Parents today are faced with growing challenges in raising their children and maintaining a solid, successful relationship with those children as they enter their teenage years. Raising a happy teenager who you want to spend time with can be accomplished! It just takes a little more effort and patience than it took when your child was younger and more eager to please you.
This article describes the steps I took to rebuild the relationship between me and my own teenage son. When I finally made the decision that something in my family life absolutely had to change, we were at a point where:
my teenage son took every chance he could to create a negative and upset atmosphere in the house by saying and doing things that underneath he knew would cause problems; and
my husband and I were constantly giving him a hard time for every little mistake or reacting negatively to his provoking behavior/attitude.
It reached the point where I didn’t want to be around my teenager and I’m sure he felt the same about me. Talking to friends about their teens didn’t help to resolve the difficulties with mine. Most of what I heard was that their kid was the same or worse than mine.
This type of dysfunctional relationship is artfully discussed in both The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict and Leadership and Self Deception: Getting Out of the Box by the Arbinger Institute. My son and I had both reached the point where we were stuck in a cycle of blaming, provoking, and justifying our actions and attitudes toward each other. The Arbinger Institute calls it “being in the box” toward each other, and they give constructive ideas on how to get out of that box.
Breaking the Cycle
First, if you feel you’re in crisis with your teenager or you’re overwhelmed by dealing with their emotions and attitude, consult with a good therapist. I’m not one for lifetime therapy sessions, but a good therapist can help you put your situation in perspective and can give you techniques to deal with it.
Here are some of the steps I took to immediately improve the relationship with my son and you can try something similar in your household:
I started taking him out to breakfast one morning every weekend. Just the two of us. During that breakfast, I tried to be as open as possible. No negative commenting on his clothes or table manners (unless he did something as gross as stuffing an entire breakfast sausage in his mouth–which he did). We talked about what he wanted to talk about. At first it was hard. We had forgotten how to have a conversation with each other. But gradually we both opened up and he got some individual attention from me that he’d been lacking.
A few times a week I went to my son’s room to sit on his bed and talk. I took a ruler from his desk, and whichever one of us held the ruler was allowed to talk with no interruptions from the other. The person speaking could say whatever they wanted as long as there was no nastiness or profanity. I of course had plenty to say, and I had to control and limit myself–no blaming him during our talking time! For him, it took several days before he started expressing himself without fear that I would get mad at what he wanted to say.
I remembered the law of “negative attention is better than no attention.” If your child feels they aren’t getting enough attention from you, they very well may act out whether they’re a toddler or a teenager. Once I remembered this, it was so much easier to see what was going on and to catch myself before I reacted to him. I was then able to respond calmly when he tried his best to pick a fight. (Plus, he wasn’t trying as hard to pick fights since we were starting to treat each other with more respect and he was getting more of the attention he wanted.) Just because your child is beginning to look all grown up doesn’t mean that they don’t need some of the comforting and attention that they craved when they were younger.
In just three months, my relationship with my son changed drastically and so did our family life. But that didn’t mean I stopped working on myself. My own behavior that brought me to this crisis with my son had gotten habitual and I had to work to break that habit of just reacting without calming myself.
The things that helped me most to break the habit of reacting were using The Sedona Method (sedona.com) to help release my negative thoughts and emotions, and reading Your Inner Awakening: The Work of Byron Katie: Four Questions That Will Transform Your Life by Byron Katie. These sources gave me more tools to question my thoughts and emotions so I could keep myself peaceful even when my son tried to shake my patience.
Another important factor in healing our relationship was that I began to accept things as they are with my son rather than wishing they were different and trying to force him to change. For example, my son tends to be immature for his age. Sometimes his immaturity drives me crazy–he wants the privileges of a teenager and then he behaves like a 9-year old. Wanting him to be different in that area caused me pain and caused me to belittle him when he acted in an immature manner (“When are you going to grow up?!”). Now I accept that he’s mentally a little young for his age, and I praise him when he acts in a more mature manner. This boosts his self-esteem and heals our relationship at the same time.
My acceptance of “what is” covers all the areas where before I wanted him to be different such as wanting him to give more attention to his school work or wanting him to have other interests (besides skateboarding and video games)–things that I approved of. By accepting that he’s not always going to be what I want him to be, I can let go of some of the disapproval that I was feeling toward him, and in areas where he might need some changes I can help him in a more supportive and patient manner.
I can’t say that our relationship is perfect now, but we’re much better and I would even say that we like each other again (the love of course never died, it was just buried under all the garbage!). Keeping positive in my relationship with him is still one of my bigger challenges in life. He’s a teenager, full of that need to express himself especially if he feels put upon! Sometimes after a long day, monitoring my reactions to him just drains my energy. But the more I do it, the more it becomes a new habit.
So now when I ask him to empty the dishwasher and he glares at me and complains, I watch what’s going on in my head. I keep myself calm by releasing any thought of annoyance, and I ignore the complaining. Because, as Byron Katie says, no one can attack you unless you let them. My son can’t pick a fight with me unless I let him–and it’s now my job to make sure I don’t react in a way that lets him.
If your relationship with your teenager is less than ideal, changing it may just take an investment of time and a change in your own thought patterns. Try to remember what it was like to be a teenager yourself and think about what you wish your parents had done to try to reach out to you, and then do it for your own child.