Parents who’ve been through it know that the most challenging part of their job begins 13 years – more or less – after their children are born.
One day the child who saw you as a hero for so long becomes surly, gives you that look, tells you you’re annoying and that they hate you.
And so it begins. …The road to adulthood.
That’s why Millburn Municipal Alliance Committee, the Millburn Special Education Committee and the Jewish Family Service Metrowest hosted a workshop this week with Montclair therapist Beth Sandweiss, who helps parents reconnect with their teens by learning to communicate differently and remembering that having influence is better than control when it comes to teens.
“The influence we have depends on the health of our relationships with them,” she said.
In a program called, "Forget About the 'Big Talk' with Your Teen: Having Conversations that Matter a Little at a Time,” Sandweiss suggested having three- to five-minute bursts of important conversations instead of long heart-to-heart talks.
She also suggested talking to teens when they are most receptive, such as riding in the car, sitting side by side and not making eye contact, or late at night, when they are relaxed and open to conversation.
A bad time to talk to teens is when they come home from school. And a bad way to talk to teens is to lecture them, the fastest way to make them tune you out.
“When teens ask for advice, what they really want is help making the decision for themselves,” Sandweiss said.
The program drew one of the largest crowds the organizations have had in awhile, and parents came away realizing that they are not alone – many issues with teens are pretty universal.
As the mom of a teen and a pre-teen, I find it’s always good to be reminded that pulling away is what teens do to assert their independence and what they must do to eventually grow up.
Sandweiss reminded the audience at the Millburn Library that teens interpret things differently, and what parents think is an innocent question can come off as an accusation, interrogation or as blame.
When those things happen, communication stops, resentment builds and relationships erode.
The good news is it’s never too late to mend relationships and communicate and connect differently with your teen – you can be influential without being controlling, and that will work in your favor, she said.
Ultimately, the goal of parenting a teen is to get them to make good choices and to be able to think through problems on their own.
“Trust can be rebuilt," she says. "Teens want your guidance; they just want it on their terms and they don’t want to admit it. Rather than give advice, we need to encourage teenagers to dig deep within themselves to come up with the right answers.”
In surveys, teens say the top three reasons why they keep things from their parents are that they think their won’t understand, that they will overreact or that they will be hurt, Sandweiss said.
“The trick is not to take things too personally,” she said. “When they say something that hurts or makes you mad, try not to respond in the moment of anger. Remove yourself from the situation and talk about it later.”
Sandweiss is a proponent of consequences rather than punishment and the idea that our job as parents is to help children develop a sense integrity. When they break that integrity, they have to find a way back to it. That involves an apology and figuring out how to make things right.
As parents, we also have to be able to let them fail, because much success is borne of failure and learning from setbacks, she said.
I remember being exhausted as a new mom but in a good way: I had this beautiful, fascinating baby to care for who was always so happy to see me. We know intellectually as new parents that someday that smiling baby will be a willful teenager trying to assert her independence or make his own way in the world.
We can’t control that; we can only guide them and be a safe haven and someone they can trust.
The challenge is to protect them and keep them safe while trusting them and giving them independence to make the right choices and decisions. That’s hard.
Sandweiss reminded parents that we, too, have to evolve during the teen years from managers to consultants. Good advice.