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Parenting is difficult even when you are doing a good job at it!

16, July 2020
Parenting is difficult even when you are doing a good job at it!

I am often asked about how parents can stay connected to teenagers when common interests are missing.  Child Psychologist, Michelle Mitchell and others specialise in dealing with Tweenagers and Teenagers and some of their work is most fascinating.

There is no doubt that common interests easily set the foundation for connection. They provide a beautiful backdrop for meaningful conversations and an opportunity for memories to be built. But it’s very important to recognise that common interests, while convenient, don’t automatically lead to connection; and it is possible for a connection to be maintained, even when common interests are missing.

It is possible that your teenager doesn’t feel bothered by your differences in the same way you do. They may have always wanted to roll their eyes at you and laugh at your dorky clothes.  Those differences are, in themselves, what memories of being young are made of. 

What they do care about is feeling accepted and valued for who they are becoming. They care about being seen, heard and finding their own place in the world.  That’s why you can maintain a beautiful, evolving and healthy connection with a teenager by doing two things – highlighting sameness and champion differences.  The two working together enables us to hold our children with one hand and let go with the other. They enable us to stand close to them while releasing them into the world; and they create a way to whisper belonging and champion autonomy.

Here are six stay-connected strategies for parents who don’t share common interests with their teens:

  • Know the end goal.  Teenagers are extreme, and so are some of their interests. The only filter you need is SAFETY and WELLBEING. Let SO MANY of your other preferences slide. Remember that every new interest and idea will lead them one step closer to their adult self – EVERY SINGLE. ONE. Our ability to champion those small steps is so important for their resilience.
  • Vocalise sameness. Difference threatens to overshadow sameness, and in the absence of any common ground, parents and teenagers may feel disconnected.  That’s why we need to intentionally notice small similarities. Comments like you and I both love our eggs for breakfast, or you and I both like to sleep in late, all reinforce our similarities. If you are deliberate about connecting the dots, you will notice how many dots there actually are.
  • Support difference.  As humans, we tend to be afraid of and shut down difference (and anything else we don’t understand). Our body language, if not our actual words, can often show our hesitation. I suggest that you are conscious of this while parenting a teenager. They will come up with lots of underdeveloped, immature and momentary interests and ideas which you will have to opportunity to support, or not.  When you are tempted to screw up your nose in judgement or check out with disinterest, remember that your reaction to them will answer questions like – Will my parents love me if I am different than they are?  Do they believe I can do things on my own?  Do they see me as a capable adult?
  • Give more than your wallet. Parents commonly contribute money (and time transporting them) to teen’s interests.  However, consider going one step further. Consider getting involved with your whole heart. This will mean you have to step outside of your COMFORT ZONE and become a part of their world.  Play a game of Fortnite, a mountain climb or a late-night messy cooking session might not be your preference, but it can communicate volumes to them. It says, “I CHOOSE YOU over comfort.”   
  • Reinforce that you get them. At the core of connection is the feeling that someone deeply “gets you”. Try saying things like, ‘I knew you were going to say that.’ Even though you may get an eye roll or a snappy statement back, you have reinforced that your understanding of them runs deep. 
  • Use the mundane. The mundane of family life can be used as a foundation for connection. It’s an uninteresting common bond I know, but it’s a good fall back. Remember these three things – food, water and shelter are common to everyone. One example that comes to mind is a parent and teenager’s common need to travel in the car. The long drives to friend’s houses, the late-night pick-ups, the music playlists, and sports practises are often the place where parents stay connected.  Turn off the radio, mobile phones and talk about their day, their friends, their likes and dislikes.

Inevitably our teen’s seasonal interests like loud music, gaming and endless socialising will come to an end.  At the end of the day, all that will matter is that you were a part of it. Your interest in THEM is far more important than your common interest.

It’s highly likely that we hold onto connection during the teenage years, genuine common interests are very likely to emerge again. (For example, mothers often find that one of the joys of being a grandma is having a common interest and stronger bond with their daughter.)  The teenage years are often an intense, but a short season, so hang in there for the long haul.  Everything evolves in time.

Go gently everyone.

Peter McMahon

Head of Students

Head of Physical Education and Outdoor Education.

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