August 05, 2014 —

“You just don’t understand!”

Sound familiar? This is a common lament from teens and preteens. And I have to agree: Parents often don’t understand. Most of us have locked away the pains of our teen years and approach this raising children business with a hindsight perspective (read, I know better). This approach can lead to problems for both teens and parents. Teens begin to feel misunderstood and detach themselves from the people who are most influential in their lives; parents begin to worry about the distance between themselves and their teen. 

Out of worry, we enact consequences. These consequences are intended to teach our teens to make safe and smart decisions, but they often backfire. The more we blame, threaten, ground and take away cellphones, the less our teens will come to us for help and support. 

Brain research tells us that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that processes the consequences of certain actions, continues to develop until age 25. Teens and young adults, then, are inclined to take the route that offers the most excitement; unfortunately, it’s often the risky behaviors that are the most exciting.

But how do we respond when our teen’s excitement comes from experimenting with drugs or over-the-counter medicine abuse, staying out all night, driving at high speeds and ignoring homework?

Studies show that connection—communication, empathy and acceptance—is the greatest prevention against dangerous teen behaviors. There is no guarantee that your child won’t be in a car accident, won’t become addicted to cough medicine or won’t get pregnant. But even in the worst case scenario, wouldn’t you want to get through it together?

Some things to keep in mind to stay connected:

  • Don’t react in the heat of the moment. No lesson can be learned with emotional reactivity. Walk away and take care of yourself. Acknowledge your feelings without blame. Breathe and wait to calm down.
  • Own your problem and don’t dump it on your teen. She doesn’t care if you are going to be late or have too much to do. That’s your problem.
  • Start with “I”, never “You.” Make sure the statement is about how their actions make you feel. “I am scared about you driving in a car with a new driver.” “I saw your grades online and I’m very concerned.” “I don’t like feeling ignored when I ask for help.” It should be about how you’re feeling, not about what they’re doing.
  • Make agreements and put them in writing. When your teen is engaged in your family life, he is far more likely to cooperate.
  • Respect their agenda. Be considerate of your teen’s plans as you would like her to be considerate of yours. Pay attention to what your teen is doing and is interested in—even if it’s something you don’t like.
  • Be inviting. Encourage your teen to host friends and activities under your roof.
  • Always maintain the perspective that unacceptable behavior means your teen is having a problem, not being a problem. Compassion will carry you miles in your relationship.

Note to parents: You must grow too—right alongside your teen.

Bonnie Harris, MS Ed, is the director of Connective Parenting and has been a parenting specialist for twenty-five years. Parent educator, professional trainer, counselor, author, and international speaker, Harris is known for her pioneering mindset shift out of the reward and punishment model to a connected relationship. She received her master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Bank Street College in New York City. In 1990, she founded The Parent Guidance Center in New Hampshire. Based on her book, When Your Kids Push Your Buttons (2003), Bonnie teaches Buttons parent workshops and professional trainings internationally. Her second book Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With (2008) distills her groundbreaking work into 8 key principles and practical strategies. She has appeared on The Today Show, Asia News, ABC Australia broadcast among others and has been featured in Parenting, Parents, Good Housekeeping, Essence, and Working Mother magazines. Bonnie is the mother of two grown children and lives with her husband in New Hampshire. Learn more at www.bonnieharris.com and join Bonnie on Facebook.