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Teens - Love and Connect

January 25, 2002
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What do you think when you hear the word “teenager”? The teen years can be a challenging time for kids and their parents, but this phase of life can be much more positive than popular culture leads us to believe.

The Harvard University Center for Health Communication released an important study in 2001 that provides a synthesis of major research findings on the parenting of adolescents. The well-organized report includes an overview of the developmental changes that occur in adolescence, and it outlines five basics of parenting teens: (1) love and connect, (2) monitor and observe, (3) guide and limit, (4) model and consult, and (5) provide and advocate. The report, "Raising Teens: A Synthesis of Research and a Foundation for Action," by A. Rae Simpson, Ph.D., cites widespread agreement among researchers that parental relationships are key to healthy teen development.

“Studies find that supportive relationships with both mothers and fathers are linked, for example, with lower risks of substance abuse, depression, negative peer influence, and delinquency, as well as higher levels of self-reliance, identity formation, school performance, and success in future relationships,” Simpson states in the report. “There is no question that teens also want increasing independence and increasing participation in decisions about themselves and family matters, but rather than disconnection, they seek a new kind of connection, one that allows for increasing maturity and mastery of adult roles.”

We think the Harvard study is a wonderful tool, thought provoking and thorough.

Each of the “five basics” requires parents’ time, though the issue of time is not directly addressed in the report. We are hopeful that a renewed emphasis on the importance of parents and parenting will translate to a willingness to discuss time and parents’ choices.

We use the Harvard report as the basis for reflecting on our experiences with the “basics” of parenting adolescents. Our staff and volunteers provided some of their personal experiences; we'd love to hear from you--please use the "comment" option (all comments are reviewed by editors before they appear on our website). 

From Winnie C.:

After a lot of thought I have come to the conclusion that the number one most important thing in staying connected to older kids is also the most basic for an at-home mother--I was here.

My original life plan included going back to work when Lezlie and April started school. That way I would have plenty of money by the time they were teenagers so that they could have all the extras as well as the basics. Then I had my son Taran and so I was at home with him as the girls began to grow older. I soon discovered a very great truth--the girls didn’t need me less as they grew older, they needed me more, and when they needed me, they needed me right now.

This was not just my perception. It is something that both girls still say, as young adults. They would not have traded my being at home for any of the extras that they missed, for any amount of money.

I started a habit, as soon as Lezlie began school, of stopping whatever I was doing when she came in. For a few minutes when they came home (whenever it was), I stopped what I was doing and gave them undivided attention. I was here when they came in from school at four; I was here when they came in from rehearsal at nine; I was here when they came in from being out with friends at midnight. I was here and awake whenever they came home. We had a lot of our most important and meaningful talks in the middle of the night.

Being a parent of a teenager can be a very frightening time; so many things can go wrong, and when they go wrong it can change a life. However, constantly harping on a child doesn’t make them “straighten up”--it drives them away. Choosing your battles is not only important in discipline, but in staying connected as well. A child does not want to stay connected to someone who makes only negative comments about him. So I would say staying as positive as possible is very important too. Of course you have to say negative things in the course of raising children, but they must be balanced (or even over-balanced) with positive things.

When I asked my children about staying connected, all three of them said the same thing: “You listen.” I think this probably means more than just being there to listen, although that is the first and most important part. It means giving them full attention. It means listening with respect, the same respect you would give to an adult, whether the person speaking is three years old or sixteen years old. It means understanding that their problems and thoughts have deep meaning to them, wherever they are in life. You set the stage for “staying connected” when they are very young. If you haven’t got time to hear about bugs when they are three or bullies when they are six, you might not be the one they come to when they need to talk about sex when they are sixteen.

From Cathy G.:

Like many teens, our seventeen-year- old son is rather close-mouthed around his parents. So, rather than any single activity that I do with Michael, I find it is my attitude that either fosters a connection or alienates him.

My husband and I made the decision to try to make Michael’s friends feel welcome even when we would give our eyeteeth for a quiet evening at home alone. Consequently our house usually looks like a cyclone hit it and our walls frequently reverberate with the cacophony of kids’ voices, band rehearsals and the latest in rock music booming from the stereo speakers.

When I’m just about ready to reach meltdown, I remind myself that this too shall pass. In the meantime I know where my son is, who his friends are and that they are all safe. That is the payoff. The icing on the cake comes when Michael and friends hang out in the kitchen and actually include me in the conversation, or Michael gives me a hug and says, “I love you, Mom” in front of his friends. Who can ask for more?

From Vicki H.:

My fourteen-year-old son, Matt, is firmly entrenched in the world of rap music and ghetto clothes. He has very little hair and generally speaks in mono-syllables. Despite all this, I still think he’s a nice guy, cute, respectful, and often very funny. As he entered adolescence I could see our interests diverging, and I didn’t want to lose my relationship with him. Not only did I enjoy being with this towering boy I had poured love into for fourteen years, but I knew that my being an active part of his life was still important.

For many years sports have been an important part of Matt’s life, and I see them as a crucial link in our communication. It quickly became a morning routine for me to scan the sports headlines in the paper before he came down to breakfast. I also made it a point to keep track of his favorite teams and players.

This gave me a way to start a conversation in the morning. “So Duke made it to the final four again!” or “I see spring training has started already for baseball,” or “What’s this about Michael Jordan coming out of retirement again?” Nothing too deep, just enough to get him going. Then all I have to do is listen, throwing in some cogent comments or relevant questions here and there. This tactic has also extended into the evenings. Now that he is in high school, he has played a team sport each season. As I drive him home every evening I want to know how his days are going. When I ask the right questions, he talks nonstop. “How’d the scrimmage go today?” “Got any new plays?” “What was your best move during practice?” “Remind me again what the football positions are.” Maybe because I’m the mom, it’s easier to express ignorance in sports, but because of his willingness to teach me, I now know a great deal. And a great side effect of all this is that once he starts talking, it’s not too hard to steer him onto other subjects such as academics.

I sometimes wonder if I’m being insincere, pretending to be interested in something I’m not. But the truth is, I’m interested in my son, and if sports are his life, then I’m interested in sports.

From Cathy M.:

When my daughter Michelle was fifteen, she wanted to take a beginning drawing class at a well-respected art center. I had a few concerns. Most of the students would be adults, and the catalog noted that the course included drawing the human figure from models. I interpreted this to mean that, as it’s been done for hundreds of years, the models would disrobe. I knew Michelle wanted to be treated as a serious art student, but I wondered how she would feel about the models and what the atmosphere would be like in a classroom full of adults we didn’t know.

Having made some halfhearted attempts myself at learning to draw in years past, I decided to invest some tuition on my own behalf while assuaging my concerns. I enrolled with her and it turned out to be one of the best things we did together during her teenage years. There is camaraderie in struggling with a new skill, and together we learned some new vocabulary we could use in talking about art. We studied still life, landscape and figure drawing, supporting each other and appreciating the skills we were gaining. As the teacher had explained at the first class, there were models, both male and female, hired to pose for us during the last few classes. It is so rare in our culture that the human body is treated with respect and a matter-of-fact, non-sexual attitude--Michelle and I had some interesting and valuable discussions on those car rides back and forth to class.

During those twelve weeks, Michelle saw me work hard at trying to learn how to do something she cared passionately about. We shared the humbling experience of being novices, and gained much respect for the great masters of drawing. Michelle went on to take many more drawing classes, and then painting classes, and is now majoring in art at college.

From Bea S.:

Many parents complain their teen-agers don’t talk to them. If they ask any questions, they get a one-word reply. I found a way to open communication with my son through playing electronic games. It is fun for both of us and is non-threatening to him.

During the game we talk about life. Mainly, he talks, and I listen and offer help, if asked. It didn’t take long before my son realized what I was doing. Many days after school he’d say, “Mom, let’s play a game.” I knew there was something he wanted to talk about. It is less threatening for him to sit beside me and tell me what is on his mind, than to have a heart-to-heart discussion in the quiet of our living room. Game playing puts us on more of an equal level. Most of the time he simply needs me to listen, other times he wants my advice.

If your child comes home from school and squirrels away in his or her room, maybe you need something to jumpstart your relationship. I recommend nonviolent games such as race cars, adventures or sports. If you don’t have a game system, take out a board game. Whatever you do, remember to have fun. That is one element that really brings teens and their parents together. Don’t be quick to judge. Remember you were once a kid yourself. Give your teenager a chance to talk. Listen with love and understanding.