Family doesn’t always seem like a top priority to teenagers. They certainly spend more time with their friends. They are more concerned with what friends are up to on social media than what their mom posts (unless mom posts something a teenager’s friends might see). It’s hard to go from having small kids who want nothing more than attention from a parent, to having older kids who want nothing less than attention from a parent.
Actually though, family is still the most important thing in a teenager’s life. I know this is true because I listen to teen’s talk about what is in their hearts for hours each week. For the most part teens want to talk about their family situation. They bring up other topics too, but this is often at the top of their list.
By keeping the family situation as stable as possible, you are creating safety for your teen. Your adolescent son or daughter wants to go out and explore the world. However, knowing there is a safety net makes this process much easier. It’s part of their developmental process. Within the next few years they will internalize the safety you’ve always provided. This enables your son or daughter to branch out as they leave the house. For now though, they really want to feel independent without actually being independent.
The need to feel independent often puts you in a bind as a parent. I usually encourage parents to allow their teens to do as much as the teenager can safely handle. One teen I worked with drank every chance he got. The result was that his parents had to keep him on a short leash because he couldn’t maturely deal with much freedom. Another teenager I worked with was self-motivated with her homework and didn’t go where she wasn’t supposed to go. Her parents didn’t even need to give her a curfew. In both of these cases though, family played a very important role.
With the boy who was drinking too much alcohol, the love and structure of his family is what got him back on track. With the girl who pretty much always made good choices, her family’s constant cheerleading meant everything to her.
Your child’s brothers and sisters will be lifelong relationships; their peers probably will not. This doesn’t mean you need to artificially create closeness between them, but it does mean sometimes you need to not allow friends along on family outings (this includes boyfriends and girlfriends). It’s okay for there to be a few hours a week that are only for your family. It might be met with complaints, but it’s part of that secure base every teen needs in life.
Family is frequently pushed to the back-burner by a teenager. As a parent you can’t allow this to happen. It’s your job to help your child balance family with their social life, academic pressures, athletics, and whatever other obligations your teenager has. Time with family will be their place of rest and refuge if you work to create a place of safety and love.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT