When a teenager seems to be pushing his parents away, they may think that he doesn’t want their affirmation—or perhaps that he doesn’t deserve affirmation from them. But what children need more than anything else, at any age, is for their parents to convey to them over and over again, both in words and in actions, I delight in you, and I am thrilled that you’re my child. As you’re probably all too aware, mothers and fathers today have less time to devote to raising children than their parents did. One unfortunate consequence of longer work weeks and the increase in dual-income families is that parents and children spend ten to twelve fewer hours together per week than they did in 1960. When parents and children become disconnected from one another, cracks can form in the family foundation. According to Dr. Robert Blum, making the most of what time they do share can compensate for the lack of it, for “quality overrides quantity in importance.”
Let’s define “quality time.” To some parents it’s weekend family outings to an amusement park or the movies, when in fact it describes any moment of closeness, affection and connection between you and your youngster. The setting could be raking leaves together, jogging, playing chess, fishing, setting the table or shopping. Major family expeditions, as fun as they are, aren’t necessarily conducive to communication. Every exchange doesn’t need to be serious or deep, incidentally; the “quality” we refer to lies in the quality of your attention.
Family members sometimes seem to pass each other like the proverbial ships in the night. Make the effort to squeeze in quality time whenever you can. Perhaps you’re driving your daughter to ballet practice. Instead of sitting in silence, half-listening to the news, turn off the radio and use the time to chat. What could be more interesting than what’s going on in your teenager’s life?
Simple Ways That Say “You’re Special to Me”
What teenagers want most of all from their parents, says Dr. Blum, “is their psychological availability.” As part of the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health, which he coauthored, the young participants were asked, “How do your parents show you they care?”
“The kids said they do it by remembering what goes on in their lives. Remembering that they had a history test last Tuesday and asking how they did. Remembering that they went out with Jimmy—not Sammy—last night, and asking how the date went. Remembering the names of their friends when they call or come over, and not asking, ‘Who’s that?’ even though they’ve seen that friend half a dozen times.”
Their grumbled protests to the contrary, most kids secretly want their parents to attend special events in their lives such as school plays, parent-teacher conferences, sporting events and recitals. And when that’s not possible, it’s a good idea to line up other adults who can stand in for you in a pinch: aunts, uncles, grandparents, close friends—anyone who has a meaningful relationship with your youngster.
“When my daughter was in elementary school,” Dr. Renée Jenkins recalls, “I had a group of people I could depend on. If there were seven important events to attend, I could usually make two of them, and her dad could go two times. The other three were spread among her godmother, her godmother’s son and her aunt.”
Be Available Even When You're Not Home
With more mothers working outside the home, so-called “latchkey kids” are no longer an anomaly of American life, they are the norm. With a little creativity on our part, youngsters who come home from school to an empty house can still feel that we’re accessible to them.
Want to warm the heart of even the most outwardly jaded teenager? Leave a note on the refrigerator that says, HOPE YOU HAD A GREAT DAY AT SCHOOL. I’LL BE HOME AROUND 5:30. LOVE YOU, MOM. Thanks to technology, we can be available by phone, fax, e-mail and pager. If possible, set aside ten minutes each afternoon to check in with your child and inquire about her day.