Be the Ally and Not the Enemy: How to Openly Communicate with Your Teenager

By Molly Skyar & Dr. Susan Rutherford Posted December 05, 2013 under Guest Authors

Mother of two young kids, Molly Skyar interviews her mother, Dr. Susan Rutherford, a Clinical Psychologist, about how to establish an open line of communication with your teen and how your parenting decisions today may affect your child as an adult.

Molly: Many parents have a hard time communicating with their kids when they become teenagers. How can I parent my daughter without alienating her during these years?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (Molly’s Mom): What happens during adolescence is that parents fear their kids are exposed to things they can’t control.  They respond by clamping down on the kids.

Molly: By snooping through their emails, texts and diaries? Or with rules and restrictions?

Dr. Rutherford: Both. These behaviors violate the boundaries between parents and children.

Instead, establish open lines of communication. Meet their friends, invite them over for dinner, have conversations. Tell your teen you understand and remember how difficult life can be as a teen.

Molly: But I think teenagers often don’t want to talk to their parents. I remember lots of my friends feeling that way.

Dr. Rutherford: Persevere by lending an empathic ear and not being critical. A good start would be to promise the teen that you are always available to pick her up with no questions asked if they are worried the driver is impaired.

Molly: I remember you did that with me.

Dr. Rutherford: Exactly. Establish this so she knows this option and that there won’t be repercussions.

Everyone makes mistakes and a parent’s job is to help teens learn to make good decisions. It’s part of growing up.

Molly: I agree that some parents are too restrictive or invasive because they’re scared. I remember that in high school, the most intrusive parents bred unhappy and secretive kids.

Dr. Rutherford: They couldn’t trust their parents to understand them.

With you and your sister, I did just the opposite.  I trusted you both and linked your grades to increasing freedoms. I made that link because I knew good grades would help your futures and I set high-but-accomplishable expectations. Each report card that brought appropriate grades brought more trust in and independence for you. In a sense, we were teaching the life lesson that fulfilling responsibilities brings rewards.

By your senior years in high school, we had ended your curfews. We wanted you to experience making independent decisions with the knowledge that we had your back, so to speak. Of course, as a parent I reserved the right to comment on any questionable actions, not to punish but to counsel on how to be wiser the next time.
The other reality is that I didn’t feel like I needed to know about everything. Some ignorance is good for parents as part of the natural separation process for offspring.

Molly: I agree: you’ve got to give teens some space.

Dr. Rutherford: And some sense of privacy.

Controlling parents are a breeding ground for teen rebellion. The more a parent tries to exert control, the more a teen will push back. Instead, aim for an alliance.

Molly: What’s the best way to form that alliance?

Dr. Rutherford: Try trusting your teen and being available to listen. A parent’s job is to encourage good decision-making during this period of personal growth. Keep a watchful eye on how things are going but respect the separation process and newly-desired independence.

Remember: the goal of raising children is to help them become successful, independent adults who make good decisions in life.

Molly Skyar and Dr. Rutherford publish Conversations with My Mother, an online resource for offering practical parenting tips and psychological insight into raising kids. Dr. Rutherford is a Clinical Psychologist in practice for over 30 years. She has degrees from Duke University, New York University and the University of Denver. You can further connect with Molly and her mother on Facebook and follow Molly on Twitter.