If you have a teen, you probably look at him—on those rare moments when he isn’t holed up in his room or out somewhere with his friends, that is—and wonder: “How’d you get so big?” And the bigger your child gets, the smaller the list of things he relies on you for becomes. Once upon a time, you were his wardrobe coordinator, social activities director, bedtime-story reader, and on and on, but most of those roles have long been phased out. In fact, aside from food, money, rides, and more food, it’s easy to conclude your teen needs nothing from you at all.
But thinking that way is a mistake. “Teens look like little adults, and so a lot of times parents treat them like little adults, but their brains are not caught up yet—developmentally, they’re still adolescents,” says Emily Roberts, M.A., L.P.C., psychotherapist and author of Express Yourself. And adolescents have lots of big tasks to accomplish, from hammering out their moral code to making plans for the future. With so much on their plate, “it’s really a time that kids still rely a lot on their parents,” says Kashmira Rustomji, M.D., M.P.H., a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center.
So don’t keep your distance. Make sure your child is still getting what he needs from you, especially the following:
Teens need praise (when appropriate).
“There tends to be a lot more conflict in parent-adolescent relationships,” Dr. Rustomji says. “Often that conflict is about trivial things, like what [teens are] wearing and what they’re listening to. And oftentimes, what gets lost in all that is praising them about the things that are really important.”
Take some time to give your teen props when she’s earned it, whether that’s for a good grade, going out of her way to help a younger sibling (or you!), or being a great friend. It will balance out some of the times you and your teen find yourselves at odds, and boost her self-esteem.
Teens need to be lead by your good example.
Teens “are still very sensitive creatures at this time and they’re still very impressionable, so they may hear half of what you’re saying and they make that their reality,” Roberts points out. That’s why it’s important not to just tell your teen what’s right and what’s wrong, but to show it to him through everything you do.
“Teens are always watching you,” Dr. Rustomji adds. So be a good role model—“show them how to cope with stress, how to be respectful, and model the moral code that you developed for yourself,” she urges.
Teens need chores to be well-rounded adults.
No teen wants them, but all teens need them, Roberts says. “A lot of parents forget that that practice of helping around the house is not only about [teens] showing their family that they are involved, it’s really a habit that they need to have especially as they ease into adulthood. That’s because we’re setting them up to be responsible adults in this time period,” she explains.
Yes, teens tend to have busy lives, but that’s not a reason to do away with chores altogether: “You and I sometimes have a lot of work, and we still have to go home and clean our rooms and do our laundry,” Roberts says. Just be considerate of your teen’s most hectic weeks: “Have a conversation with them about their schedule, especially in the beginning and middle of the school year with midterms and homework and homecoming and all that, asking how you can help,” Roberts advises. Some weeks you may need to make your teen’s chore load a little lighter, or even allow her to skip altogether. The key is to keep her responsibilities as consistent as possible over time, so she accepts chores as a part of life.
Teens need help managing their hectic schedules.
Your child’s time commitments are growing exponentially—faster than his brain can keep up, Roberts says. “The adolescent brain doesn’t stop growing until the early twenties, and sometimes teens overestimate or underestimate [things],” she explains, including how long certain activities may take. Roberts suggests saying, “Let’s look at how we can schedule your time together,” and then doing just that.
Tammy Gold, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., a family therapist, is a fan of putting a calendar in your teen’s room. “Studies show that children really love structure,” she says. “Show them what their week looks like. They still need that help. So they know when the soccer game is, when the test is. Outline the expectations so there isn’t a big fight.”
Teens need 1-on-1 time with you.
Yes, it can seem like you’re the last person your child wants to pass the time with, but that’s not true, Gold says. Look for lulls in your teen’s busy social schedule: “Maybe they weren’t invited somewhere and they’re not going to say that to you, but they could be suffering, so you make the plans,” Gold explains. Even if they weren’t snubbed, teens often don’t like being alone, and could be up for a little company. You can also make a ritual to spend time together at a certain time each week, such as Sunday nights.
Spending time together isn’t just nice for the two of you, it has important developmental benefits for your teen. “Obviously, for a toddler you need to be there to say things like ‘Don’t touch the flame!’ But for a teenager you need to be there not only to teach appropriate social behavior and values and model them, but to help them decode what they’re seeing,” Gold says.
Teens need help understanding social media.
Speaking of things your teen may need your assistance in decoding, social media tops the list, Gold says. “For kids on social media, they need to know that this is a fictitious life, not real life,” she explains. “Nobody puts their bad days on social media! Nobody puts their fights with pimples on there. It’s a curated, fake reality—everyone is just putting the best of themselves out there, so don’t let it make you feel bad.”
If your teen is often down because she finds out via social media that she wasn’t invited somewhere with pals, or because her posts got too few likes, it may be time for a social media break. Gold’s own 13-year-old is only allowed to use Snapchat. “That still has the ability to make you say ‘OMG I missed that party, it stinks that I wasn’t invited,’ but that’s gone after twenty-four hours,” Gold says. “Not all kids need social media. They’re not dying without Instagram. They’re not dying without Facebook.”
Teens need hard-and-fast rules and limits.
Oh, we know you’re going to get some major eye rolls when you say, “Be home before ten!” or “No walking home from that party alone!” but that’s no reason to hold back. “It’s for safety, really,” Dr. Rustomji says. “Adolescents are more risk-taking. They tend to want to do things that give them thrills and give them excitement, and sometimes that behavior leads to maladaptive behavior like drugs and alcohol and unsafe sex. So this is a time when it’s really important for parents to set those limits to protect their child and keep them safe.”
It’s also helpful to walk through some sticky scenarios ahead of time. Pose questions to your teen, like, “If someone is drinking at a party and wants you to drink too, how do you say no?” or “If someone gets drunk, what do you do?” Again, your teen may think it’s silly, but try anyway. “If your family has a certain set of values that you want to impart in your children, just make those clear,” Dr. Rustomji says. “And also tell your teen why. Young people want to understand why. And when we just set ultimatums or hard-and-fast rules, they don’t understand them.”
Reassure your teens that you’re always there for them.
“It’s important to tell teens ‘Hey, you’re growing, you’re maturing and because of that you get to go to the mall, you get to go out, but we’re still here to help you,’” Gold says. And it’s even more crucial to make that clear when you and your teen are fighting, she adds. “[Tell your teen] ‘You can yell at me and scream at me, but I’m never going away,’” she urges. “That’s what unconditional love is…there’s nothing you can do that will make me go away.”
Teens need your apologies (when appropriate).
Did you lose control and scream at your teen? “That happens, it’s normal,” Gold says. “What are you going to do about it now? Recover and say you’re sorry. Teach your child how to say you’re sorry…those are teachable moments.” Not only will your child learn it’s right for people to apologize when they’re wrong, he’ll also learn that nobody’s perfect.
Most of all, teens need your love.
“Teens need holding, as silly as it sounds,” Gold says. “I like to spoon my 13-year-old for ten minutes a night, and we talk about what happened during the day, and she loves it.” So go ahead, give your big kid a hug. Who knows? You might even get a hug back.