How do you help your teenagers thrive?
It is hard to be a parent- there is nothing that you can do to prepare yourself for parenthood and the growing needs of teenagers. To complicate the issues about raising teenagers who are living abroad (TCK’s), you have to be more sensitive because they are dealing with grief, transition, and change. You have to be more empathetic because it is going to take them more time to develop their identity, their values, and who they are in the world because they have lived in many countries and have to integrate their different identities.
It is tough to be a parent because there is a lot to navigate and there is not one right answer to solve a dilemma. What do parents worry about? Not getting into the “right” college, social anxiety, fighting, bad grades, depression, bad boyfriends/girlfriends, peer pressure, drinking problems, drugs, pregnancy, and the list goes on and on.
You want to protect your children from the pain and anguish, but they have got to be able to experience their difficult feelings. It will not help them if you solve their problems for them because they will not learn that they can do it. It is important to create a safe atmosphere so they want to come to you when they have a problem. If you can set the stage for good communication when he/she is a child, it will help him/her as they mature into the teenage years.
To understand how communication can affect a teenager and her family, here is a case history of a client who struggled with communication problems.
Case History: “Annette” (fictitious name to disguise identity), 15-year-old stated that whenever she talked to her parents, they just had advice to give out so she was tired of it. They did not ask her about what she felt and as more time went on, she felt completely disconnected. Her dad was always angry and she was scared to speak to him. Her mom was busy and had too many social engagements.
“Annette” said that her family was not interested in communicating, she nodded her head and then did things her own way. It was difficult for her because she felt very alone and not supported. The teachers referred her for counseling because she became more isolated and began to hang out with the “wrong” friends. The parents were worried but it was too hard to help her now because she refused to speak to them.
Analysis: Instead of disengaging from Annette, it would have been more supportive for Annette if her parents engaged more in the relationship. When children feel that you are attuned to their needs, they have higher self-esteem, more confident, and are more well-rounded individuals.
The problem is that Annette’s parents had no idea how they could begin to engage with their daughter. Having more than 10 years of counseling experience with teens and their families, here are some skills that can help you connect more with your child/teen.
Let Them Make Their Mistakes
As a parent, you got a chance to live your life and do things your way. Perhaps you have made mistakes and you do not want them to do the same thing. You need to let them make their mistakes and be there for them when they do. Your child is unique and has their own way of solving his/her problems. They become better adults if they can have the opportunity to work things out on their own. I catch myself as a parent wanting to do things for my children, but I have to pause and realize that it is better if they can learn to do it for themselves. Of course, you need to be honest about how you feel but then leave it to them. Continue to engage with your child and let them know you are available.
Talk to them with Respect
Adolescents are interested in being heard. They want you to ask them questions about their feelings and how they see the world. They have many interesting insights and experiences in their life and the more they can share with you, the better they feel inside. If we are not curious about what is happening in their life, they begin to understand that they are not as valued.
When you are speaking to your adolescent, you have to manage your emotions. Sometimes it helps if you take a deep breath and compose what you want to say. When you are screaming, it tends to escalate negative behavior patterns. Instead, be firm and talk to them from a place of empathy.
Child: I want to go to the mall with my friends!!!
Parent: I know, but you and I made a deal that you were going to finish your assignment. You haven’t so you’re not going to be able to go this time.
Child: NO! No! (Crying and yelling)
Parent: I know that you want to go and am sorry you can’t this time. Next time, you can plan better and be able to go. Why don’t I help you on your assignment and then we can do something else that you enjoy?
Be curious about your teenager
Some of the best sessions I had with teens were when we were discussing what they love. There is nothing better than seeing a child enjoying something and sharing their passion with you. When I was working in a school, I was working with a teen who loved basketball and through that channel, I was able to create an alliance with him. When I asked him to teach me what he knew, he was able to feel that he was worthy and that made him feel like he could trust me.
In the same way, find out what your child is passionate in. If they love art, then do some art with your child. Even if you are busy with your careers, go out of your way to do things that your teen really enjoys. Many parents may say, “I spend quality time with my kids. We eat dinner and we go to the mall”. There is a qualitative difference in doing activities that your teenagers want you to do with them. Let them lead and tell you want they want to do and see how it feels for them that you did it. After you do one activity, it will lead to more activities and they will feel like you genuinely care about connecting with them.
We need to be role models for what we want to see in our children. We tell them to stay away from the IPAD and TV but at the same time, I see many parents who are not looking at how much social media and TV they are engaging in. If they see their parents reading, doing art, writing, playing, exercising, they will be influenced by your habits so be aware of what you do because they are learning from their environment.
When I think about what it was like to be a teenager, I remember that it was incredibly hard. I had to figure out who I was, learn about how to communicate my needs, work hard in school, and had to figure out how I can fit in. When you add the fact that they are teenagers in a country away from their “home” (TCK), it is even harder because they have to figure out their identity in the midst of many different cultural experiences. TCK teens have experienced loss as they have moved and have lost friends, have experienced culture shock, have to learn new rules in each new country, and struggle with their identity, and lose touch with what is “home”.
For TCK teens, parents have to be patient, empathetic, and understand what it feels like for children to move and deal with transition. Parents also have to be aware of how their body language (eye contact, being present), what they say (listening, empathy), and their habits affects their teenagers. When you are empathetic and open, it helps them to be able to trust that you are going to be there when things are difficult. Don’t worry about having all the right answers-it is okay to not know and better for your relationship to work on the answers with your teenager together. Rather than your teenager leaning away from you, create an atmosphere where your child can tell you anything and you will be there to support and love him/her unconditionally.