The most important technique a parent can use to restore a damaged relationship with a teenage child is to verbally declare his or her intent to restart the relationship.
1. “I’m sorry we have had a difficult relationship over the years. I will no longer fight with you or try to control you. I would just like to have a good relationship with you.”
For some parents these words may seem hard to say, but teenagers are old enough to appreciate this type of reconciliation. Imagine that someone you have been fighting with for many years one day said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about our relationship, and how our fighting has driven us further and further apart. How about we stop fighting and start over again? I promise not to nag, bother, and attack or criticize you anymore. I will be here as a friend who will give you advice only when you want it.” Most people would feel relieved that the battle was over and glad to have a second chance to build a positive connection.
Of course, words are not enough. They must be followed up with actions. Parents need to improve their connection, reduce their control, and stay within the guidelines of positive and compassionate communication.
2. “All along I was relating to you as if you were still a little child. I now realize that you have changed. You are your own unique individual.”
One of the most important needs teens-at-risk have is to be respected as autonomous individuals by their parents and teachers. Parents of at-risk teenagers may be waging a constant battle, trying to keep their sons or daughters from asserting their own identity. Relationship-oriented parenting maintains that in order to break the stalemate, parents should tell their teenagers that they now view them as independent individuals and respect who they are, even if they don’t always agree with their actions.
Some parents may feel that this is akin to agreeing to negative behavior. However, as we have previously discussed, parents no longer wield full control over their teenagers and would have an easier time if they would be more flexible and accept their child’s unique sense of self. In this way, recognizing teens’ individuality is not a sign of weakness; rather, it is part of an overall strategy to regain momentum in the relationship.
3. “If I am unaware of difficulties or problems in your life or am somehow glossing over any, please feel free to share them with me when you feel comfortable.”
Teens-at-risk feel alienated from their parents and often believe that no one is interested in hearing about their problems. They also believe that their parents secretly wish to control and manipulate them. In order to moderate these feelings, parents need to be clear that they would like to know how they feel about things – it’s important that they be seen as a sounding board and people who can be trusted.
I once made this declaration to a young client who was suspicious of adults, including his parents and me. He felt that as a therapist, I was somehow an extension of his parents’ authority. I said honestly, “Look, I have no agenda. My only concern is for your health and happiness. If I can do anything to make your life better, please tell me.”
At the following session, I felt I was meeting a new person. All along, he had felt that his parents had sent him to me to fix his problems. Now he understood that I had no ulterior motive.