Teenagers feel comfortable with adults who can tell stories that relate to the teen’s reality. If your teenager is occasionally drinking at a party, your teen will respond well to stories about what you did at parties when you were a teenager. Your past can be a place of connection between you and your child. It is such a simple way to show them empathy.
Maybe your teenage years were vastly different from your own child. Perhaps you were a popular athlete, and your kid is an unpopular mathlete. Even if you didn’t have the same exact experience, you can still relate. There were days when you felt uncomfortable in your own skin and days when you didn’t like your parents. You still had moments of triumph and moments of defeat. Having the exact same experiences is not the important thing. The important thing is helping your adolescent understand that you also had to figure out who you were, and it wasn’t easy then either.
Be discretionary in what you share with your teenager. Don’t overshare. You don’t want to tell your child things that are going to cause them emotional harm. For example, some parents dealt with teen pregnancy when they were younger. They might have terminated the pregnancy, or might have given the baby up for adoption. Some teens will respond well to this information, but some will feel devastated. You know your child well, and have to be careful when deciding if it’s a story you should share.
I have known a parent who drank a lot and used drugs throughout high school. Sharing this with his child would not be wise in his particular case. This is because his son would use the information as permission to drink and do drugs. I’ve known another mother who experimented with drugs when she was younger. She chose to share this with her teenage daughter because the daughter listened when the mom told her about some painful consequences.
It’s okay to share stories from your past that go against your current moral standards. However, you need to make sure you include the fallout from your choices, and why that led you to your current moral position. If you used to steal things you might talk with your teenager about the guilt and shame you later experienced. Connect the dots for them. Tell them directly, “That’s why I am so adamant now that stealing is wrong.”
You don’t want to turn your past stories into an opportunity to lecture your child. That will push them away from you. You want it to be a conversation that leads them to feel safe sharing with you too. Don’t use a thinly veiled story from your past as a criticism of your teenager’s current behavior, or as a criticism of their friends. Just tell your story without implying any judgement on anyone else. Teens are smart enough to figure out what they should learn from what you’re sharing.
Disclosing parts of your past to your children can be enormously beneficial for them. It can help them understand why you are the way you are as a parent. It can help your child learn from mistakes they don’t have to make. It can help your kid feel like you relate to what they are going through. It can help your teenager feel normal in uncomfortable situations. As long as you handle the conversation gently and thoughtfully, it is usually a great connection and teaching tool.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT