“Everything happens for a reason.”
“Things will work out for the best.”
“It’s not the end of the world.”
You can probably recall a well-meaning adult telling you one of those things when you were a teenager. As parents, it’s natural to want to help our children put things in perspective when they face failure, heartbreak, or being left out. But we need to be careful how we offer that perspective, says Dr. Kelly Askins, medical director at BlueCross.
“It’s important not to minimize a teenager’s feelings,” says Dr. Askins. “I remember when my parents would say ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ I’d always think: ‘Well I want to know the reason!’ Obviously, they were trying to make me feel better, but there are better ways to do that. Most of the time, teens just want to be heard.”
Here are 9 tips Dr. Askins says every parent of a teen can use.
1. Don’t try to fix it.
Sometimes people just want to talk about their problems without looking for a solution.
“When you want to help, it’s hard to not do something,” says Dr. Askins. “But it’s not going to help in the long run to say, ‘Let me call so-and-so’s parents and make sure you get invited to that party.’ At the same time, you don’t want to blow it off and act like it’s not important. The best thing you can do is find a balance and help kids reframe the situation. Disappointments are part of life, and helping your kids learn how to deal with them is an incredibly valuable thing.”
2. Be curious.
Ask questions and listen when your kids talk. Put down your phone, turn off your computer and give them your undivided attention, even if it’s just to talk about what’s for dinner or what you’re doing this weekend. If you get into a routine of talking about neutral things on a regular basis, it will be easier to talk about highly charged topics when you have to.
3. Compliment small things.
You don’t want to be the person who’s only coming down on your kids for the negative, so take time to mention what your teen is doing well.
“We have a tendency to criticize our culture for giving medals for everything, but it is important to give positive feedback,” says Dr. Askins. “Something as simple as, ‘Hey, we got out the door for school every day this week on time’ lets your kids know that you’re paying attention, and you appreciate their actions.”
4. Don’t take it personally.
This is a hard one. When your child says or does something that hurts you, you may get angry, sad or depressed. Taking time to reset is key.
“As a parent, you’re going to get blamed by your kids — for stuff that you did and some stuff you didn’t do,” says Dr. Askins, laughing. “You have to try not to take it so personally. Learn to set things aside so you can still talk calmly about the decision you made and why.”
5. Know and respect your differences.
You and your child are different people, and projecting your experiences onto your teen puts pressure on them, and on your relationship.
“Parents might think, ‘This moment is where my child is going to make this decision and their life will turn out better than mine because of it,’”says Dr. Askins. “But your child is a person all their own, with their own interests and way of seeing the world, and that world is different than you remember. The reason kids tell you life is different than when you were a kid is because it is. So you have to really listen so you can understand what they’re going through.”
6. Give them space.
The teenage years are full of intense physical and hormonal changes, and kids are going to have to work through those changes in their own way.
“As an adult, it’s hard to remember how intense the disappointment you feel is when you break up with somebody for the first time, or when you’re not allowed to go to a particular party,” says Dr. Askins. “Give your child some room to feel things.”
7. Understand maturity isn’t universal.
People often think that because a teen is mature in one way they’ll be mature in all ways, but maturity is not linear. You don’t wake up one day “mature,” and even when a teen makes progress in one area, they may go backward in another. The human brain is growing and developing until age 25, and maturity is a process that will take time.
8. Find something to do together.
Sitting a child down for a one-on-one conversation can be extremely stressful for both parties, so don’t limit yourself to thinking communication only happens in “serious talk” mode. Find an activity you both like — cooking, jogging, golfing, painting — and make time to do it together. The conversation will come.
“When I go running with my son, I’m more likely to hear spontaneously about how his day is, and to learn stuff I don’t know,” says Dr. Askins. “I think part of it is because we’re doing something where we’re in parallel — we’re not looking directly at each other — and we’re not just focused on the communication. That makes us more relaxed and takes the pressure off.”
9. If you think something is wrong, do something.
If you notice your teenager’s behavior or mood has changed, don’t ignore it.
“People forget how quickly teens can make life-altering — or life-ending — decisions, so don’t wait to do something,” says Dr. Askins. “If you find yourself wondering about a big change in your child’s routine or mood that doesn’t go away in a week or two, take action. There is no negative in asking for help.”
Read more about the warning signs of teen suicide here.