8 messages your teenager needs you to hear
By Linda Stade
Remember when your toddler got emotional and frantic? You looked at them gently and said, “Use your words”. You got them to slow down, and you listened very carefully. You listened to understand.
Because they didn’t have many words you played detective. You looked at their body language and you considered what was happening for them in that moment. You understood they were growing quickly, and all their new feelings and new experiences were overwhelming for them.
You listened deliberately.
Now you have a teenager and somehow you are back in that place, where emotions are big, communication is limited, and there is a lot of overwhelm.
What’s going on?
Adolescence is a period of massive change. There is puberty, brain development, moral development, social chaos, and a biological need to identify as an entity separate to parents.
Status = It’s complicated!
We assume they are old enough to manage themselves, and they do to a point. But there are times when they need us to play detective again… What is going on for them? What is unsaid? What are they trying to say?
What would our kids say if they could?
We can gain some insight into what teenagers would say, if they had the skills, by talking to professionals who work with this age group. These people are trained to really hear what our kids communicate.
Below are some of the messages the psychologists in the Lourdes Hill College counselling team hear repeatedly. I hear them too. Some are self-evident, some need explanation.
1. “I don’t always understand how I feel, I want to trust you in this uncertainty. I want you to be there for me, even when I push you away.”
Our adolescents are still beginning learners when it comes to emotions. Sometimes they genuinely don’t understand their big feelings. The best way to learn is to have real emotional experiences and to be coached by a trusted adult. They should feel safe, even if they aren’t comfortable.
The adults trusted with feeding this emotional growth may be parents, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes it is easier to talk to aunts, uncles, teachers, psychologists, grandparents, or other stable people in their lives.
Teens often say they don’t talk to their parents because they don’t want to disappoint them. That’s okay. They will connect with you in other ways. Foster your child’s relationships with other safe adults. You don’t have to do all this alone.
2. “Please look after yourself, I worry about you, and I absorb your stress and pain.”
When we are stressed or in pain we tend to leak. Our stress and pain spill out onto others in the form of anger or sadness, or perhaps taking frustration with one child out on another. It’s not a crime, it’s just what happens.
Self-aware adults recognise that the alternative to leaking is self-care. I don’t mean bubble baths and massages… although they don’t hurt! I mean, eating well, sleeping, exercising, and talking about our problems with an adult who has the capacity to deal with them.
Avoid leaking stress and pain on kids. They often pick up how you are feeling and may want to help, but that isn’t their job. Looking after adults should not be the role of a child or teenager if it can possibly be helped.
3. “Notice what I do well, not just the things I mess up.”
I say this through gritted teeth… Our resident teen is not neat. This is distracting to me because I am neat. However, the other day when I was looking for her to pick up the mountain of her stuff that had been abandoned in the lounge room, I found her hanging up the load of washing I had put on earlier.
She was thinking of others, just not in the way I had prioritised. The gold was there, I just had to see it.
4. “Give me space to be me, not a version of you.”
This really doesn’t need a lot of explanation. Yet, it is an anxiety we hear from kids regularly. Sadly, some kids recognise that who they are is a bit of a disappointment to their parents, even though nobody consciously delivers that message.
So, this is just a gentle nudge, get to know who your kids really are and celebrate that. It is not the job of a child to fulfill their parents’ dreams. Give them space to be themselves.
5. “I am a work in progress and that progress is not always linear.”
The linear nature of traditional education tricks us into thinking our kids’ development is a matter of one step in front of the other, forever forward. That’s seldom what progress looks like. We take detours, we take steps backward, and sometimes we just stop for a while.
Zoom out and take a wider-angle look. What has your teen learnt in the past year? In the past three years? How much have they grown emotionally, socially, morally, and academically?
We all develop at different rates, and a child who is struggling does not reflect badly on themselves or on you as a parent. Don’t let your child believe it does.
6. “Let me be part of the decisions that affect me.”
We can’t ask teenagers to behave in a mature, adult way if we have never given them those skills, or the opportunities to practise. As teens grow older, gradually begin to include them in the decision-making and problem-solving that impacts them.
Some examples might be:
What should your curfew be and why?
What subjects would you like to study in senior school?
How can we as a family better support Nan as she is getting older?
An eye-opening and gratifying aspect of truly engaging in discussion with our teens is finding out we are not always right. Sometimes we are inconsistent and sometimes we expect more from them than we ask of ourselves.
7. “I need you to love me when I’m at my worst.”
Teenagers are hyper-conscious of your responses to them. They are starting to see themselves through your eyes. If they mess up and you are disappointed in them, they generally already know it. What they need to know is that you love them anyway.
You are your child’s launching pad. If your love for them is constant and known, they can relax into learning. Any obstacle can be conquered if they have that consistent base to return to.
That does not mean you can’t draw boundaries or ensure there are natural consequences for poor choices. They just need to know, for absolute sure, that they are also loved deeply, and that you believe in them.
8. “Please listen until you can hear me.”
Let’s go back to playing detective. Teenagers tell us in a hundred different ways who they are, how they feel, and what they need from us. It isn’t always easy to hear them. Their bids for connection aren’t as obvious as they were when they were little, or as cute!
Hearing them means listening to understand, not just to fix or to give advice. It means not telling them how they should or shouldn’t feel. It means looking past the inappropriate tone and not being distracted by the often-inappropriate attitude.
The more we can look past the distractions and into the core of our kids, the easier it is to be compassionate.
Raising teens can be emotionally charged. However, if you could cultivate your listening and you knew the whole story, you would rarely be angry, bored, or too busy. What is truly being said would break your heart, or make you swell with pride, or simply allow you to delight in the evolution of another human being.