Leading and Letting Go

UPDATED: January 26, 2011
PUBLISHED: January 26, 2011

“Stay away from Johnny. He’s trouble.” “I don’t want you dating that girl.” If this sounds like the advice your parents gave you when you were a teen, you may remember it wasn’t very effective. And if the advice you give your teens sounds similar, you probably aren’t getting through to them either. In fact, you may be doing them a disservice.

Rather than dictating your teens’ friendships, teach them how to choose friends wisely and how to develop healthy relationships on their own. There may be times when it’s appropriate to step in, but it’s impossible to be with your teen all the time, which is why it is crucial to empower them to think for themselves.

Today’s teens are savvier than ever in many respects. Aptly labeled Generation Net, their childhood toys included laptop computers and cell phones—real ones. They are the super-connected generation. This trait may serve them well in the years to come (just imagine how all those connections will add up on LinkedIn when they’re doing their first job search or starting their first business), but while they’re still discovering who they are and what they want to be, dealing with so many voices may simply equate to extreme peer pressure.

So, while today’s teens are just as obstinate as you were about heeding parental orders, they’re also likely to have a bigger, more confusing worldview and many more relationships to negotiate. Because of the excessive amount of information they’re exposed to on a daily basis, they may seem more knowledgeable about topics such as sex than you were at their age. But knowledge doesn’t equate to wisdom, and that’s why your teen needs you.

Whether or not they admit it, teens need their parents’ guidance to successfully navigate the path from adolescence to adulthood, especially when it comes to building healthy relationships.

Start the Conversation

Getting your teens to talk about relationships can be a challenge. Sometimes it seems there’s no middle ground—teens either talk nonstop or not at all. With non-talkers, you may feel blessed to get more than a single-syllabic response to your inquiries about their day. To move beyond grunts and the occasional “fine” into actualconversations about things that matter, get them talking about things they’re interested in. Take the age-old advice from Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People: Show real interest in your teens’ likes and dislikes, hobbies, music and, yes, relationships.

Expressing genuine interest increases the odds for meaningful conversations and at the same time models communication skills necessary for all relationships. When it comes to learning more about their relationships, ask about their girlfriends’ or boyfriends’ interests, hobbies and families… for your benefit as well as your teen’s own knowledge. Questions such as What type of music does she listen to? What classes does she like best? What are some of her favorite things will help your teen begin to think about the person inside the cute body he’s attracted to.

Guide, Don’t Nag

In his book Revolutionary Parenting, George Barna quotes a parent who used this type of conversational method with her teens. “I always helped my kids choose their friends—but I think I was able to do it without them realizing it,” the parent says. “I would never come right out and tell them they could not befriend a particular peer, or outright criticize one of their potential buddies. My approach was always more subtle, based on asking pointed questions about behavior or beliefs that were substantially different from what we allowed.”

These types of questions can help your teen see his peers with a broader perspective and to understand how friends influence each other, for better or worse. For instance, ask your teen to look at different cliques or even his own group of friends and estimate the average GPA among group members—who’s passing, who’s failing and who really just doesn’t care? Then ask, Knowing that high school is a short four years that prepares you for the next stage of life, what type of people do you want to hang out with? People who are going in the direction you want to go, or people who don’t seem to care where they end up?

Define ‘Healthy Relationship’

Reality television and popular movies give a skewed picture of what real relationships should look and feel like. Give your teens an alternative viewpoint by modeling healthy relationships with them, as well as with your spouse and friends. Explain (with words and action) that positive relationships benefit both parties; real friendships are a balance of give and take, not control or abuse. Healthy relationships also allow for honest communication. Fear of rejection can keep some teens from expressing their opinions or dislikes with friends. Encourage them to speak up and to connect with people who show respect, even (or perhaps especially) when they don’t see eye to eye.

Be a Positive Voice of Wisdom and Support

If or when your teen gets involved in a relationship that is dragging her down mentally, emotionally or even physically, don’t be afraid to step in with encouragement and guidance. Becca Wertheim, the 18-year-old author of Live High on Life: 12 Simple Ways to Make the Most of Your Teenage Years, says that when a friend turned frenemy and began belittling her in middle school, her parents were there for her. “They reminded me that I needed to be around people who lifted me up,” she says. “It really helped to have them say ‘There really are people who will like you for you.’ ”

Offer a Way Out of Negative Relationships

Sometimes it’s necessary for teens to change or expand their circles of friends. Maybe their interests have changed or maybe they’re no longer good for each other. But it’s not realistic to think a teen is going to tell existing friends, “I’m not going to hang out with you anymore… You’re bringing me down.” In The Success Principles for Teens, Jack Canfield and Janet Switzer offer an easier, less dramatic solution. “We recommend that you make other commitments that require time apart from them.” This will provide a natural way to limit interaction with negative friends, as well as a way to develop new relationships with people with common interests.

Wertheim suggests getting involved in some type of activity such as school musicals, sports, school government or clubs, or getting an after-school job or volunteer activity. “It’s not about finding 100 friends; it’s about finding one good friend. At first it may be difficult to separate from old relationships, but there can be so much positivity in connecting with friends who can bring you up, rather than those who bring you down.”

Teaching Your Teens How to Have Real Connections

Texting is the preferred method of communication for a lot of teens. It’s fast, it’s simple, but it also can be a crutch that allows teens to avoid difficult conversations or say things they would never say to a person face to face. From learning how to ask a girl on a date to confronting a bully, your teen needs to know how to articulate his point of view. It’s only through one-on-one communication that teens learn to gauge the full impact of their words, to read each other’s emotions and see how words can be hurtful, and then to control their speech accordingly.

Resist the Urge to Rescue

When your child comes to you with a complaint about a friend or a problem with a teacher, don’t immediately jump in and offer a solution. Instead, listen intently and acknowledge your teen’s feelings. Let him talk through the problem. Ask clarifying questions that encourage him to discover a solution on his own.

Encourage Your Teen to Be a Good Friend

Respect is the foundation of healthy relationships. Name-calling, deception, gossiping and manipulation have no place in positive relationships. Teach your kids what it means to be respectful by treating them the way they should treat others.

Ask your teen what she expects from a relationship, how she expects to be treated and how she believes she should treat others. After some discussion, set the bar high for your teen. Similarly, talk about ways your teen can communicate her expectations to her friends through words and actions.

“Parents need to remind their kids that they deserve the best friends, not fair-weather friends or friends who talk about you behind your back,” Wertheim says. “Teens need to know they don’t have to put up with hurtful friends.”

Encourage Positive Relationships with Adults

Kent Julian, who speaks to educators and students across the nation on topics such as personal and classroom leadership, encourages teen audiences to think not only about their choice of friends, but also about the adults they include in their lives. “The kids who are really intentional about the mentors they choose are the most successful. I also explain that it is not a mentor’s job to find you; it’s your job to find a mentor,” Julian says.

“Parents can help by creating space and allowing time for their teens to build positive adult relationships,” he adds. That could mean supporting your teen’s involvement in a sport, church or club where he will have the opportunity to be influenced by successful and positive adults. But it could also mean opening the door for your teen to have one-on-one interaction with adults (both younger and older than you). Obviously, you want your teen to come to you with questions or relationship issues, but if for some reason he isn’t comfortable talking with you, make sure he is surrounded by people you both trust who can offer positive advice and guidance.

When your children are young, you have almost complete control over their choice of friends and where they go. In the teenage years, they are exposed to a greater diversity of people and ideas. Your job is to help them successfully navigate those new relationships and to continue to discover who they are as individuals. By modeling healthy relationships in your own life, encouraging your teens to respect themselves and others, and by connecting your teens with positive adults, you can equip them with the wisdom and self-confidence to seek out connections that challenge them to be their best.