WHEN I WAS 16, I was sure my dad’s goal in life was to make me miserable. He seemed to have a running list of all the ways he could embarrass me in front of my friends, trick me into doing more chores, or make my curfew earlier. I felt manipulated and angry, and our relationship began to deteriorate.
Things continued to gradually fall apart until one day I saw my dad reading a parenting book. I waited until he put it down and sneaked a peek. As I flipped through it, I began to realize a couple things. One, he was trying to understand me. And two, and perhaps even more important, the advice he read in this parenting book were exactly the things that drove me the most crazy.
Who is writing these books?
I looked at the other parenting books on his shelf and saw they are all written by adult parenting experts for other adults. As the teen recipient of said advice, I can tell you they had it all wrong. Had anyone ever asked what teens think? What would happen if adults turned to us to ask for advice on how to best parent us?
That’s when I decided to build Radical Parenting, a website where teens answer questions and write to parents. The site grew, and now we have 120 interns, hailing from all over the world, who answer questions from parents.
I asked our interns what top five pieces of advice they’d give on how to best parent your teen. This is what they had to say.
1. Don’t ask ‘Answer-Questions’
I call any question that already has the answer wired into it an Answer-Question. For example, I hated when my mom asked things like, “Don’t you think that girl Sheila is mean?” or, “Do you think you should do something about that very important extra-credit assignment?”
They’re loaded questions and just hearing them automatically shifts us into defensive mode. It does so, because it makes it clear that our parents already have an opinion on the situation and don’t really want to know what we think. That’s when we feel like our parents don’t think we know what to do and are belittling our opinions.
Even if a parent’s suggestion in their answer question is a good one, teens will often push it away because it came uninvited.
“My mom assumes she knows the answers to all of my problems and always ‘asks’ me to take her advice. This makes me feel like she doesn’t trust me and I can’t help but want to disregard her unsolicited advice even if it is good for me.” –Sasha, 14
2. While we may deal with the same general issues you did, circumstances today are different
Yes, we really do know that every parent was a teenager once — although sometimes it’s really hard to imagine it — and while we all deal with the same issues, like dating, curfew, pressure at school, and bullying, we are not our parents. Our circumstances are different.
Colleges are more competitive. Technologies like Facebook and texting add a new layer of complication to teen relationships. Bullying on Facebook lasts longer than just mean words at school and allows more people to weigh in and have their say. Flirting happens mostly through text, Facebook, and IMs. Communication is different. Having access to the Internet allows us to be exposed to things our parents perhaps didn’t see until they were much older.
So please don’t assume things are the same as they were when you were a teenager. Instead, talk to us about what is different.
“I wish my parents could accept that even though we are dealing with some of the same issues, it is totally different today. I wasn’t alive back when my parents were growing up, but I’m pretty sure that how they dressed, how they behaved, and what music they listened to was not accepted by their parents. Your child is his or her own person who needs freedom of expression just like you did as a teenager. Let us make our own dating mistakes—in the 2.0 world!” –Monique, 16
3. Risk is tempting
We like to take risks, and it’s hard to say no. Researchers at the University of Texas have even found scientific backing to show that the teen brain responds more strongly to reward prompted by risk.
It’s important for parents to know this so they can encourage positive risk-taking like extreme sports, running for student government, going to a theme park. These are positive adrenaline producing activities that scratch that risk itch.
One of our male interns used to graffiti on walls of local malls. His parents encouraged him to take surfing lessons instead, and his desire to graffiti diminished because he poured his energy into his new sport and it got his adrenaline pumping in a healthy way.
“Sometimes my friends and I just feel the need to go out and do something for a rush. We call ourselves adrenaline junkies—we don’t mean to get in trouble but sometimes that is a side effect. The best is when we can go on rollercoasters and get the thrill without breaking any rules.” –Chris, 15
4. Just because we are rolling our eyes doesn’t mean we aren’t listening
We pretend to not listen to our parents or care what they think. We do this a lot. But the reality is, we really do want to hear what they’re saying. Don’t let our eye rolling, lackadaisical attitude fool you. We are often listening and what you say matters to us more than you think.
There’s a lot going on in our heads, and we’re oscillating between seeing our parents as either our protecting heroes or enemies who are trying to thwart us. Part of us wants to look up to our parents in the way we did when we were little and gain their approval. The other part wants to assert our independence and be allowed to do things without their interference.
You’ll see signs of this inner struggle when we roll our eyes and pretend not listen to you because we are trying to temper both feelings.
“I roll my eyes at my mom out of habit. I usually am listening I just don’t want her to think I care too much. Sometimes when I am in a good mood I apologize to my mom for pretending not to listen and tell her I do care.” –Chloe, 14
5. Social rejection is actually painful
Many parents do not understand why we care so much about what our friends think. Two researchers at UCLA discovered that social rejection actually registers as bodily injury or pain in the brain! There might not be that big of a difference between a punch and a catcall. When our friends disapprove or we feel socially rejected it can feel worse than a punch in the gut.
So have patience with our obsession with friends and help guide us in figuring out which friends are true friends. We could also use some support in balancing social time with family time, work time, and alone time. That way, we can find a bit of distance from social pressures and take a break from the parts of it that are painful.
Teen confession: “My friends mean the world to me. Really, when one of my friends is mad at me or we get in a fight I literally can’t focus on anything else. It consumes me.” –Shelly, 17
These five pieces of advice were gathered from the teens on the Radical Parenting website, and they always have more to offer, so stop by and check out what they have to say. But don’t forget to ask your own teens what they wish you knew about them. They might surprise you.
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Vanessa Van Petten
Vanessa Van Petten, created and runs Radical Parenting, a parenting website written with 120 teen interns to help parents understand the mind's of teens and tweens. She is also the author of the parenting book, “Do I Get My Allowance Before or After I’m Grounded?” the only parenting book written from the perspective of teens and recent winner of the Mom's Choice Award 2012.