We are their safe place, who they run to, who they trust when things get hard or scary, right? Yeah, maybe when they were seven! As kids get older, the stakes get higher. We aren’t talking about issues like getting banned from a Minecraft server or cracking their tablet screens anymore. Issues like substance abuse, sex, birth control, failing grades get real, real fast. Issues that can alter their self-esteem, their relationships and their future options are happening. right. now.

They post about it. They think about it. They react to it. They feel it. They deal with it. But are they letting you in to help, to possibly influence their decisions, to have a say in it at all? Or are you just feeling the mysterious and haunting after-shocks of it, without even knowing for sure what the heck is going on? 

It is possible for you to create that safe space again, where your teen can know that you will not only be there for them, but help them handle any messes they may have found themselves in. Sorry (not sorry) to be too heavy here, but the truth is we all know of parents who have found out their teen was suffering, but too late. 

Regardless of the level of deep shit we are talking about here, an open and trusting relationship with your teen is not something you’ll ever regret developing and maintaining. Here are some practices to incorporate to that end:

  1. Introduce them to someone new (the real you): They think we won’t understand. They think we don’t get it and never could. While it’s true that technology has drastically altered the state of affairs for their generation, being a human being in one’s formative years is still just that. Insecurities, mistakes, regrets, lessons, and plain old-fashioned vulnerability are okay for humans to disclose to one another. In fact, who wants to share anything with someone who is pretending that they were always perfect? Teens are smart and they are worthy of your trust. Let them in and watch them open up in return. Then believe them and respect their courage.
  2. Get a firm grip on your anger: Your anger is scary. Try this: make your mad face in the mirror or take a photo and look into your own eyes for 10 seconds. Do you want to share anything with that face? Do you want to tell that face your deep, dark secrets? Does that face look like (eek…your own mom or dad)? It’s so easy to react. It’s important to go past the anger, as it is in fact a secondary emotion anyway. Get deeper with yourself and your teen and admit that you’re not really (just) angry; you’re scared. You feel like you’re failing. You don’t know what to do. Opening up the dialogue about feelings rather than scaring them away with rage is a practiced skill. See what’s underneath your anger, and theirs. Talk about what’s really going on.
  3. Dis disappointment: Nothing hurts a kid (from 5-105) more than being a disappointment to the ones who love them the most. Telling someone with your words or your expression (who is already upset and let down by their own humanity) that you are not satisfied with how they didn’t live up to your hopes and expectations is not useful. Guilt is not useful. Shame is not useful. Tempting? Yes! Useful? No. Find another foothold here. Try asking them how they feel about the issue at hand. Let them know that we all mess up and it’s about how we handle it that matters, not that we failed in the first place. Tell them that you have felt disappointed in yourself before too and that there’s a time for that, but after that? It’s time to get up off the floor and carry on with grace. 
  4. Choose a new approach over the usual sentence: They think much less about how they’ll never do the “crime” again and much more about how much they never want to be grounded again. When we punish in place of teaching, in place of getting to the root source, the actual motivation and cause, we only create smarter “criminals.” Maybe they can’t yet connect the dots between why they are doing something dangerous or risky and why they keep doing it anyway. How does that big, important gap get closed when we just send them to their rooms, take their phones, car, Xbox, whatever? Deeper conversation is needed and problem-solving has a place here. It’s not the surface issue we need to suffer over, but rather the impetus of the issue. To take on a problem-solving partner role with your teen teaches them to think deeper versus improving their ability to not get caught.
  5. Excuse Your Honor from your bench: Judgement is the currency of the whole damn world these days! We know that’s true as parents, business owners, and employees– and it’s 100% true for our teens as well. Their lives are being played out in a fishbowl, either by their own normalized and constant self-disclosure or by that of their “friends” and enemies. It’s harsh and it’s real and it is literally NON-STOP. What if you could make an impact on your child, help them understand how the world works and doesn’t, all while refraining from judgment altogether? It sounds impossible, but it’s not. Our teens’ fear of judgment ironically has them doing things that are not smart by any measure, but that fear can also paralyze them and impede their better judgment when it comes to telling a trusted adult the truth when they’ve gotten in too deep. A simple test to refrain from (what feels like justified) judgment and criticism is to take a raw and honest look at the way you react to being judged, belittled, picked apart. And sorry (not sorry) to be trite here, but the golden rule is a pretty good one. 

If our earnest goal is to have them open up, show us their soft underbelly and let us know even the ugly about their lives, maybe even effect real and lasting change, then guess what? We have to stop being reactive. We have to work on our own anger, past issues, all of it. We have to step down and get shoulder to shoulder with our teens and let them know we get it. We can learn and understand and work with them, no matter what, to build solutions and make things better. We have to let love, not fear, be the basis of our tone, our facial expressions, our body language and our words.