Relating to their teenager can be easier than most parents think, especially when they learn about the key areas that can sustain the relationship: connection, control, and communication. Together the “Three Cs of Relationship Theory” provide a simple map to help parents evaluate where the relationship is going and show them how to steer their way through the rough roads of the teenage years.
The three Cs can help parents see the bigger picture and then decide which areas demand attention and which issues are superficial and should not be the focus of their relationship with their teenagers. For example, teenagers may tell their parents one day that they don’t want to listen to them and that they are going to do something that the parents disagree with. Or parents may receive an unexpected phone call from the principal to discuss their teen’s behavioral problems in the classroom. Should parents become angry, go on the offensive, and try to control their teens’ behavior? Or should they try to learn more about their teens’ inner issues, spend more quality time with them, and gently counsel them through their dilemmas? A look at the Three Cs should provide an answer.
Most problems can be resolved if parents focus their attention on one or more of the three key areas. According to Relationship Theory, parents need to ask whether the problem can be resolved by connecting more deeply to their teenager, by modifying their level of control, or by improving their communication with their teen.
The following chart (figure 3) summarizes the principles of Relationship Theory. In this and the following chapters, parents will learn how to put these principles into action.
Teenagers have many ways to drive their parents crazy. Take Debbie, for example, a fourteen-year-old girl who attends a prominent Jewish day school. Recently her mother discovered she had several body piercings concealed under her clothes. Her mother was distraught because Debbie was doing something that she and her husband found repugnant. She found out about the piercings from her neighbor after Debbie slept over at the neighbor’s house.
In truth, Debbie’s piercings are just one example of various forms of self-abusive behavior that have become trendy. The fashion industry has been able to make body piercing and wearing overly tight clothing or uncomfortable high heels popular. The industry has also created a belief that somehow clothing or accessories will bring a sense of happiness or pleasure to the consumer. Of course, pleasure is a relative term. To Debbie the piercings may have seemed pleasurable since she received attention for being at the edge of fashion. For her parents however, it was a sign that their daughter was rebelling against their family, and they were causing considerable frustration and embarrassment.
Are the piercings the only problem? Or is something deeper going on in Debbie’s life? To help them connect to their teenagers, Relationship Theory asks parents to find out what issues are motivating their teens towards negative or self-destructive behavior.
In Debbie’s case, my suspicion was that behind the outer issue of body piercings were deeper emotional issues that related to unresolved conflicts in her family. I believed that her body piercing was a call for help and that her parents needed to find out more about Debbie’s inner world.
Learning about Your Teen’s Inner World
Teens like Debbie live in two emotional worlds: an outer world and an inner one. The outer world represents a person’s exterior or façade. It is a surface level from which people project their personality to their parents, friends and society. For instance, in the outer world people can appear friendly and extroverted or sad and uncommunicative. They can also appear defensive or aggressive, but these attitudes don’t accurately tell us what’s really going on at the core of who they are or what they may be struggling with.
I once saw a client who at first appeared to be very “put together” on the outside. He presented himself as a sharp dresser, considerate, and calm. But after a few minutes of discussing why he had come to see me, it became apparent that he was suffering from depression and anxiety, carefully hidden from almost everyone around him.
People often try to hide how they feel. But when they do, they may not be aware of how their defensive responses may come across to others – especially their parents. Here is a list of the ways teenagers usually try to hide their feelings that exist below the surface:
- Negative behavior: threatening, attacking, sarcastic, rude
How others perceive this teenager: obnoxious, hostile, aggressive.
Inner feelings: hurt, anxious, embarrassed, fearful.