “I have seen parents refuse to acknowledge the negative impact they might have had on their teens or be dismissive of their feelings about something the parents might feel shouldn’t have mattered, when they should be more open and understanding.”
Keep what your teen shares with you confidential
Cofield points out that among parents in the Black community it’s “More common to talk to family members and peers about what might be going on with the teens. A major issue with Black teenagers is feeling like they can’t trust their parents and the concern that what they tell them will be the topic among the family or their parents’ friends making them feel more shame and/or guilt for their feelings.”
You can be a friend and a leader
Some parents might fear that, by being a friend, their authority will be questioned. “I know a big issue in the Black community is how parents are often very dismissive with their teen’s feelings and take a more authoritarian approach with them but that only makes things worse, whether they realize it or not,” says Cofield.