By: Diana Bello Aristizábal
DORAL, FL – According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, although during adolescence the relationship between parents and children changes, adults are key for the positive development of teenagers, as they help shape their education, morals, social values, and worldview.
Despite this unavoidable truth, in these times of hyperconnectivity, many parents are not certain about how to approach their teenage children, and how to build a healthy relationship with them through good communication.
This is particularly challenging with teenagers because in this period of life they begin adopting behaviors such as locking themselves in their rooms, becoming too private about their lives, and spending too much time on their cell phones.
However, although understanding the behavior of adolescents is quite a challenge for many, it is possible to establish a healthy relationship with them with a large dose of patience, tolerance, and knowledge.
Understanding the teenage mind
For Christina Balinotti, creator of ‘Universidad de la Familia Ahora Sí’, doctor of psychology and an expert in family issues, the first thing that we need to know is that according to the most recent studies in neuroscience, adolescence ends at 30 years old and not at 19 or 20 as previously thought.
Patricia A. Ares-Romero, doctor in psychiatry and neurology, and Medical Director of Jackson Behavioral Health Hospital agree in part with this statement, as she believes the adolescent’s brain does not reach maturity until 25 years of age.
“Before that age, the brain is immature in the prefrontal cortex area, which is in charge of controlling feelings. You could say the adolescent is kidnapped by his or her emotions due to not having that area fully developed”, explains Dr. Balinotti.
This biological fact makes this stage of life very confusing for those who are living it. “There is a feeling of great discomfort in emotions and only pleasure and instant gratification works,” says Balinotti.
However, it should be clarified that although this brings difficulties, the adolescent must be held responsible for his or her actions. “It takes a while learning to control emotions and adults role is to set boundaries to help teens make better choices,” says Dr. Ares-Romero.
Parents should start building a relationship with their children long before adolescence arrives or in the primary stage between 12 and 14 years of age. However, it is never too late to strengthen the bond and change the dynamics within the family.
According to Dr. Ares-Romero, to start walking towards that direction, parents must first define some clear and consistent rules at home that can be implemented at any given time even if children are not used to having rules. “You have to explain what is expected of them, and also set consequences along with them,” says the doctor.
Setting boundaries regarding technology use is especially important today, as it is a way to protect them from school bullying that no longer ends when kids arrive at home but can be extended through a screen.
Although kids today communicate mainly by digital means, each family must lay down a few rules on this matter so that technology doesn’t become the main source of communication at home. By doing so, parents prevent behaviors such as texting other family members that are physically present at that moment.
According to both experts, communication must be strengthened every day by trying to have an ‘open-doors’ home that means not only being able to talk freely about life’s difficulties, but also limiting behaviors such as shutting the doors.
“They need to close their bedroom door to feel like they have some control, but it is important to be aware of what they do inside of it because when they have Internet access, dangerous situations can happen,” explains Dr. Ares-Romero.
In this regard, Dr. Balinotti believes that privacy is something that should only be exercised when you have a mature brain capable of making sound decisions.
“We must explain that the bedroom door has to remain open because they are living in mom and dad’s house. We also need to tell them that once they work and make a living, they can close the doors at their own homes,” she says.
But according to both, it is not only about setting rules, but about being present and really knowing how they use their time, who are their friends, who are their friend’s parents, and what plans they have for the future, as well as talking to them about dangers and self- responsibility.
“Regarding technology usage, we can say something like this: ‘I have noticed you visit YouTube a lot, I would like to know what do you like about it’ and then showing a willingness to understand what they watch,” says Dr. Ares-Romero.
Dr. Balinotti summarizes this topic as having the assertiveness and walking next to them with expert authority from childhood to adulthood. “Assertiveness is setting rules without yelling or hitting, and talking without prohibiting becoming a facilitator that helps the child discover who he or she is, wants and dreams of,” says Dr.Balinotti.
Since dialogue is one of the most valuable parenting tools, adults need to understand and master the art of conversation in order to have a good relationship with their teenage children, both in primary adolescence (13 or 14 years old) as in the last part of this stage.
And how should that dialogue be? For Dr. Balinotti, the key is to practice listening 80 percent and speaking 20 percent. “Lectures are not effective with children and cut off communication. We must promote, instead, daily dialogue with them from an early age that becomes a built-in routine,” she states.
Asking too many questions and forcing them to speak also doesn’t work. What does work for parents is to be the ones starting the conversation by talking about themselves or sharing their own personal experiences throughout the day… This will encourage teenagers to do the same in response.
Dr. Ares-Romero has a similar opinion. She thinks sharing personal experiences helps children feel closer and more identified with their parents. “With this, they stop seeing them as perfect human beings that have no difficulties,” says Dr.Ares-Romero.
Having constructive conversations with children should not be a difficult goal to achieve even when there is little time available, because parents can start a dialogue at any given time. For example, during dinner or, if this is not possible, even when sharing an orange juice, some cookies, or a coffee.
Another alternative is to play board games that in addition to helping them disconnect a little from technology can also serve as an excuse to talk. “Dialogue is the glue of the relationship between adults and adolescents because we are giving them quality time,” says Balinotti.
Other options include organizing out-of-home activities, establishing family routines, such as having breakfast together every day and involving closest friends in family dynamics. “We can tell our teenager ‘I found out that you have a girlfriend, I would like to meet her, why don’t you bring her home?”, advises Dr. Ares-Romero.
But in these approaches, it is very important not to lose motivation even if the adolescent’s response is not encouraging. “Young people are hungry for communication, and although sometimes they seem not to want anything to do with us, the reality is that they need us,” says the expert.
It should be noted that increasing communication with teenagers does not imply becoming friends with them as parents must offer themselves as valid identification figures that set boundaries but should never be considered as friends of their children.
On the other hand, it is also important to be empathic, avoiding giving statements such as ‘when I was your age, I was already working.’ Instead, parents should try to become the person children speak to when they have a problem.
“We do not get anything out of condemning or judging our children for their actions; instead, we should listen to them without making judgments. If we don’t, they will seek advice from other people who may not offer the best one”, says Balinotti.
This is something Erika Dambreville-Olaya, mother of a 14-year-old girl, knows very well. Her adolescence was very difficult because she never saw her mother as a support figure.
“Where I grew up authority could not be questioned nor could I express myself freely, which is why I never felt that I could talk to my mother if I had a problem,” says Erika.
This caused Erika many emotional problems that made her adopt a rebellious behavior, although it was precisely that difficult beginning that has led her to be a good mother for her daughter.
“As a mom, I try to remember what I was like at her age, what fears I had, the pressure I endured and how difficult it was for me to get used to high school. I never hit or yell at her because that will only bring me regret. Whenever she is going through hard times, I just try to be there for her,” says Erika.
In conclusion, the key to solving the mystery of adolescence is to understand that it is a transitional period where children need their parents support above all things. It is also important to be not only an authority figure but one of relief and protection.