I remember it clearly. The sound of the wheelchair rolling through hospital hallways clicking gently along the tile. That unique sterile hospital smell and the aura of fluorescent lights. My husband walked in front of me, laden with suitcases, and the nurse chatted merrily behind us as she wheeled me through the corridors and into the lobby. I didn’t hear a word she said. My hands gripped tightly to the car seat in my lap, where a tiny bundle slept peacefully under a soft striped hat, blissfully unaware of the agony I was in. My body still ached from labor, and my mind felt jumbled from the lack of sleep and hormonal crash. But nothing compared to the knot in my stomach. Were they really sending me home with a human? How in the world was I supposed to raise this thing?
Somehow we make it from that moment where we feel utterly incapable, and we fumble our way through those first years. By elementary school, we think we have found our footing, and our confidence in our parenting ability grows. The overwhelming helplessness of the first drive home becomes a distant and fond memory. Until one day, it hits us hard in the face, and we find ourselves with a bigger knot than before. Adolescence. The transformation taking place in our kids leaves us at a loss as we stand by and grasp for the confidence we once felt. Once again, we are left feeling inadequate and out of our depth. How in the world are we supposed to raise these things?
Nothing about raising a teenager is simple or familiar. This season of life is filled with complexity and confusion for both of you, and it can feel impossible to know what your role is supposed to be. You know your teen still needs you even as they pull away, but you also know you need to let go even as they seem to demand more from you than ever. The result is bewildering.
No matter your circumstance, here are five things every teen desperately needs from their mom:
I know it doesn’t seem like your teen wants time with you. They’d rather be with friends or on a device, and it feels like your efforts to be together are met with resistance. Believe it or not, your teenager craves time with you. For them, it looks a little different than you might expect. Don’t try and force conversation or awkward activities. Meet them where they are. Sit and watch them play a video game, compliment them on their gaming prowess and show genuine interest. Take them out for a coffee or soda and don’t steer the conversation or have an agenda. Treat them to a pedicure, just for fun. Simply be with them. Casual but intentional time with your teen sets the foundation for a stronger relationship and easier communication.
You know how uncomfortable it is when you’re with someone who constantly judges your choices and critiques your opinions. You feel inferior and deflated. You try and walk on eggshells to dodge the condemnation you know is just around the corner. This is often how our kids feel when they are with us. We (often unknowingly) place pressure on our kids to act or be a certain way. It is easy to slip into mom-mode and feel like we have to constantly correct their line of thinking or their actions. Teenagers already struggle with self-esteem and feel like they can’t measure up to what the world is demanding of them. If we want our kids to be comfortable with us, we have to be careful with our judgments of them. Compliment them like crazy when they succeed and do well, and hold back the unsolicited advice. Accept them: blue hair, weird slang terms, obnoxious music and all.
I once heard a story about a school that built a playground with no fence. They wanted the kids to feel free to explore. To their surprise, the kids all stayed huddled close by, never venturing into the yard. Finally, they built a fence. With a boundary in place, the kids spread out through the yard, venturing and exploring. The fence gave them the confidence and security to know where it was safe to go independently. It is the same with our kids. They need boundaries. Boundaries create a safe climate to discover and grow. But we also should expect our teens to push against the boundaries. This is normal, okay, and healthy. Our job is to hold the boundaries with kindness and fairness and not react with strong emotions when our teens test the limits (this is very difficult in the moment!) Let your teens get involved in setting up reasonable boundaries, and once they are set, calmly hold firm to them.
Letting go and trusting our kids to the world is terrifying. I mean, really. They can’t even remember to put their empty cereal bowl in the sink or their stinky jersey in the wash before the next game day. How can we risk letting them make their own decisions? It is vital our kids know we believe in them and trust them to make good choices. Knowing they have our trust is life-changing, and they are far more likely to rise to the responsibility we give them. These transitional years are all about testing their wings and learning how to make it on their own. Now is the time to start offering them more responsibility and independence and letting them know we see them as capable of handling it. Give your teens the incredible gift of your confidence in them and watch them flourish.
Love is the most powerful force in the world. Sometimes our teens can push us to our limit. Their defiance, silence, or hurtful comments can slice right through our hearts. Loving them unconditionally doesn’t mean we give them a pass for every bad behavior, but it does tell them we love them despite it. Our teens need to know that nothing they do will ever change how much we love them. Frequently and creatively, let them know just how amazing you think they are. Leave encouraging notes on their mirror, buy their favorite snack after a rough day, refrain from humiliating them in front of their peers, or posting about how difficult they are on Facebook. Find a friend to privately vent to if you need an outlet for negative emotions instead of taking it to social media. Always remind them, in the good, bad, and ugly moments that you love them. No matter what.
There will still be days you don’t know what your teen needs or wants from you. You will still question your efforts. Am I too strict, too lenient? Do I help them too much or not enough? But you will never regret fulfilling these essential needs for your child. You, being present with them, accepting them, keeping reasonable boundaries, believing in them, and above all, loving them through it all. Someday, these days will be a distant and fond memory, and you will be able to look back and see it clearly: YOU are exactly what your child needs.