The Challenges of Parenting Teens: Finding the Right Words and Balance

Tonight my heart was crushed as my 17-year old daughter confessed to me she had cried not once but twice to two separate family members while we were together at a family birthday gathering. I was there and I didn’t know it happened until she told me.

I had sensed that she was off all day and tried several times directly and indirectly to connect, seeking to comfort her, lend an ear, offer a hug, but was stonewalled at every turn, in the hurtful way only a teenager can do. 

It stings when you’re not the one your child comes to for relief. 

As a parent, I am often at a loss for words. ( Photo Credit: Susan Connelly)

We parents often search for the right words

As parents of teens we’re often trying to find the right words, treading on shifting sand, aware there are unsafe pockets where one misstep will grab you by the ankles and sink you to your ears. Our identity is all wound up and co-mingled with our kids. This is why it hurts us so much when they hurt and why we’re so vested in their successes and disappointments. 

We’re quite literally strapped into the roller coaster with them, being bucked around in our seat at every high, low and sharp turn; blindfolded and clueless as to what lies around the next corner. We wear our naked unprotected hearts outside of our bodies, holding our breath when they fall and exhaling only when we know they are on safe ground. 

We embody their achievements as if they were our own successes and carry the weight of their failures as ballast penance on our backs. We worry there’s one right and an infinite number of wrong ways to parent and that even with our eye on the ball we’re screwing it up; that, somehow, our children’s success is dependent upon us saying and doing exactly the right thing at every turn. 

What an absolute set up for failure.

In parenting, I often get it wrong

I often get it wrong (or at least it feels that way in the moment). 

Routinely I grouse at my husband, Sean, whom we affectionately call Flat Stanley (a nod to his leveled range of expressed emotion), for his keen ability to cut through muddy waters with just a few carefully selected phrases. 

“Stanley” is the Professor of Word Economy to my Professor of Storytelling. What takes me paragraphs, he says in three words.

One particularly stressful time, after pouring into my daughter for what seemed days, a litany of every wise word of encouragement, advice and unconditional love I could muster, he simply stopped by her room one night as she was heading off to sleep, hugged her and whispered in her ear, “you deserve better;” three words that made her feel seen and heard in a way my measured and thought-out paragraphs could not. 

We parent differently than our own parents did

I come by my extra-wordiness in parenting honestly. 

I was raised in the 1970s and 80s. Like many kids of that era, we knew deep down in our bones that the answers “life’s not fair” and “because I said so” were conversation-enders. Full stop. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. 

We respected it because we had to, not because we agreed with, co-signed or understood it. When we became parents we flipped that cultural parenting norm a full 180 degrees from how we were parented. 

We said, “I’ll see your ‘life’s not fair’ and ‘because I said so’ and raise you an infinite amount of time and space to express yourself, priority consideration in every family decision we make and as a bonus, adorable color-coordinated sippy and snack cups filled with all your favorites whenever we leave the house for even 5 minutes. 

Put more acutely, the less we felt heard and seen as children, the more we listen and over explain as adults; the more we’re in our kids’ weeds, tethered to their highs and lows.

My friend Sarah calls this dichotomy of generational parenting approaches “opposite sides of the same coin.”

The crux of the problem is that neither approach works. 

The former (“life’s not fair”) feels dismissive and the latter (Explain-o-rama 2000) is so wrapped up in the parent’s need to be validated, seen and heard that any interaction with a child runs the risk of becoming about the parent feeling good/better/more comfortable/less sad about the situation; not the child. 

Neither approach succeeds in holding space for the child. What a kick in the pants.

I’m never sure when to push or when to step back and give space 

I feel most confident parenting in the extremes when it is more obvious what is the best way to respond. Unfortunately, most parenting doesn’t happen in the clear margins. It happens in the messy gray middle where mostly you’re just flying by the seat of your pants, writing and editing the homespun manual as you go and praying it all works out. 

It’s never clear when to keep pushing or when to step back and give space. It’s a judgment call and sometimes I get it wrong.  

We need to realize that our children exist fully outside of us

At lunch the other day, l found myself stalling to broach with my daughter a topic that had been on my heart. Moving the soup with my spoon from side to side in my bowl, my eyes averted from direct gaze into hers, I looked for an opening, conflicted whether it was my place to bring it up at all. 

I knew one wrong word could shut down the whole conversation and that bad feelings on both sides would ensue. And yet, the worry that she was hurting wouldn’t loosen its grasp on me. 

We’re not to be faulted for caring so much, of course. Our attachment is primal, rooted in biology and our need to cling to, and seek approval from, others for survival. Where we trip up is when we neglect to see (and honor) that our children exist fully outside of us, in wholly independent bodies with minds and feelings and experiences of their own.

They, not we, own the rights to the master key that will at all times unlock the safe room of their hearts. They get to choose who they let in and when. 

As our daughter leaves for college our parenting must change

My oldest daughter leaves for college this coming fall. We’re quickly nearing the point where our invitation as parents to be “in the room” is no longer required courtesy. Our time of witnessing her hardships and missteps in real-time and being there to comfort, course correct and encourage her back on the path is almost done. 

As such, our approach needs to shift; away from trying to troubleshoot her pain, and towards empowering her to look within for the answers, for the next right step. As parents, we do this best when we put our fancy speeches aside and just sit, listen and hold that sacred space.

Sweet spot of parenting is in encouraging our children to be self reliant

After 17 years of being a mom, I’m learning the magic, the sweet spot, of parenting, is in building and encouraging in our children’s self awareness and self reliance, so that no matter their distance from home base, they will always know they can trust their inner compass.  

  • What makes you happy? 
  • How do you feel loved?
  • What does joy feel like in your body?
  • How do you know when you feel sad/anxious/fearful/overwhelm? 
  • What does that feel like in your body?  
  • How do you show up in the world when you feel that way?
  • What do you notice in you when you’re struggling?
  • What is in your locus of control to change when you feel that way?
  • Who are the people in your circle you can reach out to when you feel sad/anxious/overwhelmed?

It is not our job nor is it in service to our children to always try to take away their hard. It ‘is’ our job when they are struggling to attend to the feelings that come up in us so that we can be aware of what baggage and biases we may be bringing to the table and then use that wisdom to focus on healing ourselves. 

Ultimately, if we’re encouraging our children to fly, we need to build within them the belief system that they intrinsically have all that it takes to soar. Doing so gives them a solid ground from which to launch and meets our desire to be in connection by maintaining a sacred space that is always there for those special occasions when we, the parent, are the only salve that can dress the wound.

More Great Reading:

Parenting Teens Is a Delicate Dance of Holding On and Letting Go

About Susan Connelly

Susan Connelly is a trained Life Coach actively working towards creating space for the expression of her authentic voice through writing and meaningful connections with others. She lives in Maryland with her husband and three children where she delights in her roles as cheerleader, coach and encourager and loves to travel, bike ride, take scenic walks and stand-up paddleboard with her family.

Susan believes genuine connection with others is her sacred work and she dreams of using writing to synthesize her unique experience and perspective to help others find their own nuggets of truth, hope and healing wisdom that may be employed in their journeys to experiencing the best in themselves.

She strives for her writing to reflect the truth, humor and wisdom that she sees in the world as informed by her core perspective that not only are we all deeply connected but, more importantly, we are more the same than we are different.

Read more posts by Susan

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