By: Jonathan Pishner
This may come as a shock, but sometimes teenagers are rude. Or messy. Lazy. Entitled. Secretive. Alien.
These are just a few of the words that might come to mind when you’re frustrated with your teenager. These years are tough on parents, and kids. The days when you feel connected to each other have become few and far between, and it can seem like you’ll never see eye to eye again.
Once they reach the mid-teens, the time when you can just tell your child what to do, and expect them to actually do it, is probably over. And yet it’s still your job to teach them, guide them, and keep them out of trouble.
That’s a tough job.
So we’re going to look at some ways to make that process as simple and painless as possible. Don’t get me wrong, it will still be painful and messy, but there are a few things that can be easier.
If you get everything else in this article, remember this phrase: Sense of Belonging.
Teenagers Need to Feel Like They Belong
All children need to feel like they belong. For babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, this need is met by family. Moms, dads, brothers, sisters, and extended family provide them with the comfort and safety that go along with the feeling of belonging.
As they enter elementary school, friends enter the picture, and kids’ needs are balanced between peers and family.
Then, as children turn into adolescents, the trouble begins. Their brains begin to change, and the balance shifts. Family becomes less important than friends. Teenagers move away from family orientation toward peer orientation.
Parents need to be intentional in making sure their teenagers still feel connected to home, even as they begin to move away in their thinking and actions.
How to Make Your Teen Feel Alienated
This is the easy part. You probably already know how to do this one. You can alienate your teenager by constantly criticizing them, micromanaging them, correcting every statement and action.
And the thing about doing that? It’s very easy to fall into constant correction. After all, you see them engaging in all sorts of things that aren’t ideal. They act without manners, or they’re perpetually late, they sleep all day and stay up all night. Add all of that to the constant time spent on social media, phones, video games, and generally not doing anything most of us consider “useful”.
You’re often worried about them. And you’re sometimes embarrassed by them. And you want them to “act their age.” And you tell them about it all the time.
But let’s do a thought experiment on feeling a sense of Belonging. Think back to the last boss, parent, or other authority figure that always told you what you’re doing wrong. Did you feel a need to make that person happy because of the love you felt for them? Or did you just wish they would shut the hell up and leave you alone?
For most people, it’s the second one.
If micromanaging doesn’t work with adults, why would it ever work with teenagers?
How to Make Teens Feel Like a They Still Belong at Home
Micromanagement is an easy-to-fall-into habit, so it’s important to consciously avoid it. Instead, focus purposefully on fostering your teen’s sense of belonging.
First, set up situations in which you can catch your child doing things right. Intentionally ask them to do something you know will go well. When this happens you can provide praise and encouragement.
For example, maybe you know from experience they’re going to screw up the laundry. That means you can’t allow this to become your main focus, or it will just be constant criticism. Maybe your teen is good at picking up the living room, or vacuuming the floors, or helping their younger siblings with their homework. When you hone in on tasks like this, that they can succeed at with minimal guidance, then you’re in a position to provide genuine appreciation. Say thank you, and mean it.
You can also focus on the activities outside the home that they do well. That could be school, or the arts, or sports, or working at the local fast food joint. Purposefully choose to not always be negative. Instead, craft and find situations you can reinforce. This is a powerful tool.
This is not to say you never provide criticism or correction when they earn it. That’s part of the job too. But if that’s MOST of what you’re giving, well……. go back to that micromanagement example above.
Second, take an interest in things they’re interested in. This can be tough, depending on what that is. Maybe you aren’t into heavy metal, or video games, or the latest YouTube star.
Here’s the tough part of being a parent: figure out how to share something. Finding a thing you can share with your teenager enhances the sense of belonging that’s so important.
You don’t have to love everything they love, or even most of it. Just one or two things is enough to enhance your relationship.
Coming up with nothing? Then at least sample what they’re interested in. Sit and watch a couple of their videos with them. Play Magic or Pokemon with them every once in a while. Engage enough you can have at least carry on a conversation about it.
Keep in mind that when we reject the interests of the person, it’s not that far of a step to rejecting the person. It’s easy for kids to think, “My parents aren’t interested in anything that I’m interested in. They must not like me.”
Third: Genuineness. This is can be one of the hardest parts, and might need the most practice.
Don’t skip this section and think “Oh, I know how to be genuine”, because there are a couple of important tips related to our previous two points.
The key to both of the points above is: you have to mean it.
If you’re providing praise and encouragement for a teen doing something right, it has to be real. If you act like they’re a genius for clearing the table and it’s the most important task ever done, they will absolutely know you’re putting on an act. The same goes with their interests, if you’re pretending to enjoy what’s going on, they can tell if you’re pretending.
So it’s absolutely vital to practice this section. And the thing is, I can’t do much to teach genuineness, but I can at least give you a decent practice guide.
Here’s your practice question: what’s the nicest thing I can say about this, and mean it?
The tough part: consequences. When you have to administer consequences, the action by its nature can hurt Belonging somewhat. So it becomes important to set things up so that consequences aren’t something that has to happen very often.
That’s not to say that you shy away from it. Teens will screw up. You’ll have to give them some kind of consequence. The goal is to only do so when necessary, and to do so skillfully.
Let’s quickly take a look at the three types of consequences.
- Natural: These are consequences you don’t have to implement. They naturally occur as the result of an action. The stove is hot. When I touch the stove, I get burned. It’s pouring the rain. When I go outside without an umbrella or rain gear, I get soaked. These consequences occur naturally, with no human intervention.
- Logical: A logical consequence is one you have to implement, but it’s connected to what occurred. I misuse the stove and catch something on fire. The logical consequence is that I may not use the stove without supervision. I use my phone to send bullying Facebook messages. The logical consequence is that my parents take my phone. These kinds of consequences are logically connected to your teen’s actions. When using logical consequences, teens are usually more readily able to understand and accept them.
- Illogical: These types of consequences are totally unconnected to a behavior. I say something rude to my parents, they take my phone. I come home with a bad grade, I can’t go to the dance on Friday night. These may be strong consequences in the sense that they are highly unpleasant, but they aren’t connected to the behavior, so they are less ideal because they are more likely to be taken as vengeful than sensible.
When you have to administer a consequence—and I know you will, perhaps often—do your best to keep it logical. This does far less damage to the sense of belonging, and may even enhance it. Your teenager will better understand the need for the correction, and that understanding will support their feeling of safety, security, and acceptance by you.
Occasionally, you may have to use an illogical consequence. Sometimes, there’s just no good way to connect a behavior to a consequence, and that’s OK. Using this once or twice when necessary isn’t a problem. Using it as the go-to consequence rarely works out well.
The issue with illogical consequences is that they make you look vengeful. Especially if you take away the same thing over and over again, or worse, you personally dislike the thing you’re taking away.
A lot of parents hate video games, and their children know that. If you’re taking away video games—the thing you already dislike—it looks like you’re coming up with ways to do something to your child. As soon as you look like you’re doing that, the sense of belonging that is so important is all gone.
Why Work So Hard on a Sense of Belonging?
Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, I know asking you to do it this way might be WAY more work.
So at least let me explain WHY this is so important.
Because we want them to listen to us, and we want them to take on our values. When a child feels a connection to a person passing on knowledge or ideas, when they feel positively regarded by that person, they are more likely to value what is being said.
Imagine this for a moment: Every single one of us has had a jerk boss we didn’t want to listen to. Take a minute to remember them. Someone who criticized everything you did. Whose demands were high and rewards were few. Who seemed to expect something from you that you weren’t able to give. And I bet you absolutely had NO sense of value for the words that come out of that person’s mouth, and you learned little from them.
Hopefully most of you have also had the opposite, an amazing boss, someone you trusted and felt valued by. Who focused on the positive. Who rewarded often and spoke constructively when a correction was necessary. When that person spoke, you listened. You learned. You felt like you were deeply valued, and we grew as a result.
If you can create this sense of “stellar” with your teenager, they will value your relationship. Not that you’ll know it. They’re going to act like they don’t. That’s how teenagers are. But keep being encouraging, keep being loving, keep being as positive as possible, even when they act out.
Sometimes you’ll have a hard time with this. If you get mad, that’s ok. It will happen. You’re human too.
When you get frustrated and angry, just get out of that as quickly as you can. Take a breather before you administer a consequence. Remain calm instead of yelling, screaming, or promising to ground them for life. Be calm.
Then go back to catching your child doing things right and taking an interest in them. When they feel valued, they’ll feel like they belong with their family, as well as with their peers. Their first growth need will be met.