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Staying Connected to Our Teenagers

Staying Connected To Our Teenagers

Judith E. Rader, MA, LMFT
August 22, 2005

As any parent of a teenager knows, it can be quite difficult staying emotionally and conversationally connected with one's child. Mothers and fathers who previously experienced relative calm in their day-to-day living with their sons and daughters, suddenly experience their teenager consistently disagreeing with their opinions and points of view. Conversations often prove tense. And they are often filled with scornful responses from their child ("Leave me alone," "You just don't get it," etc.), or "shutting down" responses ("Never mind, " Whatever," etc.). 

Developmentally, the divergence in opinions and outlooks between teenagers and their parents makes complete sense. The adolescent years "pull for" independence, self-expression, and space from parents, as teenagers are drawn to "trying on" new ideas and opinions - and seeking outlets for self-expression. Indeed, it will be a few short years before teenagers find themselves living on their own. And their intellectual and emotional psyches seem to recognize that it is now time to develop a reliance on ideas and opinions of their own - which speak to their life experience.

Teenagers' push for independence makes complete developmental sense. But parents often experience their child's newfound voice disconcerting at best, and strangely threatening at worst -- as they find themselves reluctantly adjusting to a certain loss of influence and control over their child. Typically, conversational struggles ensue as parents verbally "tussle" with their teenagers' newfound voice -- in the form of invalidating their sons' and daughters' thoughts, feelings, and choices. 

Ryan's mother worries that her son is spending too much time in a sedentary lifestyle on the computer. So when he tells her he wants to spend some time on the computer after returning from school, she responds with a critical tone, "That's crazy that you kids spend so much time instant-messaging each other. What's the point of it all?" 

David's politically conservative father feels strangely annoyed that his son is expressing more liberal views about the economy, and states, "That makes no sense at all what you're suggesting about raising taxes."

Jamie's mother worries that her daughter is too sensitive when she describes her upset about being excluded from her friend Jenna's sleep-over party, and responds, "You're over-reacting Jamie. You shouldn't let Jenna affect you like that." 

What happens to the children in these instances? Ryan may feel judged and perhaps shamed by his mother's scornful tone -- and replies "I'm not answering that. You just don't understand." David feels rebuffed and perhaps strangely diminished, as he tries to share with his father his emerging authentic self with regard to his political sensibilities. And so he gives the now-classic teenage response, "Whatever" -- and their conversation ends. And Jamie feels confused and diminished when her mother appears critical of, and insensitive to her true feelings. And she replies, "It doesn't really matter." (Of course, it does matter to Jamie; and her "shutting down" response leaves her ill-equipped to effectively address her feelings). What all of these instances have in common are invalidating responses from parents that serve to distress the relationships between parent and child - and shut down their conversations. 

What exactly is invalidation? Invalidations are speech patterns that subtly or more directly denigrate the thoughts, feelings, opinions, or character of another. They often have a shaming effect, as the invalidator is effectively indicating, "I hear your opinions - and they are not okay." -- or, "I see how you lead your life (hours at a time on the computer, for example), and it's ridiculous (not okay, bad, unacceptable, etc.)." While invalidations are problematic in conversations between people of all ages, they can be particularly distressing when directed from parent to teenage child. Because teenagers -- who are developmentally driven to "try on" new opinions, ideas, and experiences towards the goal of forging an identity of their own - seem only too willing to withdraw from the conversation when they detect that these fledging efforts to build an authentic identity are, in effect, being ridiculed or critiqued. 

And so, some teenagers get angry and lash out scornfully, exclaiming, "Leave me alone," "You'll never understand," etc. While others allow the invalidations to stick -- and shut down in a less volatile way, thinking, "I guess I'm not okay," "I guess there's something wrong with me," etc. 

How do parents avoid invalidating responses? The simple answer is: to do the opposite -- that is, to validate. There are two important ways to validate. One way is to simply paraphrase back what your child has said. In Jamie's case, a validating response from her mother would be something to the effect of, "Jamie, I know it's so upsetting to you that Jenna didn't include you in her sleep-over." Though this paraphrasing might initially seem stilted, what we often notice in time is that simply letting our children know that we have heard them - with a concerned tone, will allow them to continue their story, knowing that their thoughts (insecurities, worries, etc.) are "okay" to share with us. 

A second validating approach is to ask questions or ask for more information in a genuinely interested tone (rather than a challenging tone). In David's case, if his father could simply ignore his own political views for a moment -- and show interest in his son's views by asking for elaboration, he would certainly maintain the connection with son. He might say, "David, it does seem like you're becoming attracted to a liberal approach to the economy. Tell me more about your views on taxes." 

But knowing how to technically avoid an invalidating response does not address the issue of what is happening internally to parents when their child expresses ideas or opinions that prove distressingly contrary to their own. If a parent is feeling genuinely anxious or uncomfortable with his or her child's views or opinions, here are a few tips to remember: 

  1. Ideas are simply ideas. They do not constitute behavior. If, for example, our teenager is sharing his sense of how illogical it seems to him that liquor is legalized but marijuana is not, we can remind ourselves that this is just a conversation about ideas. It doesn't mean our child is going to "do marijuana". Of course, poor choices in behavior (i.e.., actually smoking marijuana) must be met with consequences firmly enforced by parents. But it is probably always better not to denigrate ideas, feelings, and opinions. 

  2. Remember that teenagers (and children of all ages) soak up the culture that is presented to them. So, for example, in this technological age it is perfectly normal to them to be instant-messaging friends rather than spending "real time" with them -- as we parents did with our friends. While parents might rue the changes in culture, it is never very useful to critique their child's overall culture. (It might help parents today to remember how radically different our own parents felt the generational changes were 25 years ago - and then realize that nothing too drastic happened!). Of course, if our children embrace cultural trends that entail truly dangerous behavior (such as drug use), firm consequences musts be applied. 

  3. Sometimes we parents must remind ourselves that our children really are "their own person". And so, if their views differ from our own (for example, if they embrace a different political party, a different approach to organized religion, or a different feeling about a social issue), we ultimately have no choice but to "make peace" with the fact that our children need to live their lives according to what "fits" for them. (Sometimes the prospect of making peace with such differences feels overly distressing to parents. And if such is the case, several sessions with a psychotherapist might prove helpful in sorting through feelings of certain loss and/or confusion).

  4. Parents' invalidating responses that attempt to talk their child out of his or her feelings may indicate that the parents are projecting their own past experiences onto their children. So in Jamie's case, for example, her mother might be essentially reacting to an old emotional wound that she experienced by being excluded from a teenage group of friends many years ago. She may see Jamie's upset through the lens of that old wound. And she may attempt to talk Jamie out of her upset as an unconscious means of relieving her own anxiety. If such is the case, Jamie's mother will have a difficult time validating her daughter's vulnerable feelings (of insecurity, sadness, etc) -- and, in turn, enabling her daughter to work through her feelings. (If parents routinely get tangled in projections - confusing their child's experience with distressing memories of their own teenage years, several sessions with a psychotherapist might again prove helpful).

  5. Sometimes our discomfort with our children's sharing of ideas has to do with their scornful tone towards our opinions. And so, just as we work to maintain a respectful tone and interest when conversing with our children, we must also require that our sons and daughters discuss their differences of opinion in kind. If both teenagers and parents validate each other's point of view - even as they may see things quite differently, conversations can proceed as an honest disagreement of ideas -- where no one is labeled "right" or "wrong'. Both parties will have the experience of feeling heard; and a respectful and bonding connection can be fostered. 

Remember that an important key to a strong connection with our children derives from the strength of our relationship with them - and not from our sharing the identical point-of-view on issues. When we validate our teenagers' thoughts, feelings, and opinions, we enable them to sense our authentic, caring interest in who they are and who they are becoming. Their self esteem is bolstered. And we benefit from a more bonding, less adversarial relationship. What an invaluable gift for us all!

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