Photo: DimaBerlin (Shutterstock)
Do you know what your teenager is thinking, feeling, or doing most of the time? Maybe you sense a sullen attitude one day, but you have no idea if it’s a problem at school, a social schism, or just the demeanor of the day. If you feel like your teen is a black box you don’t know how to open, operate, or interact with, you are not alone. The good news: You can learn tools to shed some light in that black box, even if you never completely understand it.
“The goal is a growth mindset rather than becoming an expert,” parenting coach Jim White said. “To me, seeing myself as the expert implies that there is nothing new to learn, which actually leads to a fixed mindset.” OK, pressure’s off, you don’t have to be a teen parenting expert either—just willing to learn and grow.
White is the author of How to be the parent your teenager needs you to be: Without all of the fighting, frustration, or fear of doing it wrong. We mined his book and our conversation with him to come up with the easiest ways to better parent throughout the teen years.
Connect before you try to fix something
Resist the urge to jump into problem-solving mode if your kid is struggling with something.
“If your teenager is experiencing fear or negative emotional energy, they are not in the position to readily receive any of your advice, coaching, or wisdom,” White wrote in his book. There he includes 9 ways to connect with your teenager. We asked him to name one thing a parent could do daily to build connection. His answer: Be playful.
Did you think there was no need to play with your kids past elementary age? What probably happened is they started to get their own interests, developed some independence, and you could no longer see where you fit in their fun. But neither of you is too old to play. White suggested these ideas for daily playfulness:
Have a joke of the day.Learn to play one of their video games. Play catch in the backyard or do some other outdoor activity.If they are interested in learning to play the guitar or pick up another skill, take lessons together.Play board games.Share funny family stories.Watch funny YouTube and TikTok videos together.
If you’re a parent over a certain age, you may not have had a lot of experience getting your feelings validated when you were growing up. If it doesn’t come naturally to validate your teen’s feelings, all you need is practice. “The goal of validating is to let your teenager know that they have the right to feel the way they do while at the same time not passing judgment on those feelings,” White wrote.
Try phases like this:
“I understand why you feel that way.”“It makes sense that you are angry/sad/disappointed.”“You are having a totally normal reaction to the situation.”
Be curious about your kid
Of course, we want to know every detail of their day. Haven’t we been asking “How was school?” every day since the first day of pre-K? You may not be getting the most elaborate answers to that question these days, though, and it’s time to change your style. Try asking something a little more specific like, “What’s the funniest/weirdest/wildest thing that happened at school today?” If they don’t take that bait, try again with a question about something specific they did, like, “How did you feel after the calculus exam?” If they are still reticent, don’t push. Sign off with something positive, and you’ve left the door open for them to share when they’re ready.
“The solution is to shift your focus from results to process,” White wrote. “Ask questions that challenge them to think and share their perspective.”
When you are trying to get a kid’s perspective on a new or big topic, don’t push for answers right away. Teen brains are very busy and take time to process. When they do talk, don’t jump to advise or give your perspective. Just listen.
Clarify what they heck they are talking about
Sometimes your kid might be more than willing to talk, but you are rusty on the current teenspeak, and it’s not all making sense. Try these clarifying questions to get on the same page:
What do you mean when you say (fill in the blank)?I am not sure if I know what you mean when you use that word—what would I say instead?Tell me more about…
Put some gratitude in your attitude
Try this gratitude technique: When your child does something helpful or kind, tell them how much you appreciate it and acknowledge an attribute that goes along with the action. For example, “Thank you so much for helping your brother finish his assignment! You are really a good problem-solver for your younger siblings, and you’re generous with your time.”
Not only are you giving some good old-fashioned positive reinforcement, the practice of gratitude teaches your brain to handle conflict better when it arises. “You can’t experience fear and gratitude at the same time,” White said. “A growth mindset leads to seeing problems as gifts, which leads to a sense of gratitude. This gratitude will crowd out any feelings of fear or insecurity.”
Ask your family this one question
This should be a family exercise, so make sure you get everyone’s input. The question is: In our family, how should we treat each other?
Find a consensus and write down the word, phrase, or sentence you come up with. Congrats: You have the seed of your own Family Vision Statement. White thinks every family should have one because shared values and beliefs are the foundation of family connection.
Turn over responsibility for messy rooms
Taking care of their space at home is practice for when they move out on their own. Instead of butting heads over messy bedrooms, try letting them be responsible for it entirely. Agree on your own family limits like, they can’t do anything in their room that is unsafe, illegal, or negatively impacts the rest of your household. Then you do the work of letting it go while they learn how to balance responsibility and freedom.
Write a note
You might feel corny the first few times, and your teen may do some serious eye-rolling, but handwritten notes just hit different. It allows your message to sink in, and your child will likely save those notes to feel connected to you later. Use notes to express regret when you had a disagreement, to offer encouragement when something tough is going on, and to say thank you.
Finally, you can’t really mess this up. Yes, teens can be messed up, and parents can be messed up, but your basic interest in learning parenting skills and loving your child nearly guarantee they will be OK.
“Love has amazing healing attributes,” White wrote. “Consequently, there is nothing we can do as parents that causes irreversible damage. All relationships can be healed and all families can restore a sense of purpose, peace, and joy to their home.”