We all have emotional needs. Some of our emotional needs are affection, love, affirmation, to know we matter, to be known, and to feel connected.
Imagine these emotional needs the same way you would think of being hungry. We all get hungry and need a variety of foods for our sustenance, welling-being and health. Similarly we have emotional hungers that need to be met in order to be emotionally healthy and thrive.
Most teenagers are starving – not only for food (we know how hungry teenagers can be) but also emotionally – they need positive attention, unconditional love and acceptance. They need to know someone cares enough to pay attention and listen to them without judgment. They need someone to say “good job” and to believe in their ability to solve their own problems. They long to belong and know that what they think and how they feel matters. They need to know that their life has purpose and they can make a difference in the world.
Most teenagers want to have a good relationship with their parents. I know at times this might be hard to believe. While your teen has a fierce need for independence, at the same time, they need to feel connected to you. They want you and need you more than anyone, even though they don’t always show it.
Naturally, we want to address our child’s behavior when they get off course. We want to steer them in the right direction, but if we only focus on their behavior, we will miss an opportunity to meet our children’s deeper needs; needs that we must pay attention to in order for us to raise happy, well-adjusted adults.
Here are 5 needs your teen has that they won’t tell you:
I need you to spend time with me.
I know what you’re thinking, “Yeah, right. It’s hard to get my teen to even talk to me.”
It hurts when your teen won’t talk to you. The temptation is to say, “Fine. Have it your way. I don’t want to be with you either.”
However, we often approach our kids in ways that are off-putting. When we finally get a little time with them, we have a tendency to start ‘digging’ for information (who can blame us, it’s difficult not to ‘dig’ when they hardly share anything). That said, we need to know that nothing will make them clam up faster than trying to force them to talk.
BEing present works so much better. You don’t have to say anything. Relax a little and just be with them. If you want them to open up, then you need to shut up, it’s really that simple. Eventually they will talk when you do.
BEing present can be sitting with them while they play a video game or watch a tv show. Reading in the same room while they do homework. Or just being accessible and not on your phone. Take them to Starbucks or out for ice cream; buy them their favorite snack to show that you were thinking of them (teens love food!); have them share whatever it is that interests them (my daughter will invite me to watch a YouTube video or listen to a rap song, even though this would not be my first choice and it’s painful for me to listen to the rap – ha ha. It opens up dialogue). Often teens want to talk late at night. We may just need to go to bed early and set an alarm for when they get home!
Let them lead, don’t force it, stay open and relax.
I need you to accept me.
Do you feel accepted by someone when they lecture, judge, or send you the message that you aren’t good enough? Of course not, but we do this with our kids without realizing it.
Teens have a sixth sense when they are being judged and criticized. The world they live in is extremely stressful and sends them daily messages that they’re not good enough.
Allow your teen to be themselves rather than who you want or think they should be. Focus on the good qualities of your child and catch them when they’re doing something positive. Comfort yourself when you’re tempted to set them straight or give them unsolicited advice – they are still in the developmental process of ‘trying on’ who they are; apart from you.
Sometimes a little objectivity can help. Today, bite your tongue, lean in, and listen as if they were somebody else’s child.
I need you to calmly hold the boundaries when I test them.
I say ‘calmly’ because it’s easy to react and forget that our teenagers are going to test us. This is normal.
Healthy teenagers push boundaries. They need something to push up against. Josh Shipp compares a parent to a rollercoaster safety bar. Our teens will push against us to make sure we’re keeping them safe. Expect them to fight you. Allow this to be okay. Hold steady. Get clear about your boundaries. Allow them to be involved in what the boundaries might be around curfew, homework, chores, attitude, drinking, etc. (Read more here about setting boundaries with your teens).
I need you to believe in me.
As your kids enters the adolescent years, it’s important to begin the process of letting go. OMG! This can be scary. I want to yell – Noooooo – as I pry my fingers from holding on to them. It’s a scary world out there. I want to keep them safe.
Your teen needs you to believe in their ability to solve their own problems and figure things out. They will rise or fall often based on how you perceive them. No matter how good your advice is, every time you give it, you sent your teen the message that you doubt their ability to solve their problems themselves.
Adolescence is a developmental process of letting go and moving from a totally dependent child into a healthy, independent young adult. It they sense your trust in them they will gain confidence in themselves and their ability to be responsible. This is a good time to begin to transfer control, responsibility, and independence over to them.
I need you to love me unconditionally.
Unconditional love can turn the most difficult child around. This doesn’t mean you accept their negative behavior, it means that despite it, you find ways to show them they are loved no matter what.
Reflect on ways you can show unconditional love to your child. What do you appreciate about them? Tell them. Write it down. Post it on their mirror. Hold out a vision of positive regard of who your child can become.
When you find yourself struggling to affirm, accept, or show unconditional love, become curious about your own beliefs about yourself. We tend to transfer the very things we don’t like or accept about ourselves onto our children. Find a friend who you can vent your frustrations to so you are less likely to take your negative feelings out on your teen.
The bottom line.
Whether or not your teen shows it; even if they act like they hate you, they are starving to know that you love and care about them. Expect them to test your boundaries and be the bar that holds them safe.
Stop fighting with them, instead, believe in their ability to solve their own problems.
Rather than focusing on their negative behavior, find those qualities that you can affirm; provide the positive attention, unconditional love and acceptance they are so hungry for. The sobering truth is if you don’t, they will go looking for it elsewhere. And ‘elsewhere’ is usually a place you’d rather not have them be.
Nothing is more powerful to turn a child around and cultivate a close relationship than a parent who is willing to love you unconditionally even when you’re at your worst. Stay in the ring, fight for them, and let them know you will love them no matter what.
Love always wins.