Parenting Your Teenager: Are You the Guide or the Enemy?

Jeff Herring

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``How was school today?''

``Fine. ''

``What did you do today?''

``Nothing. ''

``How do you think you did on your test?''

``I don't know. ''

``When will you know?''

``Mom, will you guys quit bugging me?!''

Many of the families I work with seem to have trouble communicating with their teen-agers.

To a certain extent, in developmental terms, this is normal. As children reach the teen years, it's normal for them to begin to pull away from their parents and to relate more to their peers.

Teen-agers usually view their parents as either the enemy or guides to growing up. If you are the enemy, they will learn to con and lie to you, which can make for a long battle.

If they view you as a guide, you might not know everything that is going on with them, but they will be able to come to you with their problems and to respect your authority. At the very least, there will be an open door between you and them.

How will you know if they view you as the enemy? In two ways. First, ask yourself, ``Do they lie to me or try to con me?''

Second, examine the way you talk to them. Let's look at some examples of ``enemy communication'’ vs. ``guide communication. '’ To put them into an adult frame of reference, imagine how you would feel if your boss talked to you in these two different ways.

Most enemy communication has to do with committing what are called ``adultisms. '’ An adultism is simply what happens when we as parents forget what it's like to be a child and then expect, demand and require our children, who have never been adults, to think, act, understand and perceive the world as adults.

The following forms of enemy communication are all adultisms:

Assuming. This is when you assume how your teen will act and then behave according to your assumptions. The problem is that this ignores the ability of teens to learn and grow.

Rescuing and explaining. Rescuing prevents them from experiencing the consequences of their behavior. Explaining prevents them from discovering the meaning of things for themselves. This is what could be going on when a teen says, ``Stop treating me like a 2-year-old. ''

Directing. Think about how you feel when your boss tells you how to do every little detail of a project that you already know how to do or could figure out for yourself. What happens to your motivation and sense of responsibility?

Expecting. This is different from having appropriate expectations. Expecting is setting too high a standard and then criticizing everything that falls below that standard.

Here are some examples of guide communication, the opposite of enemy communication:

Checking. This involves respecting a person enough to ask what their understanding of a situation might be. It's ``What do you think you will need for your trip?'’ vs. ``Now, remember to take this and that and don't forget the other thing!''

Exploring. We explore when we ask questions such as, ``What was your understanding of when you were to be home?'’ vs. ``Do you know how late you are?!'’ (Of course they know!) Getting their understanding puts the responsibility on them and off you.

Encouraging/inviting. This sends the important message that we believe the child to be valuable and intelligent. It's ``What do you think?'’ vs. ``This is how you should believe and think. '’ Asking ``What's your opinion?'’ can work wonders for self-esteem and communication.

Celebrating. This can simply be noticing progress. In our performance-based society, it's easy to focus only on huge achievements. Communication is enhanced when we also celebrate small successes. This is ``Good job, see what you can do'’ vs. ``Why didn't you do this?''

It's important to emphasize that the parents are the ones who need to be in charge. It's simply a matter of being in charge in a manner that builds barriers or in a manner that builds bridges.

Visit for tips and tools for creating and growing a great relationship. You can also subscribe to our f*r*e*e 10 day e-program on how to enrich your relationship today, from relationship coach and expert Jeff Herring.


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