Recently my husband and I began to watch a popular teen TV show, purely for sociological reasons. We aimed to familiarise ourselves with mainstream teenage media influences. We observed that the parents were portrayed as mainly helpless bystanders, unable to influence their teen’s activities and lacking in an ability to engage or understand their teenager’s life.
Hollywood in general, glorifies that it is not ‘cool’ to hang out or like parents when you are a teenager.
In this series, the father was portrayed as disinterested – absorbed in himself and his work. The mother was seen as busy and independent. In one scene, she was concerned that the family hadn’t sat down together for a meal in three weeks. She organised a family breakfast at home and chose this time to interrogate the teenager, who then said, “I’m off!”
It is natural for teenagers to grow in self-autonomy, but this does not mean that parents are helpless bystanders. It is an invitation to reinvent your relationship together.
There is a generalised thought that parents should not or cannot be ‘friends’ with their teenagers. But we can most certainly enjoy each other’s company, and there is room for friendship with similar interests in music and going to concerts, outings, holidays and adventures, movies, food, hobbies such as sport and cars, shopping and pampering sessions.
During this stage teenagers have a tendency to withdraw and to challenge their parents. You may not always agree, and arguments may arise, but there is still mutual love.
This is in general a difficult stage of life for the adults too. There may be a midlife crisis with a fear of not being needed, or an increase in career pressures. The parents are growing as individuals too, finding their passions and purpose outside of family life. But this is not a time of loosening connections or letting go of the rope.
Teenagers can be secretive, and withdrawing can be a natural tendency, but it is the parents’ role to uncover pictures of their teens’ daily activities and issues. The following ideas may help to foster connection and discovery in family life.
Try spending a short amount of quality time with your teenagers each day. This might include simple activities such as sharing the evening meal together, lending an ear to support while they do their homework, watching TV together – there may be a favourite family programme, which in our house is Gogglebox, which everyone finds hilarious – or going on an evening dog walk together, which can add to the daily conversation.
These times are for connecting in a low-key manner and for withholding from the tendency to – as teenagers see it – nag, interrogate, reprimand or lecture. In this way parents and teenagers are more likely to continue together.
Have fun with each other. This might include family jokes, physical playfulness, humour and taking the mickey out of each other in a loving way, as only family members can!
I asked my husband for his main tip for parenting teenagers, and he simply replied, “To be there.” I asked him to explain. “To be around, to be present,” he said. We need to be ‘there’ for our teenagers. We stand back, but observe, ready to support, to lend an ear or assistance. They must never feel alone, but support needs to be subtle too.
Occasionally I say to my teenagers in a soft voice, “Has anyone told you they love you today?” (I say this to my husband too!) This remark can be met with a grunt, raised eyeballs and at times a loving “I know you do” with a smile! I keep saying it, and I mean it with all my heart. I also say, “How is my favourite son/daughter today?” This is a family joke, as I only have one of each.
I endeavour to acknowledge my teenagers’ contribution to family life. Yesterday, the car that my daughter is learning to drive would not start. The key had become stuck in the ignition. She left for school, upset. Within 20 minutes of being a passenger, she received a text from her brother saying he had fixed it. Later, I texted my son: “Thank you for supporting your sister. She was upset. And for being the ‘troubleshooter ‘of the family! What would we do without you?”
Far from the pitiable portrayal by Hollywood, parenting of teenagers is a juicy, at times white-knuckling ride, guaranteed to bring exciting drama and love. I encourage you to create your own Hollywood movie by deeply engaging with your teen. This personal movie can be replayed during your senior years with much humour and reminiscing, looking back with laughter, and wisdom, at your mistakes and misunderstandings. And with tears of joy at your moments of perseverance, enduring love, and real, authentic connection!
Lou Harvey-Zahra is a Rudolf Steiner, primary and special needs trained teacher and parenting author. Her books include Happy Child, Happy Home and Creative Discipline, Connected Family, both published by Floris Books. She lives with her husband and teenagers in Melbourne, Australia. skiptomylouparenting.com
Photo: Annie Spratt
First published in Issue 42 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.