Teens often look like they’re doing a dance, inching one step closer to adulthood, and then taking two steps back toward childhood. Adulthood is simultaneously exciting and terrifying. Up to this point, your child’s identity was largely based on yours. But in adolescence, they begin to individuate—to separate from you. That freedom is also simultaneously exciting and terrifying.
As a parent, you play a pivotal role in the success of this often-tumultuous transition. One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is to empower them.
Hold onto the reins too tightly, you stifle their development. Loosen the reins too far and you risk all sorts of teen havoc. Finding the just-right balance is key to empowering your teen so that they have the psychological tools to navigate adolescence—and become emotionally healthy, confident adults.
As you’ve likely learned (trial by fire), the words you choose when talking to your teen can either make or break the outcome of even the most insignificant conversations with them.
When the stakes are high—let’s say you’re comforting, encouraging or deescalating a situation—the language you use takes on even greater clout. Sometimes, simplest is best.
Following are three of the most empowering things you can say to your teen:
1. I trust you.
Have you ever driven alongside a car with a nervous 15 ½ -year old behind the wheel—and an even more nervous parent sitting in the passenger seat? The parent’s expression usually gives it away.
Perhaps you’ve sat in that very car, pumping your imaginary brake. If so, then you know that the more you pump, the more nervous you make your teen. Teaching a child to drive requires incredible trust. Your trust is a vote of confidence. It’s nerve-wracking to give up control.
Your teen is likely to do all sorts of things that test your parenting nerves. Hanging out with new friends. Going to concerts (without you). Dating. Applying for college, summer jobs, internships. These are all part of their journey—and the older they get, the less you’ll be invited along for the ride. Trust that they’ll make prudent decisions. And have faith that they’ll bounce back from their (inevitable) mistakes.
While you’ll be there to lend support and offer advice, letting go—trusting—is a vote of confidence. And it’s essential in the development of your teen’s independence.
2. You’ve got this.
The drama in your teen’s life is real—at least in their minds. You may know that getting a “C” on a math quiz is inconsequential in the grand scheme, but your adolescent may think it’s the end of the word. The spiral of self-deprecation often appears unstoppable.
Encouraging your teen is a delicate undertaking. They see right through empty platitudes. But that doesn’t mean you should hold back on authentic encouragement. Even when your teen is at their emotional ugliest, they’re also people with feelings. Respect that. Be kind.
“The way you talk to your children becomes their inner voice.” — Peggy O’Mara
If your teen is disappointed in a test grade, angry about missing a field goal or devastated over a breakup, support them by validating their feelings. Let them know that you get it—and that you’re confident that they’ll bounce back even stronger. Assure your teen that one bad test score doesn’t define them—and remind them of past successes. Help them recognize—and harness—their many unique strengths.
3. How can I help you?
One of the hardest things about being a parent is standing back when your child is struggling—at any age. Stepping in and doing something for your teen might help them dodge short-term pain, but it also prevents long-term gain. How will they be able to develop their own competencies if they never have to?
Asking your teen how you can help is actually one of the best ways to empower them.
Sometimes, your daughter needs to vent about an argument with her best friend. She’s not looking for answers or advice (which you’ll quickly learn once you start offering them, sage as they might be).
“Can you help me with this essay for World History?” could mean anything from helping your son choose among three possible topics to editing the paper for grammar and punctuation. Ask, don’t assume. And—here’s the hard part—if he asks you to review his paper for grammar and punctuation, but you take issue with the content, bite your tongue. His paper. His ideas. And, most importantly, his request for your help. Honor it.
Of course, you know your teen better than anyone else does. If your child seems open to it, you can ask if they’d like to hear your advice on how to talk to the friend or structure an idea in the essay. The important thing is to let them take the lead—and to respect their request for help. To do otherwise is to essentially say “your voice doesn’t count.”
Cultivating independence is one of the most profound responsibilities of parenting. Empowering your teen is not only a gift you give to them—it’s also one you give to yourself. A relationship with an empowered teen tends to be much healthier—and far less volatile—than with a teen who has an anxious attachment to you or exhibits overdependence. When you empower your teen, you don’t make them need you less; you encourage them to need you differently.
It's OK to ask for help.
If you’re interested in learning more about adolescent psychotherapy, family counseling or parenting support, please contact us by submitting this form, or by phone at 847-729-3034. We’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.