Q: I feel that something is wrong, but my teen won’t tell me what is the matter. I wish I could believe that he is being honest with me. What can I do to encourage him to come to me and tell me his problems? How do I help him know I love him no matter what, and that he can be honest with me?
Editor’s note: This is a common concern of parents. One concerned father of teens received the following counsel when he asked for help and guidance from God.
Grow together if you don’t want to grow apart
To be gradually closed off and then locked out of someone’s inner life, a child or friend with whom you once enjoyed closeness and communication, can be very painful to endure. Many parents experience this as their children grow and change. There comes a gradual dividing of the ways, a parting. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a painful parting. Parents and their children can learn to grow together, rather than apart. This takes a great deal of communicating and understanding, plus give and take by the parents and their teens.
On their part, parents must continually upgrade their thinking, reevaluate their relationship and try to perceive the new emerging person that their child is becoming. Their child is changing, developing, growing before their eyes. Keeping up with the growth and change in a young person can be very challenging. It is not just a matter of physical changes and hormonal changes, but there are many other deep emotional, mental, social and spiritual changes taking place as well. To keep in step with a teen, parents must constantly be reassessing their relationship and looking for new insight and new ways to relate to him or her, and develop a new set of expectations. To keep up with a changing young person, you have to adapt and change right along with him or her.
Probably one of the greatest influences on our lives is our children. They influence us to do good, be good, and try to show them what’s right.
Adjust your role as they grow
Your relationship with your teen can’t remain a parent-child relationship; it has to change to a parent-friend or a friend-to-friend relationship. You must let go of your parent role somewhat if you want to get through to and communicate with your teen. Your young person must feel that you understand him or her as a person.
In the eyes of your teens, individuality and independence come to them through breaking out of the parent-child relationships they had with you. They feel they need to break out of this mold in order to grow and become independent, thinking people. Parents who want to keep the parent-child relationships as they are, who want their children to remain subject to them and their ways, will find it increasingly difficult to communicate with their growing, changing “children.”
Upgrade your approach and programs
The key to keeping up communications is to keep up to date with what is happening in the lives of your children. Be aware of their activities. Pop into their world to see how and what they are doing. Do things with them that they like to do. Be considerate of them. Keep reevaluating and deepening your relationship with them. Keep monitoring yourself as to what you are doing with them and how often you spend time with them. How are you treating them? How are you talking to them?
Effective parenting is like a computer program which must be upgraded often to effectively meet changing and more challenging needs. Young people provide these challenges, which always put the “latest versions” to the test! So the parents who want to communicate best with their children must take the time to keep up with their needs. You can’t just remain as you are, where you are. You have to keep upgrading to keep up with them. That’s a lot of work, and it requires an investment on your part. Keep in tune, keep on top of your teens’ situation, and be familiar with what goes on in their lives. If you just don’t know, then stop and take the time to find out.
Build a common understanding
Sometimes teens’ lack of communication is because something is wrong or because they’re not being honest with you. Often it is not having a lot in common anymore that keeps young people from communicating with their parents. If they think there is little in common, then they think you won’t understand them.
There are many ways to build a common understanding. For example, show an interest in the age group your child belongs to. Asking your child to help you understand his or her age group can help lay the groundwork for deeper and more personal communication. Ask sincere questions and let your child explain why things are as they are, why his or her age group feels, acts, or dresses in a certain manner, or whatever. If your teens see your motives for asking as coming from a true desire to understand them, they will feel honored that you recognize them as unique individuals, and that you believe they can help you understand. Often in explaining something to you they come to understand it better themselves.
Avoid expressing very strong opinions at these times of building communications. If you feel you must give your opinion, then try to state it as dis-passionately as possible, leaving lots of indications that the door is still open for further discussion. Avoid passing judgment or laying down laws during these times. Just focus on trying to understand your teen and communicate.
View your teen as a “person”
Seeing you reaching out, trying to understand, and even asking them for help, makes your teens feel more mature, and that they have a special place of importance in your life. They feel good when they see that you view each of them as a “person” and respect each one as someone with insight and understanding, someone who can be called upon for help and counsel. They see you do not think of them as just your children, but more than that—as friends. Showing a young person respect is very important in laying a foundation for communication. When your teens feel you respect them, they feel they can trust you with the more difficult or personal matters or situations they face.
Earn their confidence by being confidential
Young people gauge how you will likely react to them by how you react to others in a similar situation or with a similar problem. How they see you react tells them if it is safe or not to approach you about something. It tells them what they can do, or at least what they can’t let you find out that they are doing.
Accepting the popular perception that “teens are trouble,” that adolescence is something bad, can hinder building a good relationship with your teens. A positive attitude will encourage their openness and maturity and improve your relationship with them.
When young people feel good about themselves, they are less likely to be attracted to the negative side of life.
Young people like to know that what they tell you is said in confidence—that you will not blab it around, or talk about it with others—especially those they do not want told or those they don’t have the same confidence or trust in. If they entrust a bit of personal information about their life with you, they expect you to guard it and keep it in confidence. It is very important to respect their trust in you and not carelessly repeat things they have told you in confidence to others who do not need to know or be involved. It may seem like a small matter to you, but they will not see it that way.
When to hold back on getting actively involved
When young people do share a difficulty they are going through, parents sometimes want to rush in and take control and help solve it for them. But that is usually not what they want you to do. If you are going to take action on ”their business,” you need to counsel with them first. Tell them what you are thinking and ask their opinion and consent before doing it.
Young people often have very definite opinions about what form your involvement and “help” takes, and want it kept within certain boundaries. In most cases, all they are looking for is someone who will listen to them, someone safe to bounce their problems off of: a sounding board. Your role is to be supportive, someone they can talk to and who can help them gauge their course of action. They don’t necessarily want you to become as actively involved as you did when they were children.
Your young people may be hesitant to share serious matters with you because they are afraid that you will charge in with the cavalry, and it will be hard for them to stop you, or that they won’t have any control over their situation once they let you know about it. They don’t want you to charge in and embarrass them, or crowd them out of what they feel is their life and their business.
Be a nonthreatening force for good in their lives
You can still freely express the things you are concerned about. It’s just your timing and presentation that’s important. Sometimes you do need to ask your teens straight out about something you are concerned about, but you should not appear to be suspicious or accusatory. There is a time for asking, “Are you taking drugs?” And there is a time to be less direct and say, “Drugs are out there, and I know you are going to be offered them. Drugs take over and wreck a lot of kids’ lives before they see what’s happening. I hope you will say no, but if something serious does happen, let me know, let me help.”
No one likes to be alone when he or she is in trouble, especially a teen. Teens do not want to lose everything they have gained in growing up by getting too much help from their parents. You, as parents, have to be gentle when you try to help them. Seeing how respectful you are of them builds trust and respect for you. They will then see their parents as a nonthreatening force for good in their lives—stable, helpful, dependable friends.
Communicating love and understanding
Words are not the only way to communicate your love and win your teens’ trust. There are a lot of other ways. Try to catch their eyes. Use your eyes to show them your love. Don’t give them an accusatory or hurt look which probes for guilt or wrong—but give them loving, understanding, encouraging looks. Let them hear by the tone of your voice that you do love them and you do understand. Actually, it is not how much you communicate with them but that you do communicate with them. Try to touch base with them in some way each day—via a look, a touch, an encouraging word—then build on this. It will grow! Give them the help and support they need. At this age they are very insecure and feel like they are being tossed on a troubled sea. They are looking for the lighthouse. Be their beacon!
Hug your children often—especially your teens. Teens need a constant supply of encouragement.
They can count on you
There will be times when you will have to lay down the line and be firm with your teens as you guide and correct them, but as they grow, you will have less of a direct influence over their lives. Your role will change from their parent to their friend—not an “anything goes” friend, but one who loves them enough to be honest with them—someone they can count on, someone who is more a helping hand than a judge—someone they can lean on, rather than someone they have to avoid or hide their life from or try to get around.
Help them know they can really count on you. You build their confidence in you by being faithful in all those little things that add up in their mind to the kind of person they believe you should be. If you’ve made a mistake and flown off the handle, if you have been too extreme with them, if you have scared them off or driven them into their own world, then go to them and apologize. Explain that you want to change and you want to be different.
If you are humble and you show that you know you have weaknesses and need help in many areas too, then even if your teens don’t show it, they will have seen you put your heart on the line and trust them with a sensitive part of your life, and this will encourage them. They do need your help, they want your help, but they want it on their terms—when they want it and how they want it. Of course, sometimes when they are in trouble and you see they are in trouble, you do need to intercede. Go to them directly and explain the situation as you see it.
If your teen doesn’t respond to your efforts to communicate, perhaps he (or she) just isn’t able to talk to you face to face, especially if you aren’t very good at controlling your anger or emotions, and therefore they’re afraid of how you might react. If this is the case, then encourage him to write you a note, or to record his thoughts on a tape recorder or dictaphone, and give you the tape to listen to. That way you can “hear” him out without him experiencing your initial reaction head-on. You have time to think things over, he has time to think things over, and you can have a discussion later in a calmer frame of mind, or answer him in a note if you like.
One father confessed that he did not realize how dishonest he had been with his son until he learned a hard lesson. His son received a very low mark in English. In spite of scoldings and extra study, it seemed his son simply could not bring up his grade. One day the boy said to his father, “I guess when you went to school you got all A’s in English.”
“What makes you say that?” the father replied.
“Well, if you didn’t do well,” said the son, “you wouldn’t scold me the way you do.”
The way he had corrected his son was a misrepresentation of the truth. The father replied, “No, the fact is that I really had a hard time in English, especially spelling.”
From that moment on the boy did better, freed from the impression that he was inferior and a failure. Seeing that his dad had the same problems, but succeeded, gave him hope.
Guide rather than intrude
Young people are unsure of a great many things, and so sometimes they jealously protect the “garden” of their lives from intrusion. They are not sure which are the weeds and which are the good plants, but they are sure they do not want you stomping into their life and pulling out what you think are weeds. They want to make those decisions for themselves. They may like to have your guidance, but constant intrusion into their lives is not usually what they want.
To improve communications with our teens, and to be the ones they come to rather than avoid, we need to turn our parenting volume down and our listening up.
Love despite silence
A parent should try not to be put off by silence. Keep putting your heart into talking and communicating with your teens. Give them a few signs of affection—a hug, a kiss, a touch or pat, an expression of warmth. Just let them know you are there, that you care, that it is okay, you are listening, you are watching out for them. All these help them feel more secure, even if they do not openly admit it or react as if they do. Sometimes they do not want to react or show too much weakness to you, because they know that will bring out the parent side in you and put them right back in the role of being children.
You and your teen don’t have to grow apart if you learn to grow together.
“Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged” (The Bible, Colossians 3:21 KJV).
Love, encourage, correct and reassure your young person as he or she moves towards independence.
Adolescence can be an emotionally stormy time, and we should try our best to not get pulled into a teen tempest. Try to stay cool under fire and look for ways to work with your teens rather than against them.
Cherish your moments together
Keep reminding yourself that your teens are growing up and may soon go their own way, so the moments you have together are precious and should be positive and memorable ones you can all look back on and cherish. Don’t fight over trivial matters. It is just not important. Even if you think it is important to have an argument about something—stop! First try to love them. Show them love, even in a storm. Love never fails! You may be very upset, but they are likely worried and confused too. The Bible says, “A soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1 NKJ). What that means is that being calm never fails; love never fails.
Arguments fail! Expectations fail. Giving orders fails. But love never fails. Try to get past your anger. Try not to be too set in your ways and too predictable in your negative reactions. Only be predictable in your love for your teens. If they are secure in your love, this will be a good foundation upon which problems can be worked out. Stay open, approachable and give them opportunities to talk to you.
Step back! Let them breathe!
Surprise your teens by making changes—changes in your life and attitude and way of looking at things. Surprise them with all kinds of interesting differences. Young people want to be proud of their parents. They want to feel that their parents are cool, but even more than that, they are looking for something warm, supportive and understanding in you—someone who is there, right there praying for them, standing beside them—not like a blanket suffocating them, but like an umbrella protecting them.
If you are the type of parent that likes to take control, that grabs the pencil away from them to show them how you’d do it, then you must learn to let go of that desire for direct management of their lives. Step back! Let them breathe. They know what you believe. By now you have certainly told them enough times. Just turning up the volume now, yelling at them, or forcing them, or being harsh or critical or negative, or speaking as though you expect the worst, is the worst and will get the worst results. They may just tune you out and stop listening.
Their life is sacred. It does not belong to you; it belongs to them. And there comes a time when you have to move back and give the controls to them. Let them row their boat. Let them learn to drive the vehicle of their life. But be there to help, and encourage them as they learn. Don’t be too quick to grab the controls away from them. It’s too late for that. They’re growing and they’re going to be venturing out on their own whether you like it or not. It is hard to step out of the role of their boss, but you must. However, do not go to the opposite extreme and become so passive and detached they think you just don’t care. Step back and into the role of friend, supporter, cheerleader, avid fan, admirer, the one who believes in them, the one who loves them unconditionally even when they don’t reach their expectations—or yours.
Show positive expectations
It’s unfortunate, but young people often act out your negative expectations. It’s better to try to show positive expectations and hide your disappointment. Positive expectations move them toward the good and convict them when they do wrong, because they don’t want to disappoint you or cause you to lose faith in them. On the other hand, if they feel your negative suspicions, accusations or assumptions, they may tend to go that way. (Simply put, it is easier to be bad if someone expects you to be bad, but it is easier to be good if someone believes in you and expects you to be good.)
See mistakes as steppingstones
Everyone makes mistakes. Parents can’t expect saints from sinners like themselves. Let your teens know that you’re a sinner too, and you also have to learn from your mistakes. Young people make a lot of mistakes, and they feel bad about them, but don’t rub it in. Try to help them be glad for the chance to learn such valuable lessons early in life. Look for the good that can be drawn from each situation, and help them look for the good. If you look for the good in everything, including them, they will see a lot of good in you.
Love sees the good and possibilities that others do not see. This does not mean that you become blind to problems, or overly permissive, giving in to bad behavior. Just see beyond the bad. Have confidence in God’s love for your teens and His ability to help them make it.
Let them row their boat while you cheer them on
Try to help and encourage your teens in those areas that are strengths in their lives, but don’t push too hard. You might want them to have a certain education or special training; you might want them to have what you missed. But there comes a time to put aside your ideas and look at what your teen wants and is able to do. Pushing can be perceived as overriding her will and her rights. Your idea may be the best for her, it may be her area of talent, but she likes to feel it is her choice what talent she wants to develop, a part of her inner joy and development.
It is hard to change your teens without changing yourself. There may seem to be no way to break through to them. They know you too well as their parent and have their guard up to protect themselves from your “parenting.” But when you come to them as a friend, they will not be as closed. If you approach them as someone who loves them and cares for them, as someone who sees them as a person, that is what they want. That respect, recognition, support and understanding means a lot to them. Those are the building blocks that make them more secure in their march to manhood or womanhood.