03 Sep Preserving Intimacy with Teenagers
“Dear Dr. Hanson,
Our twelve-year-old daughter is still talking to us, but we’re worried how long that’s going to last. Her friends all seem to hate their own parents. They talk about them like they are overbearing idiots, to be avoided at all costs, barely worth a glance, let alone a conversation. The contempt these kids have for adults is mind-boggling. We’ve always been able to talk about things with Jesse, and I’d hate to see that go.”
In my previous column, I discussed “Preventing Adolescence . . . Well, Sort Of.” Obviously, adolescence cannot be literally prevented, nor should it be: it is a time of great psychological development, and many of its troubling aspects are actually necessary in order for teenagers to break away from their parents and learn important lessons for adulthood.
Nonetheless, the teen years are usually challenging at best for most families. I think that the key problems of adolescence are isolation, conflict, and mediocrity. The best way to minimize these problems is to lay a foundation prior to adolescence of loving intimacy, effective problem-solving, and developing internal motivation.
In this column we will explore how parents can nurture an intimacy with their kids that can survive the (usually) wild ride of adolescence.
Attracting to the positive is better than prohibiting the negative
There is a famous Hindu story about Krishna, a great spiritual teacher and window to the Divine, and the Gopis, who were ordinary herdswomen. One day the Gopis see Krishna on the banks of the river where they are bringing their cattle to water. Krishna plays music and dances, and the Gopis are utterly captivated. They feel the love and happiness and wisdom available in relationship with Krishna. They want those qualities in their lives so much that they leave their cattle — symbolizing their primitive passions and mundane concerns — to joyously follow Krishna. He did not have to tell them to rise above their problematic desires, or discipline their minds, or stay away from bad company. He simply embodied a positive alternative which attracted people without a struggle toward a better way to live.
As parents, we often spend considerably more time trying to prohibit our children from the negative than attracting them to the positive. Certainly there is a place for prohibitions; I’m sure I say “no,” in one way or another, to our six and nine year old children a dozen times each day. But just saying “no” has its problems: it’s wearing on parents and children, it does not tell kids what they should do, and as kids get older, it’s harder and harder to stop them from doing things they are bound and determined to do.
Teenagers in particular can move into a position in which it is more important to them to assert their autonomy than to pay the price of violating parental prohibitions. If all parents can do is say “no,” your options get very limited when teenagers don’t care if you take away their allowance or driver’s license, or ground them.
Attracting teenagers into honest and satisfying relationships with their parents is good in its own right. And it gives parents much more leverage in influencing their kids in positive directions. If adolescents don’t have much sense of intimacy with mom or dad, then they have less to lose by defying their parents.
So how do parents attract their preadolescents and teenagers toward intimacy?
Take a clear look at what’s currently happening
Imagine that you could categorize all of your interactions with your child into one of two piles. One pile has all the interactions that are positive, from your child’s point of view. These include the times you just hang out with your kids, give nurturance or care or comfort, do things together which they enjoy, listen with an open mind, follow their lead, share your own experience without an agenda, or be yourself a fun person to be with. The other pile contains all the interactions that are uncomfortable, stressful, or painful, again from your child’s point of view. These include most of the times you oversee, correct, instruct, guide, direct, criticize, discipline, scold, doubt, question, shame, threaten, or raise your voice with your kids.
How big is each pile? About how much time each day does your child experience you in positive interactions? And about how much time in interactions that feel (to the child) negative? (Parents definitely need to act in ways that sometimes feel negative to their children. But the question is: What’s the relative size of the two piles?)
Now let’s suppose that you had an adult roommate whose interactions with you divide up about the same way that yours do with your kids. How drawn would you be toward spending time with that person? If your interactions were mainly pleasant and fulfilling, then you would probably seek that person out and want to work at maintaining a good relationship. If your interactions were often tense, uncomfortable, or driven by the other person’s agenda, then you would probably want to avoid that person when you could, give them as little information about yourself as possible, and generally keep contact to a minimum.
Gee, no surprises here: this latter approach sounds like standard operating procedure for many teenagers!
Kids act based on what they expect. Their history of interactions with parents — reflected by the relative size of the two piles — tells them what to anticipate the next time. If it is more likely that an interaction with parents will be unpleasant than pleasant (from the kid’s point of view), then they will tend to shrink their relationship with their parents.
Increase positive interactions
Therefore, the first thing we can do to attract kids toward intimacy with us is to make sure that the odds are good that they will have a positive interaction with us. How can we do that? Here are some suggestions that I have seen work:
- Accept your kids for who they are. Accept their differences from you. Their pace, temperament, talents, and goals are probably different from your own. And as they enter adolescence, they will be biologically propelled to maximize their differences as a way of becoming their own person.
- Be positive. Notice and talk about what’s working more than about what’s not. Express your optimism, your confidence in your child. For example, if your son brought home a report card with two “A’s,” two “B’s,” and one “C,” could you spend at least 80% of your time focusing on the “A’s” and “B’s”?
- Be empathic. Enter their world and see what it looks like (even what you look like!) through their eyes. Be like an anthropologist who seeks to understand and appreciate different people on their own terms.
- Be warm. Emotional warmth is like the glow of the sun on a lovely spring day.
- Be open yourself. Really talk with your kids. Share yourself, self-disclose. With dignity — and without making your problems your children’s concern — you can communicate your experience and your inner world in a way that is meaningful to both you and your child.
- Do things your kids enjoy doing. Try to find an interest that you can share together. For example, a friend of mine has taken his daughter and her friends to several rock and roll concerts; the kids wander off during the show and they all reconnect at the end. Other parents and kids I know share an interest in fishing, or crafts, or baseball cards, or video games, or horseback riding.
- Have regular times of pleasant contact with your kids, such as meals, athletics, or church. On top of this routine, you can occasionally give them rich experiences with you. For example, after dragging our six-year-old daughter through an exposition in San Francisco I needed to see, I took her to the Fairmont Hotel for fun. We went up in a glass-walled elevator and had an elegant snack in the lounge at the top; sitting at a candle-lit table while watching the sun set and the lights come on in the city gave us a wonderful time together.
I believe that it is legitimate for parents to take a stand that you are committed to your relationship with your teenager, and that you insist that they participate with you. You can let them choose the activity, but bottom-line, you are going to do things together.
- Draw your kids into the culture of their gender. For example, you can do things with your same-sex child and several same-sex friends. (Obviously doing some same-gender things does not preclude mothers getting together with sons, or fathers with daughters.)
Attracting kids toward intimacy is kind of like gravity, a gentle yet relentless pull. Often kids will break away, but if you stick with it, gravity will win in the end!
In my next column, I will discuss how to stay out of grinding, negative conflicts with your kids and solve problems effectively.
This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.