Do you want to connect with your teen? Try conscious parenting
As a parent of a teenager you might find yourself shaking your head in bewilderment. How did those tender years etched with love, laughter and tears, those first tentative baby steps, first days at school and first play dates pass by in a heartbeat?
Your once sprightly pre-schooler has grown and is longing to spread their wings, to experience freedom, to make their own choices and their own decisions in a world you know will bring them both joy and heartache. As a parent you want to protect your child from all of life’s hurts and letting them go isn’t easy.
“Conscious parenting is not about being perfect; it's about being aware. Aware of what your kids need from you to reach more of their full potential.”
Alex Urbina, author of The Inspirational Parent: The Magical Ingredients for Effective Parenting, says conscious parenting is key if you have a teenage child. “Conscious parenting is not about being perfect; it’s about being aware. Aware of what your kids need from you to reach more of their full potential.” So how do you go about determining your child’s needs, in order to be a conscious parent? Listening to your teen is a good place to start.
The art of listening is never more important than when talking to your teenager. Dr Kimberley O’Brien, a child psychologist from Quirky Kid Clinic, says letting your child know they’re being heard shows respect for their feelings. “Using phrases like ‘I hear you’, ‘I’m listening’ and ‘I take your point’ are a bit like reflective listening,” she says. “Then if you need to tell the child you want to absorb what they’ve said for a moment, that can slow the conversation down. Putting pauses in the conversation can help if it looks like it will escalate into conflict.”
There’s another good reason to listen to your teen and properly acknowledge what they’ve said. Counsellor Josephine Borg says accepting a teenager’s feelings — and really listening to them express them — tells them they matter. “If you don’t acknowledge their feelings, you’re saying those feelings don’t count, which can lead to self-doubt,” she says. “For their sense of self to develop in a healthy way, teens need to learn to recognise their needs, to express them well and to know their feelings are valued.”
Learning to let go
As a child moves through their toddler years, parents nurture them and show them the fundamentals of being human — to dress themselves, to talk, to share. This skill set is added to as the child grows and the parent teaches their child to make sound decisions, to navigate social situations and to learn the value of empathy, generosity and kindness.
“For their sense of self to develop in a healthy way, teens need to learn to recognise their needs, to express them well and to know their feelings are valued.”
When a child reaches their teenage years, they begin to yearn for independence. O’Brien says how much freedom you give your teen is best guided by their age and experience. “If it’s early teens it’s all about gradual exposure. If you feel stressed about giving them more freedom, it’s possible they aren’t quite ready and you aren’t, either, for a transition into that higher level of independence,” she says.
Baby steps are key. Once trust is earned and respected, more freedom can follow. If your child meets you at an agreed place after shopping with friends and responds to texts, for example, more freedom can be given.
Because I said so! That’s why
Teenagers can communicate in many baffling ways. There’s the eye-roll when a parent does something uncool like say “no” to a party, the steely glare when a parent tells the child to do a hated chore, and, of course, the grunt, which can constitute a variety of meanings: “yes”, “no” or “I’ve told you 10 times already I have made my bed (even though I probably haven’t)”.
But ask your teen and they’d argue parents communicate in strange and sometimes harsh ways, too. Laying down demands, not giving them a voice and saying a flat out “no” without explanation won’t work. O’Brien says limits are OK, but saying “because I said so” or similar just won’t cut it with teens. “Without offering a reason it can just feel like a power struggle between the parents and the kids — with the parents having all the power,” she says.
Another issue can be the fact that your teen can come across as all knowing. O’Brien says sometimes there can be a sense of false bravado in adolescence. “It can cause a wedge in relationships, as you think your teen is saying don’t tell me — I already know it, but there is more to it than that,” she says.
Kids want equality and respect. Saying they know more is often about wanting equality from those who matter. And that’s you, their parent. Even though your teen might no longer look at you with adoring eyes and want to be held and cuddled like they did as a young child, they still love you. Even more than they love their friends.
A Mission Australia 2017 youth survey of more than 24,000 teens aged 15–19 years showed family rates even higher on the extremely important scale than friendships. Friendships were highly valued by 80.5 per cent of respondents (extremely important: 38.7 per cent; very important: 41.8 per cent). Family relationships were valued very highly by 80 per cent of respondents (extremely important: 46.8 per cent; very important: 33.2 per cent).
Are kids growing up too fast?
Some might say 15 is the new 20, but is it really? With the proliferation of multimedia and smart devices, techno-savvy teens have access to anything they want to know (despite the fact that some of it is questionable and derived from dubious sources). But does that make them more street-smart or more capable of making sound decisions?
A teenager’s brain is still growing and developing. Borg says their cognitive functioning isn’t fully developed until they reach 25, and this can impact on the validity and efficiency of their decision-making, among other things. “The frontal lobes are the last to develop, causing mood swings, impulsive behaviour and problems with concentration,” she says.
But it’s not all gloom and doom for the poor old teenage brain. Some say it depends on how you look at it. Daniel J Siegel, author of Brainstorm, the power and purpose of the teenage brain, says in a nutshell that the brain changes of adolescence offer both risk and reward. “How you navigate the waters of adolescence — as young individuals on the journey or as adults walking with them — can help guide the ship that is your life into treacherous places or into exciting adventures. The decision is yours,” he writes.
The virtue of values
Children copy what they see, so they’ll copy your healthy, emotional self-expression. Take a moment to look within and see if you need to give your internal compass a nudge in the right direction. They’ll see the way you offer to spend time with a sick relative without grumbling, even though you’re missing out on a sports match. They’ll also see you return money when you were overpaid change at the supermarket by the new trainee. If you practise daily kindness, fairness and gratitude, that’s what your kids will see and more than likely they will follow that example.
As a parent you’d like your teenage boy not treat his bedroom like a science experiment with fermenting food under the bed and discarded socks so stiff they could walk themselves to the clothes hamper, but of course he never does. You’d probably also like your teenage daughter to clear up the teetering piles of clothes plonked haphazardly on every available space and clean up the unrecognisable goop that’s clogging the bathroom sink.
As well as clean up after themselves, you’d probably also like your teen to help with chores, like put the rubbish bins out, unload the dishwasher and feed the pets. Instead, what your teen probably wants to do is text their friends and sleep in until lunchtime, and in no way shape or form do any of the above.
As far as keeping their room clean goes, Dr Anna-Marie Taylor, clinical psychologist and family therapist, says dirt is one thing and parents can rightfully put their foot down if their child’s room is a health hazard, but untidiness is another matter altogether. “It’s appropriate to let your teen be untidy, to have their own space, and if you don’t like it, shut the door,” she says.
A teenager who is at school is juggling homework and probably other extra school commitments, like sport. But, according to Taylor, that doesn’t mean they should get a free pass on contributing to household chores. “The really key thing is that children are allowed and encouraged to participate in things that help with running the household. The earlier the better. It’s empowering for them,” she says.
When they grow up your kids won’t thank you for giving them a free ride. There’s a good chance they may be miffed that you didn’t equip them with necessary life skills, like how to cook and clean, when their long-suffering flatmates dump their possessions on the lawn.
Helping the running of the household by chipping in with chores shows your children the value of contribution. But what if assignments are due? It’s OK to let them back off a little. Assignments and pressing deadlines for school or university work don’t happen every single day. Taylor says it’s OK to let chores slide on occasion, but if your child is continually sidestepping chores with flimsy excuses, that’s not OK. “Obviously, being flexible is important. During stressful and busy times your child could also negotiate swapping chores with a sibling,” suggests Taylor.
Another issue is who pays for what as teens begin to earn their own money. This will vary from family to family, based on parental beliefs and spending habits, as well as what the parents can afford. The Australian Securities & Investments Commission Money Smart website suggests that technology, brand clothing and footwear are things parents could ask their child to contribute towards. Perhaps they could pay a percentage of their mobile phone plan, and if they want to upgrade from department store duds to designer ones, your child could foot the bill for those items.
Finding new ways to connect
Bonding over Barbies or building towers of Lego is fine when your child is seven. But what happens when seemingly overnight your smiling eager-to-please child has morphed into an angst-filled, surly teen?
According to the experts, the stronger your connection to your teen, the more likely you’ll influence them and help them to navigate their teenage years in a positive way. Stay connected with a shared interest, whether it’s catching the latest blockbuster movie, going out for coffee or through a love of being outdoors.
Learn something new together. Sometimes a shared journey of discovery is a way to connect or even trade places by letting your child lead the way. O’Brien says child-led activities can be of benefit, as they can help you to empathise and understand your teen. “You can put yourself in the young person’s shoes rather than the other way around, with the parent always being the one to teach the child new things. It builds your relationship and is empowering for your teenager,” she says.
And, if all else fails, when the going gets tough, never underestimate the power of a hug. Your teenager might no longer want a goodnight kiss, but a heartfelt hug will probably be welcome more often than you might think (as long as their friends aren’t around).