In addition to the inherent challenges of raising kids during the adolescent years, “Parenting teens and tweens today is a brave new world indeed,” according to John Duffy, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and author of the forthcoming The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens. Life has changed for kids today, and it’s only really happened “in the past decade or so,” Dr. Duffy said.
While technology offers a bounty of benefits, it also offers an online world bursting with information that many teens, and particularly tweens, just aren’t developmentally ready for, Duffy said. “When we were children, we had to go well out of our way to seek the information that might shock us, or get us in trouble.” Today, it’s all too easy.
Social networking sites have changed how kids communicate with and relate to each other, which presents other parenting challenges. Not only do sites like Facebook take an inordinate amount of their time, but online bullying has become a major problem.
Years ago, parenting with an iron fist might have worked, but as Duffy said, for today’s teens, it doesn’t. Many parents choose a strict and authoritarian style of parenting partly because of the belief that the teen years are trouble.
“Culturally, we have a general belief that teens are difficult, surly, egocentric, moody and just plain awful,” Duffy said. For example, he referred to a popular parenting book called Yes, Your Teen is Crazy. This misconception leads parents to raise their kids from a fearful place. And any approach based on fear is ineffective, according to Duffy.
While the teen years may be tough, he said, they’re also “full of growth, challenge and change.” Duffy believes in being an “available parent” and fostering “active communication.” Specifically, this means parenting “less from a position of fear, judgment and ego, and more from a place of calm, connectedness, and acceptance.”
Being an Available Parent
Duffy defines an available parent as someone who “listen[s] with curiosity to their children more than they talk at them, or lecture them,” has “faith in their children’s’ competence,” “truly want[s] to know their children and “are never cruel, judgmental or dismissive.”
Available parents also set structure and limits. “All children, teens and tweens included, benefit from a clear sense of structure: clarity from parents about bedtimes, homework, chores, curfews, and so on,” Duffy said. When establishing structure and boundaries, Duffy tells parents to trust their gut.
Of course, teens don’t react happily to rules and restrictions. They can “often berate parents for imposing them.” But structure and boundaries “will serve as anchors in [your kids’] lives, freeing up their time and energy to go about the business of adolescence, forming and experimenting with the establishment of a unique self-identity.”
Being an available parent, Duffy said, has many perks. Parents and kids enjoy their relationship more. Teens also are more engaged and more likely to listen to a parent’s point of view and heed it, he said. Available parents will “be seen as an advisor and ally, as opposed to the adversary so many of today’s parents are considered by their teenaged children.”
Wondering if you’re an available parent? Consider the following questions Duffy posed: “Are we focusing on work, or the messages waiting on the Blackberry? Are we watching a show, while only partially listening to our teen? Are we rolling our eyes when she discusses her relationships, or how tough school is, or whatever else might be on her mind? Are we wondering what other parents might think of our parenting?”
When parents aren’t available fully to their teens, the kids know it, Duffy said, and they respond the same way, “making themselves unavailable to us. As a result, we will find ourselves in a harsh cycle of conflict and myriad ineffective parenting techniques.”
Strategies To Try
One simple activity parents can try is listening to their teen’s music with them. For instance, if they have an iPod, grab the other ear bud, and listen. “Free of judgment, ask her what artists and songs she likes, and why.” Not only does this spark open communication, but you’ll probably learn something about your teen you didn’t know.
Another option is to find a time when your child is “a bit regressive.” As Duffy said, “all kids have a time [of the day] when they want to snuggle and connect.” Seize “these golden opportunities to talk and connect [before they] pass you by.”
Conflict & Consequences
No doubt, from time to time, regardless of your relationship, kids will break the rules. They may come home past curfew, skip class or choose friends or significant others you don’t like. What can you do?
For starters, according to Duffy, the more you agree on beforehand, the better. He suggested parents and teens create a contract. This way, consequences are clearly laid out, and little discussion is needed. If a rule is broken, the teen already knows what’ll happen. And this “free[s] up a lot of ‘conflict’ time in favor of more positive interaction.”
If you do need to talk to your teen, wait until you’re “calm and clear-headed,” Duffy said. Then, avoid lectures. “Lectures do not work.” What does work is listening and being open. Consider asking your teen: “Why were you willing to come in so late, knowing how this was going to play out?” “Why did you skip that class?” Listening helps you learn something that may help your relationship and gain a better understanding of your child. Lecturing closes off communication.
Also, consider fostering “teachable moments,” Duffy said. “Every misstep represents an opportunity for parents, an opportunity to discuss, problem-solve, soothe and move on.”
Friends and significant others are a common source of conflict between teens and parents. Duffy suggested getting to know these individuals. Remember, too, that “your child does not choose friends or significant others in order to test your parenting acumen, or to push your buttons.” They probably just like them.
As he said, “I have worked with many teens who carry bad reputations, but I haven’t worked with a single bad kid.” Be open. Ask your teen about their friends. “Invite them over for dinner, and ask them about their interests. You may even ask them about your own teen — you’ll almost certainly learn something interesting there!”
Importantly, though, if you think your child is unsafe, step in. “Make that very clear as well, and you may need to establish boundaries around the safety issue,” Duffy said. If you have a good relationship with your teen already, having these kinds of conversations becomes easier and they become more receptive to your perspective.
As a father of a teen himself, Duffy said “fatherhood continues to be among the greatest joys of my life. I know we will have our difficulties and challenges, but I don’t want to miss a single moment with him…Allow yourself to be available enough to enjoy in, and thrive in, this relationship.”
You can learn more about psychologist John Duffy, Ph.D, and his work on his website.