Parent/Teacher Teen Relationships: Widening the Web

photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

They look like little adults.

They act like little adults (sometimes).

They demand to be treated like adults.

They aren’t little adults. They are teens, and it can be really confusing to decide how to interact with them from an adult perspective. We don’t want to coddle them because it’s important for them to begin solving their own problems and taking responsibility for themselves. But the truth is, they don’t have the benefit of life experience or the neurodevelopmental maturity to handle complicated situations yet, so what’s a parent or teacher to do?

There is a lot of talk about independence when it comes to teens, but I’d like to challenge that concept, if I may. None of us is truly independent. Can you replace your home’s water heater on your own if it fails? Can you purchase a car without a loan from the bank or credit union? If someone close to you is struggling with a difficult life event, do you reach out in support or let them deal with it alone? I’d like to think that what we really want for ourselves and our teens is to become interdependent instead – to know that over time we have built a web of trusted people and systems that we can rely on when we need help and to whom we can offer our unique talents as well.

So what does that have to do with adult-teen relationships? It requires us, as adults, to become very strategic with regard to how we interact with teens. It means that we take the view that our relationship is a dynamic and evolving one that allows for gradual changes in the balance of power. Over time, as our students and children show us that they are more competent and confident, we can allow them to have more say in how we interact with them and how they interact with others. We can ratchet down the tangible supports and help them determine when they need to ask for help.

It also requires us to acknowledge that a healthy web of relationships includes a variety of people who support, challenge, network and care for our kids. If teens don’t have a group of adults – be they teachers, parents, mentors, extended family, a boss at work – who provide these important pieces of the web, they will look to their peers to fill the gaps.  While peers play a vital role in our teens’ lives, they don’t have the life experience or emotional stability that most adults do, so it is incumbent upon us to check in from time to time and see where our students may need shoring up.

It can be incredibly difficult to engage in this kind of relationship with teens, since they are driven to push away from adults who have historically acted as parents or were in a position of power, but it is important that we stay connected and help them determine which of the other people around them can be trusted to help them become the people they strive to be. There is a great deal of research that demonstrates the significance of teen-adult relationships with regard to healthy social-emotional development and if parents and educators can find ways to have evolutionary, progressive relationships with teens, we can have an incredible impact on their ability to navigate the world with confidence and support.

Next Time: Tips on how to build a developmental relationship with a teen

Why the “Social” Part of Social Media is So Important for Adolescents

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As parents and educators, we often hear (and engage in) complaints about teens and social media. What we don’t often talk about is what drives their behavior, but if we are to have meaningful conversations with students about social media use, it helps to understand it.

One key point to remember is that, as human beings, we are neurobiologically wired for connection. Our brains are designed to reward us for being part of a social network and alert us that something is wrong if we are feeling isolated. Without connection to others, we suffer. This phenomenon is especially pronounced during our adolescent years which accounts for the extraordinary drive to find others with whom we belong.

I remember my parents’ frustration at the endless hours I spent on the phone every evening, the 10-foot cord stretched down the hallway so I could tuck myself away in my room with the door shut and talk to friends. Like most teens, I craved connection. The 8 hours a day I spent with friends at school wasn’t enough. Today’s teens are the same, but they have different technologies available to them than we did.

There are so many examples in the media of the ways adolescents use social media to harass each other, but we don’t often look at the ways they use it to make each others’ lives better. FaceTime has become a great way for students to help each other with homework or work on group projects. Individual Instagram accounts have allowed teens to see a different side of their peers – learning about other interests they have outside of school. Social media as a whole enables students who live in geographically distant areas to connect around common passions or struggles and can lead to some pretty amazing activism.

Overall, it seems that adolescents haven’t changed that much over the years, but the tools they use to engage socially have. The key as parents and educators is for us to acknowledge that teens will always find ways to create and maintain strong social networks and use our wisdom and influence to help them understand how to use those tools in a way that builds them up and flexes their social-emotional muscles. Asking lots of open-ended questions about how and why they use certain social media platforms can help adults learn what kind of connection is most important to an individual student, and it can give them some insight and self-awareness. It isn’t uncommon for teens to start doing something because their peers are doing it, but if we can encourage them to reflect on whether it is filling a need, they are more likely to make good choices about how and when to repeat that behavior.

Removing an adolescent’s ability to engage with their peers by taking their phone away or blocking Internet access doesn’t eliminate the drive to connect, and it can harm your relationship. Helping teens find ways to maintain productive, healthy social connections, both in person and virtually, by acknowledging their need to bond with others and enabling it whenever possible will go a long way toward building trust.