For many parents, the first years of their child’s life are the most physically exhausting, balancing sleepless nights, cycles of colds, viruses, and other sickness, along with chauffeuring kids to and from school and extracurricular activities.
Yet, there is joy and hope for the future as we watch our children learn basic skills like walking, struggling and succeeding in solving math problems, or mastering a new set of facts. There is hope for their long-term success.
Things change in the teen years for most parents. Smiles often turn into sullen staring at smartphones; sweet words are replaced by snark and sarcasm; respect takes a downward turn, not just in terms of teens disrespecting their parents, but parents expecting the worst from their children. Misunderstanding is the name of the game. This stage of parenting is clearly the most emotionally and psychologically exhausting for many parents.
It’s easy to drown in a sea of resentment and bitterness. But communication is the lifeline that can bring both you and your child out of it - if it’s done right, and with calmness and wisdom.
Here are nine tips that can help.
1. Make the time
Time is the most valuable currency today. A good relationship with anyone begins with an investment of time. With a child, it is worth every “penny”.
Take a look at your schedule today and start freeing up at least half an hour a week to spend with just your tween or teen. We may think we are “too busy”, but a large chunk of our currency can be saved if we don’t spend as much of it on Facebook, Solitaire, Netflix, or whatever other distractions we indulge in regularly. That’s not to say we don’t deserve a break. But those breaks need to be allocated efficiently to make time for what’s more important.
During that half hour, avoid designating this as “talk time” - even though that is the goal. Choose an agreeable activity that will serve as the excuse for communication. This can range from going out to lunch, going for a walk or run for the purpose of exercise, or working on a household repair project. This is especially important for boys, who are uncomfortable with talking and prefer engaging in an activity that requires movement (e.g. sports) to share information about themselves.
2. Drop negative expectations
Too often, we buy into the idea that our tweens and teens are, de facto, going to be rude, disrespectful, selfish, and self-absorbed as they reach this stage of development. Holding this expectation unconsciously makes them behave this way, and you, as the parent, respond accordingly, with anger, hurt, and resentment.
Today, take some time to rethink and rewire your expectations so that you see your budding young son or daughter in a more positive way. Consider not what is, but what, insha Allah, will be.
3. Treat them with respect
The kind of respect we reserve for those older than us, for co-workers, classmates, and others we are not as close to. This ranges from saying “please” and “thank you” instead of ordering them to get you a glass of water, to not interrupting them when they speak. These acts of courtesy and respect are what cement relationships in any situation. They are also an essential part of our faith. Respecting your tween/teen is critical as your child is developing his or her own identity. They need to be treated with respect to build their own self-respect and feel they can make the right decisions.
4. Do not tolerate disrespect
Years ago, when my eldest was just a few months old, I attended an Islamic parenting seminar at a local Masjid. There, I learned a great deal from seasoned parents, but the one piece of advice that made the strongest impression on me was this: Never tolerate disrespect from your kids.
Disrespect lays the groundwork for arrogance, selfishness, and very possibly, abusing others. Parents should be on the lookout for this and rein it in the moment it shows up when kids are young, whether that is calling siblings names, telling someone to “shut up”, or talking back to parents and others.
If you’ve taken care of this when the kids are young, it should not be as much of an issue when the tween and teen years take hold. If you haven’t, there is still hope. Start striving to be more respectful yourself, giving an example to your children. Then, privately discuss the issue of respect with your tween/teen, apologize for times you have been disrespectful toward them, and express your expectation of more respectful behavior in the family from everyone.
5. Tolerate the mistakes...but offert smart guidance
This is one of the hardest parental instincts to control - trying to stop our kids from erring. It’s easy to catch them when they fall while learning to walk. But at this stage in life, they need to learn from their mistakes. Unless the situation is one that will put their life and faith in danger, let them live and learn. And once they err, offer guidance on how to fix the mistake.
For example, if your son decided to bully his classmate via text, express your disappointment by neither screaming and yelling, nor, (ever) physically abusing him. Rather, calmly arrange a face-to-face, phone-free meeting where he personally apologizes to his victim. Then, revoke his phone privileges for at least a week. This will give you time to sit with him to draft a “phone contract” that outlines terms and conditions for future phone use, and what will be done if any of the terms are violated. As well, start expecting him to pay part of his monthly phone bill so that he sees that a phone is a privilege, not a right to be abused.
Another, less egregious example could be the mistake of forgetting lunch at home on school days. It’s tempting to drive over to give it to your daughter in time. It’s also tempting to nag her for forgetting it once again. But your silence on the matter, along with helping them come up with a system not to forget it, will teach the lesson far more effectively.
6. Seek their advice
The Prophet said, “Religion is Nasiha (sincere advice)” (Muslim). We’re used to advising our kids. But now that they’re older, seek their advice as well. You’ll be surprised at how much wisdom and insight tweens and teens often have about countless issues. In addition, Shura or consultation is essential in Islamic family life.
It can include what color to paint the bathroom, which places to see with a visiting relative, or how to best care for a family member or friend suffering from a long-term illness. Seeking advice is more than just information gathering. It makes your child feels that you respect him or her enough to seek their opinion. It also teaches them that not all advice is always taken - and that that is fine.
7. Be open to debate and discussion
Being heard and understood is one of the most crucial of human needs. Tweens and teens are no different. In fact, at a time when they are experiencing inner turmoil because of physical and emotional changes, it’s more necessary than ever. This is why parents need to be ready to discuss issues, no matter how controversial.
Discussion, in this case, will require parents to do more listening than talking. It also does not require deep knowledge of any subject. You can always get back to them after Googling the answer. The point is to allow your child to express themselves freely. But let it be a respectful discussion, where you offer your perspective as well, and gently guide them to a broader or deeper understanding of the issue.
8. Say “I love you” sincerely and often
Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said "If a man loves his brother, he should tell him that he loves him" (Abu Dawud and Tirmidhi).
For some parents, this is not an issue. But for many, it’s something that is uttered in a perfunctory manner, like during school drop-off in the mornings, or right before bed. For others, it’s never said, just assumed that the child understands this. However, saying a sincere “I love you” from time to time, does wonders to improve communication and a tween or teen’s sense of self-esteem and security.
9. Make Dua
Only Allah truly knows what is in anyone’s heart and mind. Getting your teen to talk can be an often discouraging and herculean task. This is why asking God’s help is crucial. He will give you the patience and stamina to seek out ways to do this. He will also create opportunities and situations where this can happen. Keep seeking His help sincerely.