Your teenager may have started keeping more to herself. The usual conversations about school and friends are now marked by one-word answers: “Okay,” a shrug, or worse, stonewalling.
You wonder if you’ve done something wrong, and you’re struggling to keep your cool daily.
How do you create a safe space for you and your child to have regular, real conversations?
I confess – growing up, I was that child who would stonewall my parents, who would stay out late, and not reply their texts. Later in life, I trained as a social worker and worked with many families who faced difficulties communicating with their children.
I hope my experience of being on both sides, both as the troubled child and subsequently, a professional working with teens, gives you some handles to building a safe space for your child.
Why the door to conversations slams shut
As Asians, we can be very practical in our expressions of love. What’s important are the things we can get our children. We bring them for holidays, buy them delicious food, and give them nice presents.
So it is often a rude shock when our children begin to shut us out. Why does this happen?
According to psychologist Erik Erikson’s 8 stages of psychosocial development, adolescence is a time when children negotiate the polarities between identity and identity confusion.
This is the period where your child is asking questions like, “Who am I?” They may also find that we are no longer able to relate to their experiences in school or with friends, and may thus draw closer to their peers.
So some degree of emotional distance is to be expected during adolescence. Accepting it as part of your child’s growing up years can be helpful.
This doesn’t mean that we shut ourselves out as well. Teens need to know that their parents will always be a secure, constant base to return to, whatever happens. This gives them the security to venture out into the world, and also the freedom to return.
What does this look like in reality? It could mean asking, “Would you like to join us for dinner this Saturday?” instead of instructing them directly.
Teens need to know that their parents will always be a secure, constant base to return to, whatever happens.
Let them make their own mistakes
Growing up, I caused my parents much grief by spending a lot of time at my friend’s home, going out late at night, and not spending as much time studying. My parents did care, but they also trusted me when I explained my decisions to them.
Looking back, I appreciated how they gave me the freedom to choose, but I also see that this freedom taught me to live with the consequences of my actions.
My parents didn’t ‘rescue’ me from the times I failed my exams. When I had to re-sit my exams, they didn’t convince the teacher to give me another chance. Their ability to let go created a safe space for me to share more openly with them.
It was precisely because they didn’t chase me for an answer regarding what I was doing with my life, that one day, I independently opened up to them.
As a friend once said, “For a kite to fly higher, sometimes you have to let go of the string.”
I appreciated how they gave me the freedom to choose, but I also see that this freedom taught me to live with the consequences of my actions.
In their bestselling book Boundaries, Henry Cloud and John Townsend share the story of the parents of a 25-year-old man who had been taking drugs and struggling in school and work. They were stumped as to what else they could do, having helped him out in whatever way they could.
The solution, according to Cloud, was simply for them “to clarify some boundaries” so that his actions caused him problems and not them. In other words, they had taken over all of his problems, which allowed him to continue in his wrongdoing.
Boundaries help to build an “internal sense of motivation for the child, with self-induced consequences.”
Give them space to figure their ‘new’ bodies out
I remember the first time I was supposed to work with two teen siblings who were not attending school regularly. When I first met them, I asked the girl why she wasn’t going to school. “It’s very cold in the morning.” Question marks floated in my head. This was Singapore. How cold could it get?
She continued, “I don’t have hot water to bathe with in the morning.” Just then her brother walked out. Casually, I asked her, “Where is he going?” Her reply was, “To get free WIFI at McDonald’s.”
Hot water. WIFI. These were physical comforts I took for granted, but were clearly lacking in the lives of these teens. And it showed in their attitude to school.
Teenhood is marked by tumultuous changes, physically, mentally and emotionally. Hormones, puberty, are often things we are uncomfortable talking about as parents. But these physical changes can be confusing for teens. For example, girls may not fully comprehend why they sometimes feel easily triggered or emotional when they get their menses.
Help them to understand that these emotions are part of growing up. Taking time to be with them, whatever their state, will help you to be a safe space for their feelings.
What worked with some of the teens I encountered was doing things they enjoyed, such as movies, ice-skating, and even playing arcade games.
Realise that we are all learning
One evening, during my last meeting with a teenage boy I’ve worked with over the past two years, I joked, “Would you miss me when I’m gone?”
He sheepishly answered, “Yeah, maybe.”
For someone who usually replies in monosyllabic answers, I was touched by his expression of emotion.
Perhaps this may be the same for your teen. Externally, he is an angry and angsty teenager. But within, he’s still a child, the same one who would cuddle up to you when it was raining, lean on his palms and smile, and laugh whenever you tickled – your child.
Getting your fast-growing teen to open up may be one of the most difficult parenting tasks you’ll face. But plugging into a parenting community or getting help from a professional can help you along this journey.
© 2022 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.
If you are finding it hard to connect with your tween or teen, or think that they are struggling with mental health issues, do register your interest for our upcoming suicide prevention and mental health webinar.
Many struggle in their transition from school to adulthood. John has created a framework that allow young adults to succeed and overcome challenges in their early career at liveyoungandwell.com. He is a Registered Social Worker who works in the social services.
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