I am parenting two teenagers. Every day I remind myself to “just breathe.” Breathe in those defeating moments of pure frustration as well as in those sweet moments of pure joy and awe.
I was teary-eyed when my teens began high school because I was utterly aware of their emerging independence and the short bridge they were on as they journey closer to college and adult life. Teens are at an amazing stage of development with rampant emotional, intellectual and physical changes. Their ups and downs reverberate into the family home. My parenting role has shifted into one of a mentor and an adviser, and I find that there are three priorities to keep in mind on this journey.
Focus on Connection
A connected relationship is how a teen knows he or she is loved unconditionally, despite any idiosyncrasies and imperfections. During both good and bad times, parents must focus on maintaining a connection with their teens and sending a message of love. This connection softens the hearts, making room for respect and influence. Teens who know a parent’s love is not tied to “perfection” or fulfillment of the parent’s vision, will feel they are loved for their intrinsic worth. This doesn’t mean parents should not advise their teens when they do something wrong. Rather, if the relationship is firmly rooted in connection, there will be a greater influence when advising and correcting. First connect, then correct.
How does one maintain a connection with our busy lives and the increasingly busy schedules of our teens? In the car, on the way to school, practice, meetings and events, and around a meal or household chore. In between all the daily homework and extracurricular activities, these are the times when you can hear updates on tests and friendships, the latest videos or songs, and opinions on politics and faith. Make a space in your home that places you around them so they know you are available if they need advice or even just want to show you something “cool.” It can be hectic and tiring many days, so cherish your family dinners, however brief they may be and however infrequently they occur. It is not about what we are eating or even if we are eating, but rather that we are coming together, reflecting on the day, putting away the phone, stepping away from the computer and sharing conversations about good news, bad outcomes, future plans, jokes, stories and reflections. It is these times — the mundane as well as the sometimes forced everyday moments — when we can “just be.” It is during these moments that I remind myself to “breathe” in this critical time together. Take a picture in your mind. Be present in the love. Appreciate the blessings. Your teens are interesting people and you get to be a witness to their amazing growth. Make a commitment to connect to your kids.
Connecting in times of peace and joy can be easy, but it is in times of conflict and anger when parents are tested. Teens can push buttons and emotionally exhaust parents, especially during disagreements. Remember to breathe and to say to them, “I love you, but I don’t agree with what you are doing. I understand how this is important is to you, and you know the rule about…” “I see the choices you are making and I am sad about your decision to…” Have your opinion and leave space for your teen to share his or her thoughts and opinions. If you have worked to build and maintain a foundation of mutual respect and love, it will bear the burden and stress caused by a correction, disagreement or conflict. If this foundation is weak, the relationship will collapse with almost every conflict. It is in each of these negotiations that teens become more independent and articulate their views and wishes. As parents, maintain your role and boundaries as they continue to navigate life.
Pick Your Battles
There will be many things a teen does, says or chooses that a parent won’t like. These forms of expression help teens discover their identity within the family and separate from the family. Many times it is simply a phase of growth or interest. Parents must determine what they value and focus on the important stuff, and not get distracted by something that is simply a phase of growth. Parents have a reserve of emotional energy to expend each day to remain effective — pick your battles. Not everything a teen does requires a reaction or intervention. Personal preferences that are not harming the teen can be respected. A battle worth fighting may vary from one family to another, so parents need to decide what is most important to them when conflict arises.
While I have implemented picking my battles with my kids since they were very young, new challenges present themselves as they become teens. Focus on family values that are important to you and allow your teen to express his or her identity through preferences and interests. See mistakes they make as opportunities for them to learn life skills. When you encounter multiple areas of conflict, do not try to address them all at once as this will inevitably lead to disconnection. In those moments, take a step back to gain perspective and evaluate if this is something important or something you can let go. Choose to focus on the most pressing or serious issues. Once addressed, move on to other issues that come up. It is impossible to address all concerns; if you try, you will inevitably feel exhausted and exasperated. Energy is limited and we must focus on those things that matter the most and will have the biggest long-term impact
Focus on What You Can Control
Many parents try to change or fix things that they can’t control, neglecting the things that are actually under their control. When the child becomes a teen, parents realize, perhaps for the first time, that they actually cannot control them. While younger children may have been compliant, a teen will become more assertive. Pushback from teens is normal as they forge their own identity. If the parent-child relationship was built on “controlling behavior,” it becomes a losing battle of wills. Even if you “win,” the relationship loses. However, a parent-child relationship rooted in connection will continue to shift with increasing independence and responsibility placed on the teen.
When I get caught in a pattern of convincing, demanding or nagging my teens, I am inevitably met with wide-eyes and deaf ears. Many times a debate or negotiation will ensue as we each dig our heels into what we want. It is in these moments that parents must firmly remind themselves that they can’t control their teens, they can only control themselves. Teens have their own opinions and views, so you can set expectations and boundaries within your control. Take a deep breath and say things like, “I believe getting a good night’s sleep is important to do well in school, so if you are late in the morning, I will only excuse three tardies per semester,” or “The family rule is that cell phones go on the charger at 10 p.m., I will expect it to be there or I will collect it and give it back to you in the morning.” Teens will only know you are serious if you in fact follow through on such statements consistently.
Parenting teens can be a complicated yet beautiful relationship that inevitably leaves a lasting imprint on the hearts of both parents and teens.
A positive attitude and good humor make the journey sweeter. Listen to the jokes your teen shares, smile when you receive a text update, inhale as you sit in the bleachers watching them perform. Take it all in and remember how it felt to be a teen yourself. Live in the beautiful moment that has arrived, you are parenting a young adult. These interesting people before you are coming into their own and they still just want to know that you love them and that you find them lovable.
Munira Lekovic Ezzeldine is co-author of Positive Parenting in the Muslim Home, published by Izza Publishing and available on Amazon.