There’s an intense debate swirling around us as to the state of teenage-dom in today’s world. Is bullying an old thing that’s getting new attention? Or is it quantitatively or qualitatively worse? Are kids less resilient than ever before, or are the pressures just that much greater? Are they meaner to one another? Or is cruelty just more visible than it was before?
There could be some truth to all of this, or none of it, or some of it. Regardless, it seems pretty clear that the teen years are at least as tough as they always were, and more complicated to boot. One thing that is definitely different for today’s teens is the degree to which they are interconnected by social media. And that means that whatever is going on is harder to get away from. It used to be if something embarrassing happened at school, you could get clear when the bell rang at 3 and by the next day the new drama du jour would take precedence. Now, the horrors of the day are kept alive indefinitely by retweets, shares, likes, dislikes, and every other mechanism of social media longevity. Events—the good, the bad, and the ugly—are broadcast far and wide and spread like wildfire.
More than ever, teens need safe spaces. They don’t know enough to create safety for themselves by unplugging from that which is causing them distress. The allure of monitoring social media interactions (even when it’s a thorn in the side) lures teens into staying wired into a medium that may very well be causing them deep pain, like being unable to look away from a train wreck.
1. Spend some quality time with your teen on his/her terms, and yours
Treating your teen to something they love on their terms can be a great bridge and a way to create a safe and relaxing space. Suggest an outing on your time and dime, with the gentle caveat that you both will leave the phones in the car. Then you can both focus on each other, and even if your teen is – well, a distracted teen—they’ll know you care enough about focusing on them to leave your outside distractions behind as well.
2. Write your teen a real note or letter
No, it doesn’t have to be 1,000 words or more. In fact, they probably won’t read it if it is. But taking the time to handwrite your teen a note reminding them that you are proud of him/her, that you love him/her, or that you’re always there for him/her really sends the message that you care enough to find a pen, paper, and envelope, when text is so much more convenient.
3. Surprise your teen with an experience you can share
Teens are surrounded by a culture of material one-upmanship. Phones, fashions, cars, sports gear, scholarships, trips... there’s an arms race of stuff wherever they look. Help your teen reconnect with you and with some non-material goodness by digging into free experiences that aren’t about things or about being passively entertained. Go hiking or fishing, visit a museum or volunteer together.
4. Engage about something beyond your teen’s immediate environment
Use a short magazine or newspaper article to engage your teen on what he/she thinks about a world event or other important topic bigger than him/herself. Not as an opportunity to educate them, just as an opener to a meaningful dialogue about the world beyond their immediate concerns. Let them know you’re interested in what they think, genuinely, because you value him/her as a person and a global citizen.
5. Make sure you’re present when you’re with your teen
If you are responding to texts or emails while your teen is talking to you, you are sending the message that they are not worthy of your undivided attention. Very few things are a sucking chest wound, and chances are, you can respond to that text in 15 minutes just as well as you can right now. When you spend time with your teen, make sure your actions convey that you value your connection. When you are juggling your focus on your teen with umpteen other individuals who are trying to reach you, you are sending the message that they are just another ball up in the air of your busy day.
Your teen needs you more than ever. Even if nothing troubling is “going on” per se, you want your teen to feel connected enough to you that they will reach out if something does come up. By constantly tending to the connection on a regular basis, you are establishing important groundwork that will serve you well as a parent and your teen well as he/she matures and faces new challenges.
Julie K. Jones, Ph.D., LPC
Well Life Therapy, LLC