THE BLOG
04/19/2011 09:28 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Avoiding the Parent Trap: How to Change Your Thoughts About Parenting Teens

It's hard to say how it started.

I know for a fact that we parent teens today with more fear, ego and judgment than calm, confidence and openness. There are countless theories as to why.

Maybe it's a lack of familiarity with their lightning-paced world of Facebook, texting and YouTube. Maybe we're worried about what other parents will think of our kids, or of us. Maybe the iron fist held more sway a generation back. Maybe we're working too hard to keep up with the Joneses.

Maybe the Tiger Mom is getting to us.

Regardless, the fact stands; once our children cross into the teen years, many of us become jittery, angry, withholding, terribly confused parents. So what's going on here?

Well, ask parents of teens, and many will tell you that it's some inevitable, hormone-driven change in their kids:

  • "He's totally tuned out his mother and me. He won't give us the time of day."
  • "I can't believe she's willing to wear that out of the house.
  • "Teenagers are nuts. You just have to wait out the crazy for a few years."

Several years ago, one father put it to me very succinctly: "John, he used to be this open, loving kid, and now he seems completely unavailable to me."

Of course, teenagers have their own retorts on the issue:

  • "Oh, really, who's working until 9 every night?"
  • "Who's checking their Blackberry every five minutes?"
  • "Who won't look me in the eye until 'Dancing with the Stars' is rolling credits?"
  • "Who lectures me all day about my C without any kudos for the As and Bs?"
  • "Who's no fun anymore?"

Over the past several years, I've learned that, by and large, teens and their parents are both correct. They have become unavailable to one another. It's also important to note, however, that we parents often strike first. Fear, judgment and ego make us less available, and believe me, today's teenagers are onto us. They know we are trying to keep them in a box, protected from the perils of the outside world. They know that we judge them for what they wear, the games they play, the grades they receive.

Parents don't always believe me. But teenagers are smart and perceptive. They know, and they respond in kind. They shut down. They stop communicating. They withhold thoughts, feelings and affection. And this cycle of fear and disconnectedness continues on and on for years.

Sometimes for a lifetime.

In my practice, I focus on the word "availability" in parenting. Available parents protect time to actually enjoy and celebrate (yes, celebrate) their children. They are fully present for some moments with their children every day. They offer advice but try to provide their teenagers a wide enough berth to screw up and figure it all out for themselves most of the time. They don't bother lecturing their teens, favoring open discussions instead. They are never cruel or dismissive.

The payoff for the available parent is enormous. There is more satisfaction, fun and expressed love in the relationships with your children, for sure. But your teens are also more open to you, as well. They value your opinion. They consider your feelings. They may not always make the best decisions, of course. They are teenagers, and they are naturally experimenting with a lot. But they'll consider the values that you've engendered when they make decisions, and that's no small deal.

When I talk to parents about availability, they tend to nod in recognition. Parents know availability. Absent the fear and ego, it comes naturally to us. Inherently, we want to be available. Most of us were, in fact, when our children were younger.

But by adolescence, many parents feel that the damage is already done, the connection is severed, and it's too late to fix the relationships. The good news is that it is never too late. We can reverse this process, this cycle of fear, and it's not drudgery to do so. We spend time laughing with our kids, we watch their shows, we listen to their music, we read their books. We talk to them and, more importantly, we listen to them. And they, in turn, will listen to us. I've seen parents and teens build the relationship back up.

Availability in parenting is big, and it's really important, but not solely for the reasons you might think. I do truly believe that the available parent fosters a stronger, more competent and resilient teenager, to be sure. A teen is far more likely to heed the words of her parents if her parents are willing to heed hers, for instance. A teen is absolutely more likely to consult a parent who is open and non-judgmental when he gets in a tight spot.

But the largest risk for unavailable parents is something we don't often think about. Sure, if we remain closed, angry and judgmental, we are doomed to years of conflict and a wild lack of efficacy in our parenting, regardless of technique. And yes, your son may not care about whether or not you like his new girlfriend. And your daughter may slip by you without seeking comfort after that party that got out of control. Significant risks.

But my biggest fear for the unavailable parent of teens, the ultimate ripoff, the most frightening parent trap, would be to miss it. See, I'm fortunate enough to know a lot of teenagers. They're smart. They're caring. They're thoughtful, cool and very, very, funny. They're courageous, too. And just under the veneer of aloofness or bravado or angst, they're emotionally available, and just waiting. And it just kills me when parents don't take the cue and never get to see all the amazing qualities I am privileged to see in their children. What a ripoff.

After all the time and love spent in your relationship with your child, are you really willing to miss it, any of it, now?

Open your heart and mind to your teenager. Be her strongest advocate, her most trusted advisor, her ally. When an issue arises, if you are open, non-judgmental and curious, you'll find a shortcut to solving the problem. If you're closed, angry and judgmental, you barely have a chance.

Availability works. And it is, without doubt the better story. For both of you.