Latest update: June 18th, 2012
Building a relationship with your children is often one of the most overlooked aspects of parenting teenagers; yet clearly, as the evidence suggests, the relationship is key to managing a teenager’s at-risk behavior and restoring confidence in the family unit.
Similar conclusions were reached by two other studies: a Columbia University study in September 2002, found that “isolation from parents make affluent students more likely to become depressed, and to smoke, drink and abuse drugs,” and a National Institute on Drug Abuse 1999 study showed that “Family-focused programs have been found to significantly reduce all the major risk domains and increase protective processes” and that “even those [families] with indicated ‘hard-core’ problems can benefit from family-strengthening strategies.”
To corroborate the findings of these studies, I asked a group of high school juniors and seniors at a well-known Jewish day school what they felt were the most important issues teens face. These were the students’ answers according to their own ranking, starting with the most important:
- Disappointment and anger with parents.
- Dislike of teachers.
- The intense desire to be accepted and fit in with friends.
- The desire to be adults and the fact that they were still under their parents’ control.
- The internal pressures of trying to develop and act on personal values as opposed to those of parents and friends.
- The powerful forces of media encouraging experimentation with sex and alcohol.
- The enormous physical and psychological changes that occur during this time of their of lives.
Surprisingly, issues like physical changes, peer pressure, and drug use were placed low on the students’ list, whereas the issues of poor relationships with their parents and teachers were ranked highest. In general, these teenagers seemed alienated from their parents and felt that their teachers had somehow let them down.
All this information can help parents realize that the cause of their teenager’s problems is not necessarily “out there” in the world. Often the source of conflict exists within the boundaries of the relationships teenagers have with their parents, teachers and friends. Finding ways of deepening the relationship with their teenagers is therefore an important step parents can take to help ameliorate at-risk behavior. The more parents invest in their relationship with their teenager, the greater chance they will have in making a positive and lasting impression in their lives as well.
Investing In Your Relationship
In many ways, investing in an emotional relationship with a teenager is similar to building a solid financial investment. A wise investment is great preparation for your future, and the formula works for teenagers in exactly the same way – the more you put in, the more you can take out. However, any good investment must be carefully planned; time, discipline, and patience are required for you to actually see the fruits of your efforts.
A relationship that has been invested in is one that can endure the many trials and tribulations of adolescence. It’s there for you when the going gets tough. So when you need to dig into your investment prematurely, it’s waiting for you.
My wife and I try to schedule time alone together with each of our older children at least once a week. Recently, we even started making “dates” with each of our children to go out and have a good time together. Sometimes we go to a restaurant to eat or take a walk. Sometimes we go for a soda at the local convenience store. When life gets hectic and time is limited, I usually spend time reading to or just talking privately with one of my children. Most importantly, during our dates I never talk about homework or behavior problems. We just talk about matters that they think are important.
It really doesn’t matter what you do or what you talk about during your private times together. What matters is that you give your teenager a feeling that he or she is the most important person in the world. These moments of relationship building give parents the opportunity to develop the kind of personal connection they need to help their teenagers navigate through the turbulent waters of their adolescence.
Although parents often try to force their teenagers to behave the way they expect them to, in the long run, it’s not the pressure that parents exert that makes a difference. It’s the overall relationship built on a strong sense of friendship that helps teens develop self-esteem and confidence. Self-esteem then becomes a springboard that can help teenagers solve even the most difficult problems.
Examining Your Parental Values
Imagine a flowing river that is exerting a certain amount of pressure on a levee. Suddenly, without warning a hurricane brings massive amounts of rain placing 50 percent more pressure on the dam. Without an equal amount of stabilizing force being applied to the dam, it won’t be able to withstand the new level of pressure against it, and it faces the risk of breaking apart.
Adolescence too can arrive like a hurricane, bringing a “whirlwind” of emotions and putting added stress on a teenager’s relationships. To meet the challenge, parents need to examine the way they relate to their teenage hurricane. They need to be able to change their style of parenting to endure the new pressures facing their teenagers.
To strengthen the dam, parents must begin by evaluating the core values that define their role as parents. For example, some parents emphasize that their children should do well in school and work hard to achieve professionally. Others want their children to be honest and maintain higher ethical standards of behavior whatever their careers. Some parents believe that their children’s most important goal is to be independent and not rely on others for assistance, while others are more concerned that their children maintain their religious identity and avoid the temptations of the outside world.
Although these values are all important in raising children, with a teenager at risk they require moderation. Teens at risk may not be able to achieve intellectually, maintain higher ethical standards, or even live a religious life without a new kind of support system from their parents. The goals that their parents have set for them may be unrealistic. If so, parents need to shift their emphasis toward developing a relationship with their teenager and away from having the teenager live up to their expectations. Instead of professional success or independence as a primary goal, the new center of their parenting must be the relationship.
If you are having trouble with your teenager, you can use the following diagram to try to identify the central tenets that define your parental values. After seeing what lies at the core of your parenting values, look at the next diagram, which shows the parenting values prescribed for teens at risk.
Parenting goals for at risk teenagers
The relationship is at the center because the relationship is the single most important (and often most difficult) factor that parents need to work on with their teenager. The relationship must be of primary concern until teenagers are able to make changes necessary to maintain their own stability and fulfillment.
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, is the Executive Director of Shalom Task Force and author of “At Risk – Never Beyond Reach” and “First Aid for Jewish Marriages.” To order a copy, visit www.JewishMarriageSupport.com. For more information about Shalom Task Force, please visit www.shalomtaskforce.org. You can e-mail questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, Marriage and Family Therapy, is an expert in marriage counseling, pre-marital education, and helping teens in crisis with offices in Flatbush, Cedarhurst, and Crown Heights. He is a certified PAIRS instructor, and trained as a Level 1, Emotionally Focused Therapist at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, and is a member of AASECT. He is the author of At Risk – Never Beyond Reach and First Aid For Jewish Marriages. To watch his free videos on marriage and parenting and for appointments visit: www.JewishMarriageSupport.com or call 646-428-4723
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