What can we as parents do to guide our teenagers as they grow into adulthood? That is what our goal is, isn't it? To help and guide our children to become well-adjusted mature adults--adults who will take their place in family, church and society; to serve God and their neighbour, each person serving with his or her God-given gifts and unique personality. Unique personalities--because whether we have two children or ten, there are not two of them the same. So how do we communicate with our children, especially when they are teenagers?
I like to draw your attention to two aspects of the communication with our teenagers. The first aspect is listening. Do we listen to them, and if we do, how do we listen? Do we understand the hidden messages? The second aspect is our response to their message.
But before we look at those two aspects of our communication, let's take a look at who those creatures are with whom we try to communicate, and what they have to cope with. Once we had a cuddly little boy and a cute little girl. Now we have a boy who is slouched in the chair and a girl who uses the floor of her room as clothes closet, jewellery box, purse and book storage, all at the same time. And both boys and girls do so many dumb things. They never hear what you say; all you get is a grunt or a sassy remark and all they want to eat is junk food.
These people are the adolescents, teenagers, who are caught between childhood and adulthood. They are embarrassed to be connected to childhood, yet it feels safe and comfortable. At the same time they want to be adults, although they are afraid of the risks involved. So it is not surprising that teenagers tend to do dumb things. There are just too many changes to cope with. There are four major areas of our lives, the physical, mental or intellectual, social, and spiritual. All four of these areas must develop and work in balance for an individual to become a whole person. Teenagers are confused about each one of these major areas, and our society only adds to that confusion.
Take for instance the social area of our life. The amount of information that comes our way is staggering. Not only a staggering amount, but there are numerous conflicting messages which even confuse adults, let alone young people. For instance, there is a strong message to "Say No To Drugs," but a few minutes later there is the announcement that drug users in the big cities will be supplied with free needles, to try to prevent infection with hepatitis or aids. We tell them that sex is for marriage only, but we install condom dispensers in the schools. We teach them that God instituted marriage and that a marriage commitment is for life. Yet, divorce is the order of the day. T.V. shows present sex as entertainment and extra-marital affairs as a cure for unhappiness.
Parents and teachers try to install respect for authority and property of others. But again, T.V. shows are constantly presenting violence, vandalism and disrespect for any authority. What about adult conversation? How can we expect young people to have respect for authority when probably 95% of our conversations about any level of government is negative? Police are criticised, parents and teachers are blamed for the ills of our children, not to mention pastors and elders in the church.
In this kind of social environment, teenagers have to develop their values and beliefs. Much of what they hear and see does not make much sense to them, due to those conflicting messages. Teenagers tend very much to think in black and white. Something is either right or it is wrong.
So the teenagers begin to question everything they took for granted when they were children. This questioning and arguing is a normal part in the development of their own identity. With that come messy rooms and dragging their feet. By the way, to my knowledge no one has ever died from living in a messy room.
Now how do we listen to our teenagers? I believe, and others do as well, that empathic listening is the main part of communication with our teenagers. That is, listening from their perspective. As adults we should be able to do that, for after all, we went through the same stage.
Do we hear that hidden message, "I want to be me," when, the day after we spent $100.00 for a new jacket, Suzie is ready to leave for school wearing Dad's old coat, which is four sizes too big for her? Or Steve walks in, all excited, and says, "Dad, listen, I was over at my friends..." and you keep on reading your paper. Steve tries again and says, "Dad..." You reply: "Yes, I hear you," but you continue to read. Steve gets the message, "Don't bother me with your silly stuff."
Empathic listening is paying full attention to what is being said, and to try to understand the meaning of what is said. Someone called it "listening with the third ear."
How often don't we have our answer ready before the teenager is half finished talking? But then we have not really listened, and we only hear rebellion, disrespect, disobedience, arrogance and indifference. Our response will then be accordingly, which usually is a lecture, or it becomes a heated argument. Such a response, when it becomes the norm, will eventually close all channels of communication.
How should we respond to the messages teenagers send us? Our response sends a powerful message to them. Listening in itself is already a response. When we listen with empathy, we send the message that they are important to us, that they are worthwhile. They feel respected and they feel that their opinions are important to us.
When we do not really listen, we send the opposite message. They feel that what they think is not important to us. They feel like an object, which is only worthwhile when it performs in blind obedience according to our wishes. That feeling may be a distorted feeling, nevertheless to them it is real, and it is an obstacle in the development of their identity and self-image.
When we listen with empathy to our teenagers, it does not mean that we agree with whatever they say or do. But we have shown them that we care. The teenager who feels that we care will be receptive to our help and guidance. I say help and guidance, because adolescence is a developmental stage, which no one can skip. It is the transition from childhood to adulthood. In that transition they must learn to become interdependent. Teenagers want to become independent but they have a tendency to go overboard. They must learn that people depend on one another. That means among other things that we cannot always have our own way. In that learning process they need to make mistakes. Helping and guiding our teenagers includes allowing them to make mistakes. And (not to forget) allowing them to take responsibility for their behaviour, also for their mistakes.
Helping and guiding also includes gradually giving them more responsibility as they go from early teens to late teens. Allow them to do things differently from the way you did them.
Another very important aspect of our response to our teenagers is sharing. With sharing I don't mean something like "If I had talked to my dad like that, I wouldn't have been able to sit for a week," or "What are you complaining about, we never had things like that, we had to work our butt off. With sharing I mean to tell our children some of our own experiences when we were their age. Sharing the good times as well as the not so good. When we share some of our own life experiences from our own teenage years, early marriage years, and present day situation, we create in our young people a feeling of a kindred spirit with us, a sense of belonging that we only find in a family relationship. Share with them some of your own spiritual struggles. Young people have spiritual struggles as well. God is in control, but look at what is happening all around us. Again, all those contradictory messages, and God doesn't seem to do anything about it. Let us share honestly with our teenagers that we sometimes are confused as well, but that nevertheless our trust is in God, because He is faithful.
When I think about parent/teenager communication I also think about the book of Proverbs. In the book of Proverbs we have, I believe, a father's response after empathic listening to his children. We read over and over again, "My son," which we also may read as "my daughter." Chapter 1:8 says, "My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother." Verse 9 is an explanation of what the consequences will be, "For they will be graceful ornaments on your head." Verse 10 states, "My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent," and then follows again what the consequences will be of wrong and sinful behaviour. Again in chapter 2:1, "My son, if you receive my words," and verse 5, "then you will understand the fear of the Lord." These two words, "my son" or "my daughter" give us the feeling that they come from a deep love for his children. There is no authoritarian attitude, no threat, "do this or else," but rather a persuasive tone, leaving freedom of choice, freedom to make mistakes.
Raising children, and especially teenagers, is challenging, but it can be very rewarding. It is a God-given task, which, I believe, comes before anything else. Yes, it requires time, but it is time well spent, because we are raising the children God has given us. God has made those children, to become adults in His service, to His glory. Therefore, they are worth all the energy we have to give. As Christians we know that we do not have to do it alone. We may go to the Lord with and for our teenagers. "The Lord is near to all who call upon him" (Ps.15:18a).