Parent as Accessory

As parents, we want to be able to talk to our children: to give advice, to impart discipline, to encourage and challenge and teach them. As they become teenagers we may find that this is no longer as easy as it once was. We may even find that they don’t seem to want it. Our teenagers may become surly, evasive, and strangely quiet (at least around us). They may even seem to avoid conversation altogether. But recent research supports the notion that they still need us as much as ever.

There are a lot of resources for how to continue to talk to kids as they get older. One I can recommend highly is the book How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. But as valuable as it is to continue to make the effort–sometimes meeting them more than halfway–it is especially helpful to just be…hanging around.

A recent article in the New York Times is entitled, charmingly, “What Do Teenagers Want? Potted Plant Parents.”  It suggests that there is value in being present for our teenaged children no matter what signals we may be getting from them. In the article, Lisa Damour writes:

“Many parents feel that their adolescents hardly need them anymore. Teenagers often come and go on their own schedules, sometimes rebuff our friendly questions about their days, and can give the impression that interacting with the family is an imposition that comes at the cost of connecting, digitally or otherwise, with friends.

So here’s a complaint one might not expect to hear from teenagers: They wish their parents were around more often.”

It has long been known that it is important to an adolescent’s well-being for parents to be home when they return from school, and to share meals together if at all possible (as long as you don’t ask, apparently, “How was school?“). But as Damour explains, when you are home together it can be enough to be a physical presence in the room. “In other words, it’s great if you and your adolescent get along well with each other, but even if you don’t, your uneasy presence is better for your teenager than your physical absence.” Teenagers find comfort and safety in this presence, and if we are consistently around it is that much more likely that they will come to us when they need to.

In this, as in many other aspects, the emotional makeup of a teen is much like a toddler. Writes Damour, “Ideally, children use their parents as a safe and dependable base from which to explore the world and exert their autonomy. Indeed, studies tell us that securely attached toddlers quietly track their parents’ movements from room to room, even while carrying on with their own activities.”

So, it’s great to be a counselor or a wise elder or even a shoulder to lean on. But sometimes the best thing we can do is to just be an accessory. Who knows? Maybe eventually they’ll get curious and start pushing buttons.

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