All parents know the struggle of needing to broach a hard subject with your teenager. It could be something serious and consequential, or one of those probing, private conversations that's awkward and uncomfortable, but no less necessary.
As clumsy and unprepared as we often feel for these talks--imagine what it's like for them when they need to come to us about something big. How hard must it be to take the initiative to tell us something that's been bugging them, something they know we won't like to hear, when the results are unknown.
It never feels good to hear from someone you love--someone you support and sacrifice a ton for--that they feel hurt, disappointed, or offended. We feel like our love and devotion to them is being challenged. But all relationships of substance have exchanges like these, and particularly with your adolescent son or daughter they are an opportunity to strengthen trust and connection.
It can seem to come out of the blue and even trigger an emotional response in us--but this is an opportunity you don't want to waste.
Here are some things to remember:
They're Showing You They Care About the Relationship
When anyone in our lives brings something to our attention that's bugging them, it can feel really negative. They might not choose to do it in a kind or gentle way. But they are making a move to keep the relationship going. Rather than sit on something and letting it fester (until it does more harm), they're choosing to make a risky revelation in the hopes of staying close to you.
Now it might not seem like that's their focus or their goal when it happens. Maybe the anger, resentment, or just the difficulty of the conversation is too overwhelming for them in the moment. Remember, a teen is still just learning how to communicate these things. We're adults and we still find it hard. We might have even modeled this sort of thing badly ourselves.
Give them some space to wobble around on the bike.
Your Response Shows Them How They're Valued
As I said, having something like this brought to us makes us feel like our love and devotion are being challenged. In the sudden sting we can make it all about us.
Every parent, to some degree, fears they are not a good one. This can make us defensive and cause us to react instead of respond. But when we do this, we express to the person that how we feel about ourselves is more important to us than what's happening for them in the relationship.
Prioritize the effort of seeing where they're coming from, and showing them their experience means something to you. You can always go back later and talk to them about their method and attitude of communication if that's also needed.
You're Modeling How to Do Conflict
Our kids watch us--very carefully. They often don't even know they're doing it. But particularly in an instance like this, our response is not only telling them about this relationship, it's giving them a guide map for addressing conflict in the future.
They'll no doubt need to address hurts and boundaries with someone down the road. How will they know a loving response from a toxic one?
And how do you hope they will respond when someone they care about raises an issue with them?
Let these questions guide you as you choose your next steps.
Mike Ensley, MA, LPCC, is a professional counselor for teens & adults in Loveland, CO.