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.
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?
7. Call before you drop by. If you have an adult child, always call before you go to his home, unless it’s absolutely necessary. (Do you like it when guests show up on your doorstep uninvited?) If you’re the parent of a teen, knock before you enter her room.
8. Accept their holiday absences with grace. Yes, you may be disappointed that your children — and their children — spend Thanksgiving or Christmas without you. But don’t nag or complain about it. You may win a battle over which in-law’s house they visit for Christmas, but lose your child’s respect — and a strong, enduring relationship.
9. When you catch yourself about to say, “If I were you … ” change the subject or leave the room for a moment to collect yourself. Your reward: a closer relationship with a child who appreciates that you respect his autonomy.
10. Think about the things you value in your other relationships. It’s a good bet that trust, respect, and attention top the list, along with shared good times and unconditional acceptance. There you have it: the recipe for the perfect parent-child relationship.
11. State your views, then invite reaction. “Does that seem fair to you? Can you think of a better way to deal with this? What would you do in my position?” It’s easy for a teen to be unreasonable if you take on the burden of reasonableness all by yourself. Share it and they’ll find it harder to dismiss your position. Plus, you’re more likely to land on middle ground you can both accept.
12. Be there when they want you or need you, rather than when you want to be. A lifetime of love, trust, and respect will ensue if you are reliably around whenever a reasonable and acceptable request is made of you.
13. Be honest. Many parents offer praise when they shouldn’t, as well as when they should. That just undermines trust. We’ve all heard, “When you haven’t got anything nice to say… ” But in fact, if both your praise and criticism are heartfelt and valid, your child will learn to trust you.
14. Cultivate love, but demand respect. This may sound a bit Machiavellian, but Machiavelli may well have been a good dad! Don’t try so hard to be your child’s friend that you fail to set limits, protect your own integrity, and earn respect. You can be friends long after your child is grown as long as you are the parent first.
15. Live your priorities. Kids should be among them, but not replace them. If you lose yourself in the process of indulging your kids, they will likely grow bigger egos than is healthy for them or you and belittle the value of your life.
16. Acknowledge that things have changed since you were their age. And they have. Music, clothes, technology, language, style, educational methods, the job market, even sexual mores and attitudes have evolved significantly in recent years. And the speed of change is only accelerating. You cannot keep up with it all, nor should you. But you do need to strike a balance: Don’t live in the past, but don’t try to bluff that you know exactly what’s going on among teens today either. The middle ground is to live in the present, but your grown-up present. That includes being conversant about the Internet, HDTV, cell phones, the state of the economy, the world marketplace. Your kids will respect you if you are contemporary in a mature way, and don’t base your observations of their lives on a past irrelevant to them.
17. Decode your child’s “love language.” While you may love your children dearly, they may not understand the ways you show your love — and you may not understand the ways they’re best able to receive it. Some children need lots of hugs and cuddles; others may not be as touchy-feely. Some children want you to spend time with them, while others need lots of independence. The next time you spend time with your child, pay attention to the cues he or she sends so you can better interpret the way your child needs to be loved.
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