Parenting teenagers has been a HUGE learning curve for me. My own teen years were hard – I often felt unseen, misunderstood, and alone. As a mom, more than anything I want to help my teens feel understood and connected, but doing this has required that I learn some new skills.
One of the biggest skills I have had to develop is attunement (learn more about what this skill is in these blogs from Jen and Lieza). Attuning with our children is giving them the gift of being seen, understood, and of knowing that they are not alone in what they are going through.
However, using this skill looks different with our teens than it did when they were younger. Gone are the days when we can sit them in our laps and snuggle with them in their sadness or fear. A hug, a kiss, or a sad face reflected back to them don’t quite cut it if I want my two teens to feel like I truly get them.
Children entering into the adult stage of maturity are learning to differentiate from us as they figure out what they think and believe. This process often involves them pushing against us, wanting space, or becoming argumentative. They need us to tune into them as much as ever, but for me, I have had to grow in order to be non-anxious and engage them without taking what they do and say (or don’t do and say) personally. Sometimes I do a great job, and sometimes I completely blow it. But here are some things I am learning:
Attuning when our teens are distant:
It’s tough to attune with our children when they are distanced and don’t want to share their emotions. I have found it helps to regularly communicate that I am glad to be with them and that I value who they are. This increases their sense of safety, making it easier for them to open up. Hanging out and having fun together also gets everyone’s relational circuits on, which can open the doorway to them sharing more about what is going on in their hearts.
Asking good questions and keeping antennas up for clues to how they are feeling is also helpful. When I hear an emotion, I will then reflect it back with words like, “It sounds like you feel really hurt by what your friend did.” Or I will try to put myself in their shoes and imagine how they might be feeling. I might say, “I could imagine that would be disappointing. Do you feel that way?”
Attuning when they don’t know how they feel:
One of our older kids regularly talks to us about life, but it is more informational than emotional. Again, here I need to keep my curiosity levels on and look for the emotions going on under the surface of their words. A question like, “Wow – that sounds like a big deal. How do you feel about that?,” gives them a chance to reflect not just on the facts but engage with their emotional state.
Tuning in without trying to fix things:
Tuning into my teens’ emotions requires that I let go of my need to fix things. Sometimes I want to solve their problems because they are in pain. Sometimes I want to give them advice because I see a flaw in how they are thinking or behaving. But none of that is helpful if I haven’t first tuned into how they are feeling.
Just the other week, my daughter got angry with me about something I did. I was so tempted to explain myself in an attempt to fix the situation. But she needed me to see how much I had hurt her and even to say that she was right (because the truth was, I had made a mistake). It wasn’t until I really tuned in, saw her, and validated her that our connection was restored and we could talk about what had happened.
Attuning when they treat us poorly:
Teenagers’ forms of communication can be rude and insensitive at times. I often feel tempted to shut down big feelings that my teens express in attempts to get them to behave well. But, the truth is, most of the times when I want to shut them down it is because their emotions are triggering anger, fear, and insecurities within myself. And if I am dealing with my own big emotions, it is going to be so hard for me to tune into theirs. For tips on how to engage with our older kids and tune in in these moments, check out one of my past blogs (note – this was actually written in reference to one of my teenagers).
Tuning in to who they are becoming:
Finally, in order to tune into my teens, I have to remember that they aren’t little kids anymore. I can’t truly see them until I, 1. recognize that they are entering adulthood, and 2. interact with them accordingly. This means letting go of who they were to discover who they are becoming. This is a tough road, but a very sweet one at the same time.
For more guidance in your parenting journey, check out 4 Habits of Raising Joy-Filled Kids. To build your own capacity to attune to your teenagers, I recommend reading The Joy Switch and implementing the exercises at the end of each chapter. Both books can be found at https://thrivetoday.org/ourworks/.