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Keeping strong bonds with teens while giving them space to grow

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teen girl

Corrine Langill, RN, BScN   CHEO

Manager, Health Promotion and Injury Prevention 

Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario

It seems more complicated than ever for parents of teens.  We can see so many dangers: online predators, bullies, STIs, pregnancy, sexual assault, drugs, alcohol, gangs, crime and deadly car crashes.  How do we help teens avoid these risks without becoming over-involved and over-protective, becoming the dreaded, 'hovering', helicopter parent?  How do we help our teens grow, become independent, make mistakes, handle problems and solve them, while keeping a warm, close relationship?

Walking this middle road isn't easy.  Parents need to be close and involved, but not too close or too involved.  We need to give youth some space and freedom, but not too much.  And to make things extra fun, this balance may be different for every teen, as parents of 2 or more kids know all too well.  We need to learn how to support and guide our teens, in a way that allows them both the freedom and security to grow, try new things, test themselves and develop confidence in their abilities.  Sounds easy, right?

There are pitfalls on each side of this road.  If parents get too involved, teens don't learn how to handle tough times or solve problems for themselves.  They may give up on things too easily, and may not develop the confidence that comes from accomplishing things on their own.  Every college and university professor has a horror story about parents who intervene if their 'child' gets a poor mark.  On the other hand, if parents aren't available, youth can become anxious, detached and turn more to friends for love, help and support.  And we don't have to work very hard to imagine the kinds of trouble they could get into. 

Allison Kennedy helps parents and youth dance this dance every day in her work as a psychologist in Mental Health at CHEO.  She reminds parents that during the teen years it's quite natural for peers to become more important, for youth to be socializing more outside the home, and to start having romantic relationships.  This process is an important one, a step along the way to becoming a healthy, independent adult.  But while friends can meet a number of needs for youth, friends aren't able to give the help that's needed during really difficult times.  Parents are in a position to truly help, providing a mature perspective, emotional and practical support. 

So how can parents 'be there' for their teens in the most helpful way?  Dr. Kennedy suggests that you:

  • Have regular, daily check-ins with teens, where you can 'take the pulse' of how things are going.  For example during dinner or at bedtime (don't be fooled, many teens still really like to be 'tucked in').
  • Plan family mealtimes, as many times during the week as possible.
  • Put everything aside for a little while on most days to just be with your teen to chat.
  • Try to be available when teens are.
  • Plan activities with teens (walks, shopping, sports, hobbies, cooking, or vacations).
  • Make it easy for your teen to talk with you about problems or worries.  Youth will be more likely to share things if you can stay calm when hearing about things that might be upsetting or worrying.  Take your teen's concerns seriously, and avoid saying things like, "Oh, that's nothing!"  or, "It's just a phase".  Instead, focus on your teen's feelings, for example, "I can see you're worried about this".  Try to get your teen's point of view, without asking too many questions. 

Teens may decide to keep things to themselves or turn to friends because they're worried about over-burdening you.  Or because parents:

  • Aren't available (working long hours, connected to social media or stressed with work or personal relationships);
  • Often over react;
  • Are too harsh enforcing rules.

It can be hard keeping a close relationship with teens, because they are less available too.  The social world teens are growing up in is very different from their parents' world.  Social media is changing the way we connect, especially how much true 'face time' we have with each other.  Youth now have access to peers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.   The line between home, school and friends is a little more blurry.  Issues from their day follow them home into the evening, so it's easy to see how they can become more tuned in to their peers.

To help with this, Dr. Kennedy thinks it's a good idea to:

  • Keep computers and other devices out of bedrooms.
  • Set up an overnight 'family device-charging station'.
  • Get inexpensive clock radios as an alarm.
  • Create your own social media accounts, even just to understand how things like privacy settings work.
  • Monitor young teens' social media use.  Give them feedback, but only for truly important issues.  You can gradually back off as they get older. And remember-it's embarrassing for a teen if his mom comments on everything. 
  • Follow or 'friend' your older teens on social media.   Knowing you'll see stuff will help keep their posts, tweets and shares in check.  If they don't want you to see it, they probably wouldn't want a future employer to see it either[KA1] !

Raising teens is hard, and even harder when parents are going through a divorce, work or health problems.  All you can do is your best.  Get the support you need from professionals, adult friends or family members.  Your teen shouldn't be the person you share your troubles with.  But you can let your teen know that you're having a rough time (for example, "Sorry I over-reacted.  Things are stressful at work, and I have a short fuse").   Remember - we all mess up.   When it happens, say you're sorry, and mean it.  Make amends.  You'll be teaching your teen a valuable lesson; that everyone makes mistakes, and we don't have to be perfect.  What's most important is how we handle things after we make a mistake.  And with teens in the house, we're going to get lots of practice.

Do you have more questions?