Break Through Teens' Shells and Let Them Know You Love Them
Mood swings, coursing hormones and sharp sarcasm can make spending time with a teenager a test of parental mettle. Teens experience an intense and wide range of emotions. They may be happy one minute and on the verge of tears the next.
Knowing when to strike up a conversation with a teen can be just as key as knowing how to. By analyzing a clip of his day, you'll pinpoint triggers for mood distress:
On the trip from his bed to the front door, and ultimately to school, your teen will wake up irritated at his inability to sleep in, lumber into the bathroom and grimace at the sign of impending acne. As he looks in the mirror at the hairstyle that's dodged recent haircuts, his mood begins to shift. On the verge of cheerfulness, he pulls on his favorite T-shirt, which happens to be the same one you criticize him for wearing four days out of seven. The trip down the stairs to breakfast has the potential to make or break the next five to seven minutes the two of you will share.
As you hear him heading down the stairs, you call, "Good morning. How did you sleep?" Such a blatant attempt to pry into his private life abruptly alters his mood. The chance to talk about his biology exam or where you might go for dinner later that week vanishes before you have a chance to realize it's gone.
Expressing unwavering and unconditional love for the child who now refuses to do more than grunt at you when he passes by with a bagel wedged in his mouth requires a strategy often uncommon to parents. Whether you're entering into uncharted waters, or heading into a storm you've faced before, understanding the importance and impact of letting your teen know you love him — even when he makes it difficult — will help you all navigate your way back to calmer waters.
Make your feelings known
Remembering to overtly express your love can easily get lost in the mix when you're busy wondering if you're getting through about the dangers of drinking and driving or the importance of taking a prep course for the SATs.
"At least once a day I have a teen in my office vowing how much their parents hate them," says Margaret Ryan, a guidance counselor at a private high school in Houston, Texas. Ryan has spent almost 10 years working with students who question their parents' honest feelings. "Since this is such a difficult phase for both sides, it can be tricky for parents to definitively express love when they're worried about teen pregnancy, substance abuse and keeping their children safe. Many teens don't relate their parents' caring and concern to feelings of love," she says.
Revisit your youth
If possible, would you go back to your teen years? Would you go through middle school, puberty and high school all over again? Feelings of vulnerability, insecurity and revolving emotions aren't something most experienced adults would willingly revisit, yet we expect our children to sail through this time unaffected.
Ed Dean knows he put his parents through their paces. "I was moody and used to do things just to be irritating. I can't believe they didn't lock me in my room just to shut me up!"
Although Dean can joke about his teenage antics, his parents didn't always share his perception. "There were so many times when Ed would make it so tough to be around him. Between his moods, his sullen attitude and his penchant for making his sisters cry, we wondered if we'd ever get through his teen years," says his mother, Veronica.
Do whatever it takes
Veronica recalls a defining moment in their parent/teen relationship. "Ed was trying to push us away as he looked for his independence. One morning I stopped him before he was out the door for school and hugged him for nearly two minutes. I kept telling him how much we loved him and wanted him to always know we were there for him." Much to her surprise, Veronica's son countered her unexpected affirmations by tearfully responding with, "I love you too. I'm sorry I don't make it easy for you to love me."
As a new father facing another round of the teen years, but this time from a parent's perspective, Ed plans on taking his cues from his parents. "They never gave up on me, and no matter what, I'll persevere through my daughter's teen scene as well," he says.
"I'll have at least one teen in the house for a span of 21 years," sighs Liselle Vizza, a busy single mother of six children. This feisty mom chose a different path to break through her teenager's turbulence. An experienced trial lawyer, Vizza knows a few tricks that get her point across.
"I threatened my oldest son that if he didn't stop to let me give him a kiss goodbye on his way out the door, I'd show up at his school with a sandwich board professing my love for 'my little boy.'" While she didn't need to make good on her threat, she did capture her son's attention.
Consider what they hear you say
It's amazing to hear the heartwarming stories parents share about their teens. Sitting in the grandstands of a football game or catching up with neighbors while working in the yard, parents speak of their teen's accomplishments and growth with unending amounts of pride. Unfortunately, many teens and tweens do not hear these glowing proclamations.
Instead, they may routinely hear: "You need to clean your room," "If you're going to use the car, please put the keys back where I can find them" and "You used to be so even-tempered." These frequent phrases can replace the spontaneous avowals of affection you once bestowed upon him as a child.
Find creative options
Heidi Bishop, with a master's degree in social work, encourages parents to explore ways to express their feelings to their teens. Among her many ideas, she recommends families create a neutral zone in their home.
"Designating a spot where everyone feels comfortable to express themselves, regardless of the connotation of the message, eliminates some sporadic mood swings," she says.
Journaling your thoughts in a diary that you pass back and forth with your teen gives you both a private way to convey personal sentiments. Setting a time to tune into your teen once or twice a week lets you both share your feelings, concerns and affection without boundaries. Establishing that you can hug him in the house or finding a code word that signifies "I love you" when you're in public offers him security to spread his wings while reinforcing your unconditional love.
When your teen realizes you are able to balance his need for privacy with your need to remain a loving and vital part of his life, he'll recognize your unending love for him.
Gina Roberts-Grey is a health and lifestyles writer as well as a licensed clinical social worker.