You remember them in diapers. You recall their first words. You cherish the days when they were innocent, loving, and eager for your hugs. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to remember that your children are now teenagers or — where did the time go? — actual adults.
Once a parent, always a parent. And yet, as your children grow and evolve, so must your relationship with them. You need to be supportive but not intrusive; offer emotional support without being overly involved in their lives; and hope they make wise choices, while understanding that those choices are theirs to make.
Offering your love and support while respecting your children’s choices can help you build a more enduring relationship with them. The tips below can help you bond with your kids even though they’re no longer kids. And remember: This, too, is a matter of health for you. For nothing can break your heart as much as a strained or ruined relationship with your grown child. And nothing can make your heart soar as much as watching their lives prosper — and them wanting you to be an integral part of it.
1. Set a standing dinner date. There’s something comforting and secure about the family gathered around the dinner table, perhaps because that tradition is rapidly disappearing. Yet the evening meal is often the one time of day when the family can gather in one place and reinforce their unity. So make dinner a family affair, even if you’re sharing takeout at the dinner table. You can use the opportunity to share the news of the day, make weekend plans, and enjoy one another’s company. As a bonus, research shows that adolescents who have dinner with their families at least several times a week are less likely to smoke and use drugs and tend to make higher grades.
2. Back off, but stay close. “It’s normal for teens to want to spend more time with friends than parents,” says Debbie Glasser, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist, past chair of the National Parenting Education Network, and founder of NewsForParents.org, a nationally recognized news provider for parents. But don’t take this as your cue that your job as a parent is diminished. Find ways to remain involved in your child’s life. For example, while your years of volunteering in his classroom may be over, you can still remain involved in his school by joining the PTA or organizing a school fund-raiser. While play dates are a thing of the past, you can still get to know his friends by inviting them to the house after school. “Staying involved during these years may be more challenging now, but it’s an important way to enhance your relationship with your child,” says Dr. Glasser.
3. Share your own feelings with your teen. Of course, spare the intimate details of very personal subjects, but confiding that you, too, occasionally feel angry, insecure, or awkward shows your teenager that you’re not just a parent — you’re human. Not only will your child feel closer to you, but he or she may feel safe enough to disclose uncomfortable issues or feelings when they arise.
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4. Respect your teen’s privacy. Don’t read her diary, eavesdrop on his phone conversations, or badger her with questions. If their behavior is troubling you, address it directly, using five little words: “Can we talk about it?” Some examples: “I’ve smelled smoke when you walk into the room several times now. Have you been smoking? Can we talk about it?” Or, “You seem very quiet lately, and I’m worried about you. Can we talk about it?”
5. Seek their opinions. Teenagers have opinions about, well, everything, and they aren’t shy about sharing them, says Dr. Glasser. So allow them to make more independent decisions. For instance, let them decide when and where to study, what to wear, what after-school activity to pursue, what sports team to join. However, keep in mind that some decisions are nonnegotiable. “Parents need to set limits that protect their child’s health, safety, and well-being — at every age,” says Dr. Glasser. These might include curfews, decisions about drinking and sexual activity, issues around grades and college. Still, find opportunities to solicit your teen’s two cents when you can. Promise not to make decisions without hearing, and considering, their perspective and preferences.
6. Trust your children to make smart choices. Of course, they’ll make the wrong ones occasionally. But especially if they’re over 18, give them the chance to figure out solutions to problems on their own, without interference. After all, didn’t you want the same from your parents when you were their age?