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What Your Teen Wants To Hear From You

Bonnie Harris


Parents of teens tear their hair out wondering what happened to that child who cooperated at least some of the time, listened once in awhile, and adjusted to the limits set some of the time. Now an attitude seems to replace that child and an alien has taken over.

The thing is, your child is the same child, but she is growing up and pushing out. She must separate from her dependency on you. She must make decisions on her own, take responsibility for herself, and navigate among her world of peers.

The problem is she’s often not very nice about it and is not terribly capable of doing a good job at any of it.

Developmentally your teen’s ability to foresee the consequences of her choices, plan things out, and decide what is truly in her best interest is not quite in keeping with her desire to be independent and have fun now. In other words, her brain is not yet developed enough to support the independence she wants and may be fighting you for.

Meanwhile, you are treading the waters of this new territory with its new and often frightening daily developments. You find evidence that your teen is experimenting in all directions. From vaping candy flavored chemicals (which “may or may not contain nicotine”) to smoking or injecting all kinds of drugs, putting homework and grades at a low priority, and getting few hours of sleep, your mental state is fragile at best.

Taking advantage of the few minutes you see your teen, it’s hard not to lecture, nag about chores, and express your fears in anger and frustration. But that is the last thing your child needs from you.

Even though it looks and feels like your teen has discarded you, this behavior must cue you to its deeper meaning. As much as he wants to run his own life, he is scared of doing so. Even though he thinks he’s ready, he knows he’s not.

Yes, he would rather be with his friends. Yes, he cares nothing about helping out. Yes, he treats you rudely. But he still needs to know you are there. He may hate what you have to say, but he wants you around more than you probably are.

Lisa Damour (New York Times Dec. 2016) coined the label, the potted plant parent. Her research found that “…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.” Teens psychological health increases when parents are home before and after school and at dinnertime. Damour explains, “…parenting of a teenager may sometimes take the form of blending into the background like a potted plant.”

There is never a time in a child’s life when connection is not needed and wanted. It’s just that the nature of the connection must change alongside your rapidly changing adolescent.

You have the choice of reacting just like your teen ~ or being the grownup, understanding that her behavior is a clue to deeper needs, and not taking that behavior personally so you can remain the influence your teen desperately needs.

In order to maintain that influence, trust must be present.

Trust does not mean you are going to overlook the money she took from your wallet. Trust means that you see the impulsive mistake she made that must be amended — but you see a mistake, not an indictment of character. Trust does not mean you ignore the pot smoking happening in his room that must be addressed and handled— but you understand this behavior is filling a hole/a hurt that is present.

When you take your child’s behavior at face value, it becomes difficult to see the whole child always present underneath the charade that most teens try out before discovering who they are.

The quality of your connection with your teen is the #1 preventive measure of all you fear. Teens who hurdle the obstacles of adolescence relatively unscathed and come out the other end with resilience are those who feel connected with their parents.

So do your best to remain the grownup, stay the high ground and give your teen the connection she needs even when snark is her current language of choice.

Here are a few examples of connective language that can penetrate the hard shell:

  • “You know, what I really admire about you is your ability to….”
  • “I know you have what it takes.”
  • “I trust you can figure this out. Would you like to bounce some ideas around?”
  • “You don’t have to know what you want. Sometimes life is just confusing for awhile.”
  • “I love you no matter what.”
  • “I know you know you made a mistake. I trust that you know what will feel best inside to make the amends necessary.”
  • “I’m sure you know I don’t approve of what you want. I also know that I cannot make you do what I want. You are the one who needs to decide what is right.”
  • “You have such a good head on your shoulders and you care about yourself and your future, so I trust you will figure this out.”
  • “I have to say no to that. My job is still to be your parent and sometimes I have to say things that make you mad.”
  • “I don’t like to be spoken to that way. I will be in the kitchen when you can tell me what it is you want.”
  • “That’s not okay with me. I get it that you want x. I want z. How can we work this out so we both get what we want?”
  • “Of course you wish you could call all the shots and make the decisions. I did too when I was your age. Unfortunately you still have boring parents to deal with for a few more years. Bummer.”

When you react in anger and fear, you push your teen further away. Your problems only invoke his anger and fear. To reach a middle ground, you need to be clear and firm but not reactive. He needs your constant presence and understanding that the territory he’s navigating is filled with potholes. He doesn’t want you to know when he falls into them But he does want to know you’re there when he gets out.

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Bonnie Harris

Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed. is the director of Connective Parenting and is an international speaker and parent educator. She has taught groups and coached parents privately for thirty years. Bonnie is the author of two books, "When Your Kids Push Your Buttons" and "Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With”. You can learn more about her work at or follow her on Facebook