Today’s teenagers expect and demand authenticity from parents and other adults who want to be in relationship with them. This principle, like so many things in my life, I learned the hard way.
One Summer while in grad school, I taught catechism classes to a group of 13 year old boys. I charged in the first day with vigor and enthusiasm, determined that I, the overeducated young teacher would have these boys eating out of the palm of my hand. I was going to be hip, talk like them and show them that I hadn’t forgotten what it was like to be young. I was going to show them that I understood them, by trying to act like them.
Pumped up on the first day, I swung the door open, barged into the room and screamed “Wassup yo?” and then did some gesture with my hands and arms that caused two girls to dive under their desks screaming. Two feet away, two boys were choking to death laughing at me. The rest sat there stunned, shocked and embarrassed—for me.
My attempt to “be hip”, as they would later describe the scene, resembled a “wounded sea lion trying to break dance.” They were not impressed by my attempts to impress them. I came off as inauthentic (which I was) and trying too hard to get them to like me (which I was).
At the time I thought I needed teenagers to like me in order to reach them. But over the years I’ve learned that earning their respect is far more valuable than having them like you. You don’t have to try to get them to respect you. Respect is something you earn by remaining true to yourself and showing them the same respect you would like from them. Teens tend to like and respect adults who like and respect them. Here are a three tips to be more authentic with your teens:
Don’t try to act “youthful” if you’re not
Most adults are shocked to hear this but teens really don’t want adults to be their friend. They’ve got friends. What they want from adults are mentors, leaders with whom they can connect, respect and follow. When adults misread teens’ nonverbal communication and think they don’t want them around or they don’t like them, they can end up trying too hard to be someone the teen will like, respect and want around. Teenagers are incredibly people savvy and recognize this as inauthentic and pull away.
Seek first to understand
Today, when I feel stuck with a teen, I will slow down and ask “What don’t I know about this teen?” I might even ask the teen, I feel like I know a good bit about you, but I also feel there’s so much I don’t know. And I don’t need to know everything, nor do I expect you to share everything, but if there were one or two things that I don’t “get” about you, what would they be?” Teens are incredibly receptive to this and most will share more information with you about themselves and their world.
For parents, you might consider saying: “Can I make an observation?” (asking their permission shows them respect and increases their openness to what you’re about to say) “I don’t know why, and I probably won’t say this right. You know how mom/dad is! LOL But I just feel like something’s off between us. I don’t know if its something I’ve done or am doing, or if something else is going on. I just wanted to check in.” Even if the teen says “nuthin…” rolls their eyes and refuses to talk, you’ve told them you’re paying attention and that you care, which they appreciate and respect.
Ask about people, words and phrases you don’t know
If your teen use terminology that you don’t understand or talk about something you don’t know, stop, interrupt them and ask what the word, phrase means or say “I’m not familiar with __________, what’s that about.” Teens love to teach adults about their world. And when you ask about it, especially in a non judgmental way, they feel respected for two reasons: first it shows you’re paying attention to what they’re saying and that you’re really listening and secondly, you show them that you really do want to know them and understand them and their world. This will earn you their respect, which, again, is more important than having them like you.