Mental Monday: Teens and Parents as Friends? Only on Facebook.

I always cringe when I hear a parent refer to their teenager as their best friend.

Some parents may use that term loosely or merely as thoughtless hyperbole but, for just as many other parents, they really do believe it to be true. They do everything with their teenager. They confide in their child about adult-themed content. They joke about and discuss inappropriate subject matter. They gossip with their teenager about their teenage friends. And the rules, discipline, and structure that may have once been present in the home tends to wane significantly or end altogether.

Why do parents do that?

My guess is that some parents just really don’t know how to parent a teenager.

When your child gets older and enters the pre-teen and teenage years, it can be difficult for some parents to know what role to play. While some parents start tightening the reins on the increasing independence of their children, other parents loosen up and start behaving more like a friend. Many teenagers act like mini-adults and will start testing their parents as they explore their new world between childhood and adulthood. And, as I’m sure we all remember well enough, it’s a tough world to live in. You’re too old to act like a child, but you’re also too young to behave like an adult. It can be very frustrating for both the teenager and the parents.

There is no doubt that as your child grows into a teenager, your role as a parent will shift. Once a child enters the pre-teen years, they tend to seek more validity and approval from friends, rather than parents. The opinions and advice of their parents start to lose some of their power. Once a child begins the long journey of self-discovery and identity, they often turn to the people that help define their image: their peers.  Many parents quickly realize that they have lost some influence over their teenager and will resort to treating their teenager as an equal. It could be out of desperation as they strive to keep their independence-seeking teenager close and connected and perhaps regain some approval and respect from their once-adoring child.

There are two major problems with treating your teenager as a best-buddy.  First, the boundaries between parent and child become fuzzy and blurred. This can be a problem when you’re attempting to be their friend while struggling to exert control over them as well. Second, treating the teenager as an equal actually inhibits development while at the same time pushing the teen to grow up too fast.

Your teenager will not tell you this because it certainly isn’t something they are consciously aware of, but they need you to be their parent, not their friend. They still need guidelines and boundaries. They still need some rules and structure. You will discuss serious subject matter with your child, but it should be discussed as a parent, not as a friend. They still need you, even when they snap at you, hide in their room, or prefer to be with friends. Continue to enforce the rules, but be open to changing some of them. Perhaps give them some extra time on their curfew, but maintain consequences if they are late.  Be open with them about the changing rules and even ask for their input, but be reasonable. Know who their friends are and where they’re going. Have them check in with you. If you allow them to join social networking sites, like Facebook or Twitter, keep tabs on them. Lastly, trust your teenager unless proven otherwise. And if you feel something is amiss or that there is something going on, talk to them.

Here are some great tips on how to communicate with your teenager. I adapted this list from Psych Central:

How To Communicate:

  • Be a good listener. If your teen is willing to share something — anything — accept it for the precious and rare moment it is. Listen non-judgmentally. Rule to live by: Listen twice as much as you speak.
  • Respect their privacy. If your teenager sees that you understand their need for private phone calls and a closed bedroom door, they may be more willing to share some of their inner world with you.
  • Give increasing autonomy. If your teenager believes that you trust their judgment, and understand their need for growing independence, they will be more likely to talk with you when real issues arise.
  • Accept all of their feelings, as long as they are respectfully conveyed.
  • Apologize when you are wrong.
  • Talk to them. Schedule time to talk about unappealing topics, such as homework or curfews. Focus on what your teenager got right, before offering constructive criticism.

How NOT to Communicate:

  • Avoid lecturing, nagging, and guilt trips.
  • Let them trust you. Don’t reveal to others the confidences your teenager has shared with you. Your teenager may not risk offering you intimate thoughts again for some time to come.
  • Rephrase your questions. For example, instead of saying, “Why are you 15 minutes late getting home?,” say “I noticed you missed your curfew by 15 minutes.” A subtle difference, but one that will be met with less resistance.

Do you have any other suggestions or comments? Please share!