Should I be friends with my teenager?

A family psychologist this oft-asked question by parents of teens

Women with a teenager

In my role as a clinical psychologist and a speaker, I have spoken to hundreds of parents and teens and there is one question that comes up repeatedly from parents all over the world. That question is “Should I be friends with my teenager?”

Parents are confused about this issue because while they feel they will get closer to their teenage kids if they act like friends, they are also concerned they will lose their authority as parents.

Friends can’t be authority figures

I understand parents’ apprehensions. I am also aware that most parents simply want the best for their teens. I must tell you now where I stand on this matter. Parents should NOT be friends with their teens.

Teens tell me regularly that they want their parents to be parents and their friends to be friends. Teens are often embarrassed when parents dress and act like teenagers. They need their parents to be authority figures in their lives and to set limits and rules, which cannot be done by someone who behaves as a friend. It is understandable that parents want to be close to their teens and have their teens open up to them. But a parent does not need to be a friend for this to happen. I have heard of more than one parent who has got drunk with their teenage child in an attempt to create a friendship and grow close. This is unacceptable because the child will get all the wrong messages from the parent.

Teens want their parents to be parents and their friends to be friends

There are even instances of divorced mothers who ask their daughters for dating advice. This puts the teens in an awkward position and results in role reversal. Teens are not mature enough to advise their parents; nor should they be put in this role prematurely. Another thing I repeatedly hear about is parents confiding in their teens about their partner. This too puts the teens in a difficult and untenable position. Parents should discuss adult issues with their own friends; not their kids. Teens do best with parents who are both authority figures and nurturing. They need structure and love. Teens do not do well with excessively permissive or authoritarian parents. They thrive with loving parents who are not afraid to set boundaries and say no to ensure their teens’ safety. And parents must be comfortable tolerating their teens’ anger because this is a volatile age with raging emotions; but I can assure you that they will recover from it fairly quickly.

Getting teens to open up

So, if being friends with your teens is not the way to get close to them you are probably wondering how to get them to talk to you. For this, I am going to share the following secrets:

  1. Teens respond best to non-direct requests for information. Instead of asking “How was the party?’ try asking “how was the drive?” This is more oblique and should eventually get them talking about what you really want to know. Teens like to control the rate and pace of information that they give you.
  2. Try your best to remain calm while your teen is speaking to you. If you overreact, they will think that you can’t handle things, and I promise that they will stop talking to you.
  3. Don’t interrupt teens when they are talking to you. Teens complain to me all the time that their parents cut them short. Your goal is to listen and get the information, right?
  4. Be available to your teen. Teens grumble about their parents not being accessible; while parents tell me that they are always there for their kids. The problem is that parents are distracted by their cell phones and other technology, so the teens perceive that the parents are not really present in the moment. Provide opportunities when you can focus exclusively on your teens. Consider taking a walk or a drive with your teens, which will provide ample ways to unwind, both for you and them.
  5. Try to not talk negatively about your teens’ friends. When you talk about their friends, they feel that you are talking about them.
  6. And finally, do your best to be non-judgemental.

A version of this was first published in the January 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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