How do you even initiate a conversation with your adolescent, let alone establish a close relationship? Priya Kulasagaran speaks to both teenagers and parents about how they manage to keep a good rapport through these hormone-ridden years.
The words of author Melvin Burgess may well resonate with parents of teenage children: “(We) regard the teenage years as being a trial, both for people going through them, and for those who have to live with them.”
Mood-swings, sarcasm, and cries of “You don’t understand me” are all the stereotypical hallmarks of the turbulent teen years.
It can be painful for parents to suddenly find their children navigating their new phase of growing up and becoming their own individuals.
Here are some tips from both young people and parents on how you can start making a more meaningful connection with your teenager.
- Try to empathise with their problems
Teenage issues, be it school, peer pressure or everyday annoyances, may seem trivial to you as an adult.
However, it pays to remember that they do not have the perspective nor the experience that you do in your current situation.
Michelle Lim thinks that the first rule of getting your teenager to talk to you is to accept that their seemingly insignificant problems are very real to them.
“Logically I know that my current problems will not matter much in the future – but the future feels very far away right now,” says the 16-year-old.
“When adults tell me that my problems are not important, I feel like there’s no point in talking to them.
“Maybe these are not ‘real’ problems, but I can’t help feeling upset or sad over some things. The feelings are very real to me.”
- Respect is a two-way street
It may seem counter-intuitive to the traditional Asian creed of respect being accorded with age, but respecting your child’s ideas – even when you find them ridiculous – can go a long way in encouraging them to talk to you.
This is also important in helping your child develop respect for others by showing through example.
Gayathri Pathmanathan, 17, says that she feels closer to her mother precisely because the latter appreciates her thoughts and opinions.
“My mum is great about listening to what I have to say, even when we disagree,” she says.
“If she thinks I’m wrong about something, we usually talk it over, and I still get to present my case.
“It makes me feel like she takes me seriously, and I feel like I can talk to her without being judged.”
- Start with trust rather than suspicion
“Having to update my parents about where I am and whom I with every few minutes is really annoying,” says 18-year-old Ashvin Raj.
“I know they mean well, and they’re just concerned, but it’s frustrating that they feel the need to monitor me all the time.
“Some of my friends have the same problem, and they sometimes lie about where they are just to keep their parents quiet.
“These are just usually small lies, but I think if you start making a habit of it, you end up lying about bigger stuff too.”
By contrast, Rachel Tham, 15, says she feels comfortable opening up to her parents because she has their trust.
“Maybe my parents are a lot more easy-going compared to others,” she says.
“A few months back, some of my classmates were going to sneak out to go clubbing, and I was going to join them.
“Then I realised that it wasn’t worth it; I didn’t want to mess up my relationship with my parents.”
Rachel adds that some children may take advantage of that level of trust, but in those cases “the parents should punish them and make them earn the trust back”.
- Listen before reacting
Almost all the teenagers here say that parents should refrain from “freaking out” before they can explain the situation fully.
“I used to have pretty bad relationship with my father because of this,” says 17-year-old Jeffri Yusoff.
“Like, I’ll come back with a low grade for a test, and my father would immediately start jumping about how I was lazy and didn’t study enough.
“I had no chance to explain why I was failing that particular subject; my teacher was barely in class, we had no guidance, and I had no idea how to make myself get better grades.
“Now I see that my father was worried, but at the time I just shut him off because I felt like I was always in the wrong.”
What changed the situation for Jeffri was having his mother initiate better conversations, with more listening from both sides rather than immediately jumping to conclusions.
“She made us sit down and actually talk; we each got five minutes to tell our side of the story without interruptions,” he says.
“She even had a timer for this! It was very awkward at first, but it kind of helped because I could understand where my dad was coming from as well,” he says.
- Interact instead of interrogate
When your bright and happy-go-lucky child seems to have turned into a sullen and evasive teenager overnight, it is tempting to probe them to get to the bottom of things.
The sad truth is the more you try and interrogate your teenager, the more likely he or she is going to avoid you further – they need a parent, not a police officer.
G. Krishnamurthy said that he used to hover over and constantly question his two daughters as they entered their teenage years.
“It’s like they were suddenly completely uncommunicative; they no longer wanted to sit down and talk about what was happening in their lives.
“Of course I was worried, and my way of showing it was to keep asking them about school or their friends, and they just got even more irritated,” he said.
He then decided to try a different approach by allocating a few hours a week just for “hanging out”.
“Trust me, there were a lot of eye-rolls when I brought up the idea,” he says with a laugh.
“What convinced them was that I promised not to ‘interrogate’: the idea is that we spend this time once a week to do something they like together.
“I even went to the extent of going jewellery shopping with them!
“It took some time, but through these sessions, they started opening up to me more – entirely unprompted.”
- Introduce dedicated family time
Khor Li Min is a firm believer of having “no-device family time” and says this simple rule has laid the foundation of establishing a strong family bond.
“For us, dinner means we all sit down together at the table for at least an hour – no television and no texting.
“This is something we started with the children since they were young, so they’ve got used to by now.
“In fact, my 15-year-old daughter actually calls us (parents) out when a work e-mail or text comes through!” she says.
Khor feels that having this distraction-free meal allows her family a relaxed way of catching up with each other.
“It may not seem like much, but for me it’s about being really present when we’re together.
“I think this shows our children that we are interested in what’s going on with them, and cultivates the practice of being comfortable about talking to each other,” she adds.
Meanwhile, Arif Baharuddin has an entirely different approach for connecting with his two teenage sons – the entire family crowds around the television come dinner time.
“My sons are massive geeks about their television shows, so I thought, why not watch their favourite series with them?
“What I do after that is to sort of have a discussion about the shows after we watch them – what did they think about the character, the storyline, how it relates to the real world, and so on,” he says.
Arif says that this helps him teach his children some media literacy, while getting to spend time with them.
“It sounds funny, but sometimes they end up talking about their own problems by relating them to the shows they watch,” he adds.
- Give them responsibilities instead of orders
“I think the turning point in my relationship with my son was when I started treating him more like an adult,” says Yusoff Abdullah.
Explaining his previously strained ties with this son, Yusoff shared that learning to let go was key in reconnecting with his child.
“It was hard for me to accept that I can’t just tell my son what to do and expect him to just comply – that was why he rebelled so much.
“The drill sergeant method may have worked for me when I was younger, but it wasn’t working with my son.
“So for example, when he got his driver’s licence, I started asking him to help us with certain chores, like picking up his younger sister from tuition class, or going to get groceries,” he says.
Yusoff says this change of approach was to show that he trusted his son with adult responsibilities.
“Instead of him being ‘forced’ to do chores, he was now becoming more responsible for helping us function as family.
“How I know that it worked is that he slowly started offering help with things around the house without us asking.
“The point is to show that your child can make a meaningful contribution to the family; get them more involved and they will feel valued,” he says.
- Share your experiences as well
While your teens may outwardly say your adolescent experiences are outdated, they secretly do appreciate it when you share your own struggles from that period of your life.
“It makes you more relatable, and shows them that they can get through it too,” says Khor.
“When my then-14-year-old was feeling pressured to fit in with the other girls in school, I spoke about how I used to feel the same way.
“I think you need to be as honest as you can about how you handled it, and how you could have handled it differently.
“They may or may not take your advice, but it makes them feel like they can talk to you about things that are important to them.”
Arif takes it a step further by talking about his current problems with his sons, and asking them for their ideas.
“Nothing too ‘adult’ of course, but simple things like, maybe I have a really irritating colleague who keeps interrupting me at work – how can I handle that sort of situation.
“I have to say, sometimes I do learn a thing or two from my kids!”
At the end of the day, the best advice both teenagers and parents agree on is to recognise that your child is on the path to becoming his or her own person.
“I think it’s balancing between giving them the space to grow and being their guardian,” says Krishnamuthy.
“One minute they’re asserting their independence, and the other they’re looking to you for some pampering.
“All you can really do is let them know that you’ll be there for them, and they can turn to you when they’re in need.”