Read an Excerpt
“Parents should be their kids’ allies, not their enemies, right? I mean, why not? Are we supposed to just hate each other for the rest of our lives? What’s the point of that? Don’t be hatin,’ man!”
As you read this section, I encourage you, despite any current circumstances or conflicts, to recall the strong connection you once felt with your child. Even if it’s been years.
A few years back, I watched an interview with Paul Simon, reflecting on his professional life. Despite his obvious genius as a songwriter and singer and all the worldwide acclaim, he admitted that he still does not see himself as successful. He cited his father’s lack of approval and support as the reason for his discontent specifically, his father never told him he was proud of himwhich kept him from feeling and enjoying his own success. It was a sad and striking moment to witness. We can have the entire world telling us time and time again how wonderful we are, but without the unconditional love and approval of our parents, it all quickly becomes meaningless. When I make decisions about my career, I still consider what my father would think, and he died more than a decade ago. If we still feel this way about our parents all these years out of childhood, how can we really expect our children to feel any differently about us today?
Know this. Teenagers simply want a voice, to be heard. You know, just like everyone else. When you shut them out or cut them down when they begin to express that voice, they will withdraw from you, from themselves, perhaps even from that voice. That’s when you might be the recipient of a big, shocking “Fuck you!” But do not believe for a moment that your child doesn’t want your approval, to feel connected to youdespite what he may say and do, your teenager wants nothing more than that connection. True, he wants and needs to feel connected to his friends as well, but do not underestimate the importance to him of his connection with you.
And be prepared to experience a shift. As you begin to foster an improved connection with your teen, you will see her open up to you more, lighten up more, find more motivation and inspiration. The result may not look exactly as you envision. I encourage you to trust that whatever the result, it is exactly as it is supposed to be, and as long as you are available, you are doing the best, most inspired job you can as a parent.
I recently worked with a father and his teenage son, James, in a session. They came in, sat on opposite ends of my couch, and began to bicker, beginning with a barrage of questions from Dad:
“Did you take the car out last night without asking? What time did you get home? Tell the doctor. What are you getting in Math, right now? Is your homework done today? Why do you treat me with such disrespect?”
Predictably, James quickly began to freeze Dad out. To Dad’s credit, he sensed this and changed his tack, raising his eyebrows and adopting a more empathic-sounding tone:
“You know I love you. I just want you to learn some skills so that you can do better! You know, study and organization skills. Without these things, you know, James, the real world can be a very difficult place. You have got to find what motivates you. And the video games, we’ve got to make it so you play those less too. Are you hearing me here? James?”
Ah, the futility of the lecture. I could so easily see that James had heard it all before, countless times. Couldn’t his father see this as well? How could he miss the fact that James just glazes over and stares off into a corner of the room, like clockwork, once any lecture begins? In any event, no matter what therapeutic tactic I tried, I could identify no common ground. Father and son simply could not seem to connect in this sessionthey never even looked in each other’s direction. It was apparent that this was the tenor of their conversation all the time. Now, I often check in with my own emotions during sessions as a guide for my next words or intervention, and in this session I consistently felt sad and empty. It was truly a pathetic scene and unfortunately one I had witnessed in one way or another more times than I can count. Heartbreaking.
Not until I asked the two of them what they used to have in common was there any movement:
“I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but when you were little, I used to take you to Bulls games when I could get tickets. You were a funny kid, because on one of the best teams ever, with Jordan and Pippen both on the floor, your favorite guy was Paxson, remember? Paxson over Jordan, for God’s sake! Do you remember that?”
James smiled and nodded, almost imperceptibly. The spark of a distant, nearly lost connection began to reignite, proving, to me, that hope for a connection is never lost. We leave the mini-crises of the here and now to talk hoops from a bygone era, a much more important conversation. The spark is gently stoked. And father and son leave remembering that underneath all the superficial day-to-day bullshit, they actually love each other.
We need more moments like this with our teens, little reminders of our connections. Too often, I have seen parents forfeit their relationship to the frustrations of the moment, as James’s father was at risk of doing right before my eyes. Like him, dig into the past for that connection and spark if it works. Or find something in the present where you can, for a moment or two, touch base, see eye to eye, or even engage in a good-natured debate. The connection, after all, is the core of your relationship. It is the foundation of resilience that makes your relationship less vulnerable to the storms of adolescence. Without this foundation, this core, your relationship and all the love and wisdom within it will simply be thrown asunder. Be available to nurture the core, and the strength of your connection will carry you both through.
“Get My Parents off My Back”
In individual sessions, I would have to admit that the most common therapeutic goal I hear from teenagers is
“Help me get my parents off my back.” Okay, perhaps it is not particularly therapeutic. There may be times when you hear this from your teen as well. “I just want you to leave me alone!” or “I need my space, man!” Many parents, of course, take immediate offense to this sentiment. But I caution you to remember that these feelings are developmentally appropriate, feelings you likely felt during your teen years.
Now, I find these statements mean different things to different kids. Find out what it means to your teen, because it is likely more than just the rant of a hormonal adolescent. More often than not, it is also true. In my therapy and coaching work, therefore, I sometimes choose to align with this goal instead of trying to talk a teen out of it: “Okay, how are we going to get your parents off your back? What control do you have here? What can you do to give them some peace of mind so they let up on you?”
Now, these are questions you parents can ask of your teens as well. Again, instead of taking offense, I would encourage you to place your ego aside in favor of curiosity. This particular intervention can lend a sometimes fun, playful tone to what would otherwise surely be dead-serious conflict. These kinds of questions will not only lighten the emotional load, but will also put you in a problem-solving mode with your teen:
“So you feel I’m on your back. I get that. What do you think we can do to change it?”
“Well, I have to start doing at least some of my homework, I guess, or you’ll never get off my back.”
“Good point, Jimmy. That would probably be a good start.”
“And maybe I can do some stuff around here without being asked, like, fifteen times. Like take out the garbage or something.”
“Yes. That would get me off your back pretty quickly.”
And now you’re communicating.