“Why do we actually like you?” My 17-year-old son asked somewhat suspiciously as he scrubbed some dishes. “What did you do to make all of us kids actually like our parents as teenagers?”
“I don’t know,” I responded, equally suspicious as I dropped some fresh onions into the sizzling pan on the stove. “Why do you ask?”
“Because,” he said, “When I’m older, I want to make sure my kids like me as much as I like you.”
That was a beautiful moment I’ll never forget. It was just the two of us, working in the kitchen together. Sure, it was a simple everyday moment… but the words filled my soul with love and joy because it showed that despite all my flaws, I’ve actually done something right.
Of course, there’s no one-step solution that helped us raise happy teenagers. Teenagers are complex creatures and there is no one-size-fits-all parenting solution that works for all kids. What works for one teen may not work for another. Heck, what works for one teen in one moment may not even work on that same teen in the next! Parenting is truly a crash course in learning to adapt.
That being said, there are three strategies that I think really helped us raise mature, emotionally-resilient teens who actually like their parents.
Respect Their Feelings
Teenagers are emotional creatures, and their emotions can be intense and challenging to navigate. During adolescence, teenagers experience significant physical and emotional changes that can trigger a range of emotions such as anxiety, sadness, anger, and joy.
Sometimes, teens just get upset and they don’t know why. When a child doesn’t understand why they are upset, rationalizing and trying to fix it isn’t going to help. They are just emotional and that’s okay.
As parents, we need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Yeah, it’s hard to see our children be frustrated and upset. It can be really irritating to have a stompy, angry teenager marching around the house.
But you know what else is frustrating and upsetting? Puberty. It is so hard to go through all those changes, and sometimes the hormones will range and there’s not really anything anyone can do about it.
So we need to let our teenagers have space to go through this transition and process their feelings without adding more fuel to their fire.
When my teens are upset, I follow a three-step workflow.
Identify the Problem
First, I ask what’s wrong. Almost always, the first answer is “I don’t know.” Sometimes, it takes some prodding to get to the root cause of the upset feelings… and sometimes, the answer is genuinely that they don’t know. They’re just grumpy. And that’s okay.
If the child cannot articulate or identify what is wrong, the answer is food and fun (or some specific form of self-care that will help them get through their difficult day). We all have difficult days sometimes. With a teenager, food and video games can go a long way to solving those difficult days.
Comfort or Solutions?
If the child can explain what’s wrong, then I usually ask, “Do you want comfort or solutions?”
Solutions are great. After all, solutions help stop the problem from happening and protect the child from experiencing that same frustration again.
But sometimes, when you’re in the thick of the struggle, solutions are just aggravating. They can feel invalidating. Sometimes, you just need someone to listen and support you through the struggle.
Of course, a child who chooses comfort over solutions for a long period of time should be guided to solutions eventually… but I’ve found that by giving my kids the choice, they’ll usually choose comfort in the short term. Once they feel fully listened to, they’ll be ready for solutions. It usually only takes a day or two!
All of my children have an emotion wheel in their journals. I encourage my children to journal nightly, just as I do.
The emotion wheel is a tool I was introduced to in therapy. It contains a ton of emotional vocabulary that teenagers don’t naturally use. It breaks down the six core emotions (happy, sad, disgust, anger, fear, and surprise) into 48 specific emotions that help pinpoint what someone is actually feeling.
For example, someone who is “sad” may actually be feeling one of these emotions:
Each of those has a more specific nuance than just “sad.” Someone who is feeling powerless needs different comfort and attention than someone who is feeling ignored. Ashamed should evoke different help and support than abandoned.
One of the best things I have ever done for my family is introducing them to the emotion wheel and helping them be comfortable using it to pinpoint exactly what they’re feeling.
When a child gets stuck in a big feeling, we encourage them to journal according to a specific prompt:
- I feel ____________________________________________
- because I believe _______________________________.
The belief has to be self-focused, which requires a lot more introspection than just “I feel mad because my brother is a butthead.”
Instead, one of my children has journaled, “I feel infuriated because I believe my brother wants to sabotage my LEGO city.”
After identifying the belief, we’re able to sit the brothers down for an honest conversation about why little brother won’t stop touching big brother’s LEGOs.
This is just one example of how this journaling process has empowered our children to identify and manage their emotions. I highly recommend it – it’s made a huge difference for our family!
Keep the Big Perspective
Another thing that has helped us with our teenagers it that we have always focused on making great memories with our kids – and keeping pictures and yearbooks showcasing those amazing memories.
Teenagers have a unique superpower. They can get stuck in their feelings and forget about the past. All that they feel and focus on is the present.
Having visual reminders of good memories helps pull them out of the present and remind them that they do, in fact, have a past and a future… and that whatever is bothering them in this moment will eventually pass.
Parents aren’t perfect – and raising teenagers is hard! We all make mistakes sometimes.
When I apologize to my teens, it shows them that it’s okay to make mistakes. It reminds them that everyone, at every age, is still learning and growing and becoming who they ultimately want to become. We all have things to work on.
And when I show my flaws openly, it helps them accept and work on their flaws as well.
Apologizing to my kids has helped us develop a trusting relationship. They know I’m not going to get it right all the time, and they forgive me when I fail. Similarly, I know that they aren’t going to get it right all the time and I forgive them when they fail.
It’s all about trust and safety.
Healthy teenagers need to be able to trust the adults in their lives and feel safe at home. When we put in the effort to respect their feelings, get to know them better, remind them of their past and future, and apologize for our mistakes, it creates an environment where we can all learn and grow together.