Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More
I had a conversation with a mother recently who asked me about her 17 year-old-son. She said he is a good kid at heart, but he shuts her and her husband out of his life most of the time. She said she has tried countless times to engage him but he puts up a wall around himself when he is home. She’s pretty sure he doesn’t do this with friends and is frustrated on how to connect with him.
The first assumption many parents make when faced with this situation is that they’ve done something wrong to create this behavior in their teen. Before you go down that path, let me try to put adolescent development into perspective and then I’ll offer some suggestions.
Straddling the line
First, adolescents are straddling the line between being dependent children and independent adults. You may have noticed that your teen sometimes can’t make up his mind between those two options. This is normal. It’s tough being a teenager, especially in this time period. The dominant message that the larger culture sends to teens is that they can be the masters of their own world. That philosophy seems to work well in teen-targeted television and film but not so well on the home front. We have a whole generation of teens who are masquerading as independent adults.
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Sure, your teen is excited about the opportunities that he sees opening up as he gets older. And it is good for you to give him age-appropriate autonomy to make some decisions about his life. But, it is a developmental myth that your son doesn’t need you. Don’t buy into this message, even if he is the one delivering it.
The truth is, your son needs a strong relationship with you (whether he believes it or not) to help guide him through these next few years of launching his life. Here are some suggestions of what you can do to help build that relationship stronger.
Tune into his emotional needs. Listen carefully to things he gets excited about, such as friends, video games, weekend plans, dates, etc. When you hear emotion, gently pursue his feelings. For example, say your son comes home talking about the latest video game all of his friends are getting. Instead of rolling your eyes or asking how he intends to pay for that new game, try asking (with sincerity) what he likes most about the game, what he finds challenging or exciting about how the game is played. You might even go as far as to ask him to show you how he plays it. You might find that he is much more engaged with you and that there is more to talk about.
Encourage discussion. At this age (late teens) there is no shortage of topics that can prompt a disagreement between parents and teens. So, knowing that tendency, take the high road. Delay stating your point of view and ask your teen to tell you theirs. For example, your teen says he wants to stay out an hour beyond the normal curfew. You could immediately say no or you could ask him to explain why he wants to stay out later. But, then take if further. You could turn it around and ask him to respond to this request as if he was the parent and you were the teen. This would give insight into his motive and perhaps prompt more discussion on whether staying out later is a wise choice. The idea is to engage him in new ways.
Look for opportunities to mingle with his friends. You can do this by making your home an appealing place for him to hang out with his friends. Have a movie night at your home, a cookout, a video game marathon, etc. This gives you an opportunity to build a friendly rapport with his friends and also gives you more to talk about. Peers, as you are well aware, become increasingly important to teens. What you are trying to do is make those peer relationships part of what happens in your home. This way your teen sees his friends as an extension of the family. He then doesn’t have to choose between friends and family.
Don’t be surprised if your first efforts at applying these suggestions are dismissed. Keep at it. Pursue your son. Persistence, when you know it is the right thing to do, usually has a big payoff in the end.