The other day my 17-year-old asked me ruefully, “Mum, you do realise that I end up spending more time with you than most kids my age do with their mothers?” I looked at her sheepishly and asked, “I get that. Do you have a problem with it?” To which she replied with a shrug and hint of a smile, “No. As long as you know how lucky you are!”
This little exchange set me thinking on how our relationships with our teenagers have been changing over the generations. Our teenage children spend much less time with us compared to the time we spent with our mothers or our mothers spent with their mothers. And we think it is alright as, after all, teenage is all about individuating, becoming independent and connecting with their peers. We are seeing this phenomenon hitting children earlier and earlier and now we have even 10-year-olds (they say 10 is the new teen) banging the door with their favourite battle cry, “Give me my space!”
And parents are stepping back in confusion, fear and possibly convenience and relief. Confusion, since that’s what we hear from all the so-called parenting experts, “Let them go, give them space.” Relief, as we are so done with all that exhausting work — getting them to sleep on time, waking them up, feeding them, making sure they go to school, study, do their homework, make friends, not stay stuck to the screens, go out and play, speak properly, be polite etc, etc. The list is endless and so when the teenagers roll their eyes and hold up their hands and ask us to put the brake on our parenting, part of us is comforted and we get down to finally getting back our lives. Mothers start thinking of getting back to work, finding time to do what they loved doing before the whirlwind of parenting swept their lives away. After all, the children have grown up and can manage on their own.
But in reality, they cannot manage on their own at all. Our teenagers need us in their lives as much as they did earlier when they were little. Children who disconnect from the parents and start seeking peers as their compass in life are much more vulnerable than those who still have their parents as their guiding force. They are basically bringing each other up or worse, by the latest social media feeds.
As Gordon Nuefeld and Gabor Maté, authors of the book, Hold On to Your Kids, commented, “Children are generating their own culture, very distinct from that of their parents and, in some ways, also very alien. Instead of culture being passed down vertically, it is being transmitted horizontally within the younger generation.”
I agree that we all did that when we were teenagers but nowhere in history has this switch been so drastic. In the absence of their parents’ attentive involvement, our children are more vulnerable to seeking approval from their peers which can come at the cost of high-risk behaviour for acceptance. Precocious sex, early exposure to smoking, drinking, drugs, pornography and all the damaging things we want to protect our children from.
Now, do not get me wrong, I am not suggesting that we come down heavily on our children by checking, micromanaging, intruding, imposing more rules, interrogating every move of theirs. That will make them push back even further. What we need to do is woo and reclaim our teens before it is too late.
Boost your connect
Teenagers might like to put up this façade that they do not need you, but behind all that ‘I don’t care’ is this little child still craving for your love. But experience has made them wary of your interest in their lives so you will need to sense your way in. I generally go and plop myself in my children’s bedrooms now and then with my laptop or a book. Invariably, they start a conversation and before you know it, we are chatting away. Take genuine interest in their lives, their friends, hobbies, interests. Accept them as they are, listen to them without judgement. Do not let your hidden agenda take over (though it is tempting). Arrange special dates with your teen and let them know you will come without any lectures or advice up your sleeve. Leave little love notes on post-its, plan surprises and if they are open to it, steal a hug whenever you can. Try to give them your complete attention when they are around, show them through your words how you appreciate their presence in your lives. They might roll their eyes and call you “lame” but somewhere deep down, it will start working its magic. If at any time they share some troubles with you, try not to jump in to fix things for them. Instead, empathise and ask them what they are going to do about it or how you could help.
Ground yourself like a tree
At times when you have to set boundaries, do it without fuss or anger. For example, if your daughter wants to go to a party and you do not want to send her as you do not know the parents very well, you can tell her, “I know you might be disappointed but I cannot give you permission to go to this party as I do not know the parents.” She might rant, get angry at you and tell you how unreasonable you are and how amazing her friends’ parents are who do not have any such restrictions. Do not take her “I hate you” personally and let her know, “You might hate me right now but I love you.” Empathise with her disappointment but stand there like a tree, completely grounded yet still nurturing.
Be mindful of the jealousy monster
Do you remember the time when your children spent hours making ‘I love you’ cards for you in their shaky handwriting? Now you might get a hurriedly sketched out card while their friends get painstakingly designed stuff on their birthdays as you sigh from afar. Let’s admit it, we are a little jealous of these friends. They spend hours with them, chat to them endlessly and still they can’t get enough of them whereas spending time with us is such a drag for them. It would be so tempting to hold on to grudges, be full of self-pity (“After all that we do for you…”), make a jab at these friends and run them down but it really does not work. It can actually boomerang when they are pushed to choose their loyalty (you know where they will go) and create a bigger wedge between you.
Detox your relationship
By the time our children get into their teens, the intensity of our emotions can reach a toxic level especially with their “I don’t give a shit” attitude. We are angry at their behaviour, fearful of their future and disappointed at how they could not be all that we wanted them to be. These emotions leak into our relationship and start contaminating it. No wonder they push so much for space as sometimes being in the same room can trigger intense reactions on both sides. They will press your riling buttons (they are experts at that) but our emotions are our responsibility, so do not let them muddy the waters of your relationship with your children. Stay mindful and keep the emotional climate ‘chill’ and you will be surprised how much they will want to hang out with you.
‘I have your back’
This is a simple message every teen needs to hear from their parents. They will mess up, cross boundaries, break rules, go against the core values that you stand for and almost push you over the edge. But hang in there as they need you there through these times more than any other times. You might want to walk away, give up in exasperation and let them clean up their own mess. Of course it is their journey, their milestones that they have to cross and they will do that and come out stronger as long as they know you are in their corner. No matter what.
(Shelja Sen is co-founder of Children First, a child & adolescent mental health institute, and author of Imagine: No Child Left Invisible; All You Need is Love: The Art of Mindful Parenting; Reclaim Your Life: Going Beyond Silence, Shame and Stigma in Mental Health. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)