Engaging With Your Teen

When your son reached adolescence, his brain changed and is continuing to change. In childhood he was a blank slate for you to write on, but now…he’s got a mind of his own. For the first time those synapses and neurons are present which make him capable of “thinking for himself”. I’m not saying his thinking is extremely sophisticated, but it is strong enough to develop his own sense of autonomy and begin to explore outside of the assumptions he grew up with. 

That being the case, as a parent, telling him what to think and believe is likely to fall flat. As a child he was anxious to hear your opinions and he assumed you were correct. As an adolescent he seems uninterested in what you think and when you offer your thoughts it can feel threatening to him. Why? Because this whole developmental phase is largely geared toward him becoming his own person. 

Sometimes when you tell a teenager what to think or believe, they might even go the other direction and believe the opposite! Why? Because they want to be their own person. So if mom thinks the sky is blue, then I’m going to believe it’s purple just so I can be different from my parent (my own person). This makes sense to them subconsciously. The neurons and synapsis haven’t matured to the point that they can go a little deeper and realize that “If I’m just thinking the opposite of mom and dad, then I’m not really my own person, I’m still controlled by mom and dad…” or “If I just believe what my friends think instead of what mom and dad think, then I’m not really being my own person still…”  That level of sophisticated thinking will hopefully come some day.

So what to do as a parent if telling them what to think is not helping and maybe even hurting? Well, here are some ideas to try:

  • Not all areas are off limits. Your thoughts on religion or politics or societal issues may not be welcomed. Maybe they are – there is not a one size fits all. Follow your teen’s lead. Ask them if they are interested in your thoughts. Sometimes just the question and having the option of saying “no” opens them up. But even if they are not open to your thoughts on these topics, they often will be influenced by your thoughts on themselves, their identity, their specialness, etc (even if they say they aren’t interested). Try staying off hot topics for a season and instead write a letter that expresses your unconditional positive regard for them:   “You are unique. You are unique in God’s heart. There is no one like you. No one has the talents, skills, and abilities that you have. No one has the experience that you have. No one can do the things that you can do for the world. No one can achieve the destiny that God has for your life – except you. And no one can replace you in God’s heart. No one could ever be so special to God that God wouldn’t still yearn for your company. You are incredibly important to God. You are adorable and treasured in God’s sight. God loves you just the way you are. God thinks you are awesome, yet God is eager to help you become even more – more joyful, more contented, more mature, and more blessed. You are uniquely qualified and prepared for each day when God is living in you and you are living inside God’s love.”

Do you see how this won’t come across preachy but encouraging? The teen may not know how to respond to something so focused on them and so intimate. They may squirm because it’s uncomfortable, but that’s ok. Maybe an email would make it easier, because then they are not expected to know what to say next. 

  • Ask questions more than make statements. Nurture those developing neurons and synapses by making the teen think for themselves. By asking good questions you can be a part of their thinking process. But heed this warning: “Resist the Right Reflex”. I’m borrowing that phrase from Motivational Interviewing and it means resist the temptation to fix their thinking. When their thinking is off, you have to be careful not to jump in there too quickly. If you do, you become a threat to autonomy and you get tuned out. Instead, ask another question, but one that doesn’t come across like you’re trying to bait them to show them they’re wrong. Or you can make a statement that sounds like you yourself are thinking instead of telling. The main point is don’t come across like a parent or an authority trying to make them think like you. 

  • Show genuine curiosity for who your developing adult is becoming. What do they think? Why do they think this? How sophisticated has their thinking become? Try sitting through a whole conversation without one correction or judgment, just genuine interest in them and their own opinions. Some good questions to get this started: What are your thoughts on the role of social media and how do you think it’s affecting society? How do you feel my spiritual beliefs have worked out for me? What do you think about President Biden? What do you think about the things they teach you at school? REMEMBER: no fixing. If you can get through one conversation without fixing, maybe they will actually ASK you what you think. If they do that then you have them on the right side of interaction. They are automatically more open because they had to ask for it. But don’t start your response in a dogmatic way, or it’ll revert back to them being defensive and closed off. Instead try stating your opinion in a humble attitude like this, “Well, there’s really no way for anyone to know for sure, but the best that I can tell it seems to me like….” Be ready for them to push back on whatever you say. They are not inviting an argument. They are developing their thinking by pushing back, and you are getting to be part of it. Stay safe. 

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