Living with a teen while social distancing – it’s easy, right?
Maybe you have a delightful teenager, who understands how hard it is for you to hold it all together during the pandemic.
She helps with the dishes, willingly goes for walks with you, and pushes herself – without any prompting from you – to get all of her schoolwork done.
Or maybe not.
Maybe your kid speaks in monosyllables, doesn’t lift a finger to help out around the house, and spends all day on his phone. You’re about to lose it – and we all know that shouting matches don’t end well.
Here are five tips for building and maintaining a strong relationship with your teen during these difficult times (or really, during any time).
1. Lead with Empathy Instead of Anger
I get it.
Your teen drops her wet towel on the floor, leaves dishes in the sink, and strews dirty clothes all over her room. She resists taking the dog out and spends most of her day stretched across her bed, staring into her phone.
And here you are, working hard to keep it all together: to work productively from home, keep the house in some semblance of order, and get meals on the table. She’s just not doing her part, and you’re angry.
Yelling Will Backfire
Yelling at her to get her act together will backfire.
It will make her feel bad about herself and angry with you, and she’ll retreat more vehemently into texting and FaceTiming with friends.
Instead, try leading with empathy.
It can feel counter-intuitive when you’re angry, but can defuse tempers and build the foundation of a strong relationship.
Drop Occasional Empathy Bombs
Instead of nagging and yelling, try speaking from a place of understanding:
“This is really hard, isn’t it? I’m so sorry you can’t see your friends in person and that you’re missing the lacrosse season. It just sucks.”
Drop these empathy bombs every once in a while, then walk away.
Don’t pair them with a demand for her to clean up her room or take out the trash. She will, eventually. But first she needs to know you’re on her side.
2. Treat Your Teen Like an Adult
You and your kids are stuck at home for the foreseeable future. You want your teenaged son to help with chores around the house, but he sits around all day watching South Park and playing video games.
If your family culture before the pandemic did not include a regular expectation of chores, don’t think you can force him to start emptying the dishwasher now through nagging and chore charts.
So what to do?
Make Respectful Requests
First, lead with empathy as described above.
Then, ask for help the way you’d ask a colleague, without expectation of a definite “yes:”
“If you have a minute, I sure could use a hand folding this laundry.”
Or, “Whew, that trash is starting to smell. Any possibility you could take it out for me so I can finish cooking dinner?”
If he does what you ask, make sure you thank him: “That was really helpful. Thanks!”
If he doesn’t, don’t scowl or sigh or roll your eyes or yell at him. Just do it yourself, keep on leading with empathy, and continue to make occasional requests.
Lay the Foundation of an Adult Relationship
It sounds so permissive and un-parent-like, doesn’t it?
Actually, it’s the foundation of building a more adult relationship with your child. He’s growing up and resents being bossed around and told what to do.
Do you like it when your boss orders you to do something? Or do you prefer a more collegial environment, where she makes it clear you’re working together to achieve a common goal?
Speak to your kid the way you want your boss to speak to you.
Treat your teen like an equal, even if he appears zombie-like from hours and hours of staring at a screen. Make requests, not demands, and make them in an upbeat tone of voice. Don’t expect immediate miracles; give it a little time.
Try it and see what happens.
3. Leave Their Life Up to Them
This can prove challenging. Really challenging.
I’m not talking about the small nudges teens (and young adults) sometimes need to push forward towards their own goals.
When my daughter was about to leave for a semester abroad, for example, she received an email from hiring staff at a place she had applied for a summer job. They wanted to interview her the following week. She was getting ready to leave the next day and wanted to let them know she’d be available by Skype in three weeks, once she was settled and had completed a backpacking trip.
“If I were you,” I said, “I’d email them right away, tell them you’re leaving, and ask if they can interview you this afternoon.”
She did. She spoke with them that day for an hour over Skype – and she got the job.
Small Pushes Vs. Major Nagging
These kinds of small pushes pale in comparison to the major nagging and directing that we’re prone to as parents when our kids start down a path we see as detrimental.
Let’s say your teen is slacking on the school work their teachers have assigned over Google Classroom. It’s junior year and grades count, and your first instinct is to rush in and nag, nag, nag. “You have to get this done! It’s really important! You’re jeopardizing your future! Go do it NOW!”
Back off, Mom and Dad.
Beyond asking if there’s anything they need in order to get started and to focus (time away from younger siblings, a private place to work, etc.), leave them alone.
Even before the pandemic, the pressure of achievement expectations felt too heavy for many high schoolers. Now, teens face cancellation of expected rites of passage, including prom, the spring sports season, even graduation ceremonies. They can’t get together with their friends. They can’t go on college tours or make post-acceptance visits before deciding where to go. They may appear blasé, but they worry about the health of their parents and grandparents.
These stresses, added to parents’ expectations that their teens will be good little doobies and do all their work via computer and get good grades, can feel overwhelming, making it too difficult to even get started.
So leave them alone.
Lead with empathy: “It’s so hard to get started, isn’t it? I feel the same way.”
Let them know you have faith in their ability to find a way to get their work done, that you’re there to support them.
Then don’t say another word. Go about your business.
What if My Kid Fails?
Could your teen fail? Yes. Take a deep breath and repeat to yourself, “That wouldn’t be the end of the world.” There are always second chances, although perhaps not via the route you had mapped out.
Your teen needs to be the driver of their own life. Let them, even if it means making missteps.
And if they fail, don’t blame or shame or say, “I told you so.”
Instead, say, “What’s your plan? I’m sure you’ll figure out a way forward. Let me know how I can help.”
4. Be Like Teflon
You are a safe target, and will likely bear the brunt of your teen’s anger and anxiety.
It’s so easy to fight back, to get in a shouting match and say things you’ll regret. It’s especially easy to lose it now, when you’re stressed about keeping the family healthy, managing life from the dining room table, and trying to make ends meet.
Take a deep breath and call up your inner Zen. Walk out of the room and lock yourself in the bathroom if you have to so you can regain your composure. Cover yourself in teflon so all her barbs just slide right off.
A Standard Response
Give yourself a standard line of response, then say nothing more. “I’m sorry you feel that way” works well.
Or, “I can see that you’re really angry. I’m happy to talk it out when we can speak calmly.”
Disengage from the anger.
Then go pour a cup of tea and read Jane Austen. Take a long, hot bath. Go for a walk with a friend (staying more than 6 feet apart, of course). Take care of yourself in any way these crazy times will allow.
Don’t Feed the Fire
Without the oxygen of an angry response from you, the flame of her rage will die out.
The big feelings will still be there, but now you can pull out a bowl of M&M’s and invite her to talk about them, leading with empathy.
“I’m sorry you’re feeling so upset. Anything I can do to help?”
When she does finally open up, spend more time listening than talking. Hold back the urge to jump in and fix things or tell her that soon everything will be alright.
Sometimes she just needs you to receive her – angst, upset, and all.
5. Offer Family Activities, But Don’t Force Participation
We all know that time outside enhances mental health for children and teens – and for adults. We need the light, the fresh air, the green space.
Yet your teen spends hours and hours in front of a screen. He grunts in response to your admonitions for him to go out and take a walk. You’re beginning to sound like the teacher in a Charlie Brown movie: “Wah, wah, wah …”
So how do you get him outside? Or to the living room for a game of Bananagrams, for that matter?
You know what I’m going to say. Don’t nag. Don’t insist. Let him direct his own life … but make what you’re offering enticing.
Good Food Helps – Seriously
“We’re going out for a picnic. I made your favorite wrap – you know, the one with lots of bacon. It will be a whole lot more fun if you join us.”
If he says no, go without him. When you come back, let him know how much fun you had and that you missed him.
Then ask again another time.
Want him to play a board game with the fam? Offer snacks he loves and his favorite game.
A family movie? Leave your usual documentaries or serious dramas aside, and suggest a genre he loves – a thriller, maybe, or a Marvel movie. And let the smell of that popping corn on the stove waft through the house.
Keep at it. Eventually, he might just join you.
Reframe the Situation
Your teen feels the same way you do – scared, overwhelmed, disappointed about missing things, experiencing cabin fever.
At the same time, as long as your family remains healthy, you can reframe this situation – or at least the part of this experience that has you home for a prolonged period with your teen.
How about seeing it as a gift? Your kid will soon leave home, and will likely never again – ever – spend as much time with you.
Leading with empathy, treating your teen like an adult, letting them drive their own life, reacting with calm to their outbursts, and offering (but not forcing) participation in family bonding activities – many of these are not easy.
But they can go a long way towards building or strengthening your relationship with your teen, both now and for the long term.