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20 Meaningful Things I’ve Learned After 20 Years of Teaching Teens

For 20 years, I taught English to over 6000 high school students, and during that time, these are the lessons they taught me about teaching, mentoring, and parenting teens.

Information for Parents: 20 Years of Facts About Teens

1. Teenagers respond better to “Are you okay?” than to “What’s wrong?”

One is a question of concern; the other implies an error. Preemptively passing judgment closes off your invitation to talk and almost always draws the one-word response, “nothing.” Instead, express concern to get a teenager to talk about their feelings. Try saying, “You don’t seem like yourself today. What’s up?” or “Are you feeling alright today?”

2. Teenagers want to know your expectations, and they respect you when you hold the line.

Stating your expectations to a teenager can sometimes feel intimidating. However, teens value predictability. Teens want to know what adults expect and the reasons behind those expectations. They find comfort and security when expectations are concise and explanations are simple, such as, “My expectation is that you don’t have your phone at the dinner table, because it’s our one chance in the day to talk or just be together.” The key is to be consistent — and if your expectations change, communicate that as well.

3. You can expect more from your teenager. It’s okay to raise the bar for them.

When others see your potential and believe you’re capable of doing more, it’s a compliment. Let your teen know which of their behaviors you’re already proud of, and what next step you think they’re ready for. Your praise might look like this: “I am so proud of the way you played with your little sister today. I also am going to ask you to pick her up from school this Friday.” Think about how you can convey encouragement in the form of a praise/push.

4. Recognize your teenager’s intellect and abilities outside of grades.

Grades do not signify the sole identity of an adolescent. The honor-roll student needs to know they are more than their ability to study and test well. The struggling student needs to appreciate their strengths that don’t show up on a report card. Acknowledge that schooling is only part of what makes up our teenagers’ lives. Complement them on other things. For example, tell your child that they have a talent for decorating their room. Comment on how they have a natural ability to make young children laugh. Let them know that you see what else they’re good at.

5. When a teenager pulls away from you, it doesn’t mean they want you to do the same.

When your previously affectionate child becomes an aloof adolescent, sometimes our thoughts become, “Well, if he has no interest in getting out of his room, then I’m done trying.” It’s easy to feel affronted by their discourtesy. But see if you can manage to push those thoughts aside and offer some low-stakes time together instead. Would an invitation to grab pizza be enticing? How about a trip to a department store to pick out a new moisturizer? These small experiences let your child know you are making an effort to be present, despite their current behaviors.

6. Teens can handle uncomfortable situations.

Knowing what emotional discomfort feels like, and recognizing how to navigate through it, are important life skills you can help your teenager practice now. A teen who is terrified to speak in front of others, for example, has two options: avoid public speaking indefinitely, or slowly lean into the discomfort by taking small steps to build confidence. Perhaps step one is to talk in front of just one peer. Step two might be to talk in front of the family. Next steps can grow from there. Later in life, when more challenges present themselves, your teen will feel some assurance knowing they’ll be able to break those challenges down into smaller more manageable pieces.

7. Teenagers know you care when they see you paying attention.

Attention can significantly influence a teenager’s behavior, and teens can draw attention for both positive and negative behaviors. To avoid the latter as much as possible, consciously strive to notice and acknowledge your teen’s good behaviors. Your acknowledgment may look like this: “I know you’ve struggled in your Algebra class, and I can see you’ve been working harder at it. I’m proud of you for making that extra effort.”

8. But also, teens don’t want you to hover.

Kids are comfortable with not always being at the center of your world at all times. It’s fine to set aside time for other relationships in your life, such as your marriage, your friendships, and your connections with colleagues. Try taking some of the pressure off your teen by not making them the sole focus of your life at all times.

9. Teenagers value kindness.

… and not just kindness toward them. They notice when adults are kind to a stranger, to an animal, and to the server or cashier. Their generation values kindness; and when you practice kindness, you earn their respect.

10. A teenager’s clothing and style have little to do with who they are inside.

Yes, clothing sends a message. But don’t assume you know what your teenager is trying to communicate through their fashion choices. Try using their window dressing as a conversation starter. Saying something like “I’ve never seen a shirt like that. Where did you get it?” is an easy place to start.

11. Teenagers love intensely, and experience profound emotional pain.

Yes, you have more life experience, and yet, your teenager is still going to feel what they feel. Try to acknowledge and validate your teenager’s feelings without belittling them. Recalling what mattered to you most when you were their age can help you empathize with your teenager, show them compassion, and strengthen your bond. Don’t dismiss their feelings. Instead, acknowledge them. “I remember how much it hurts to be heart-broken,” or “I’ve been left out before, too” is a way to express empathy.

12. Be someone your teenagers feel safe talking to about tough issues.

What do teenagers worry about? Teens often don’t share information they know will cause the ones they love more stress. It’s important to let your teen know whatever it is, you can handle it. Assure them that they don’t need to protect you, and that you’re capable of dealing with whatever situation they choose to share with you.

13. Teenagers want adults to set a good example.

Teenagers appreciate when their parents have fun and full lives; however, it’s important to remember that they look to their parents to set an example. They need parents to take responsibility for their actions and show good character. They will learn from observing hurtful gossip and poor sportsmanship, for example. They can also learn from your honesty and generosity.

14. Teenagers emulate the behaviors adults model for them.

Again, they are watching! Teenagers are at an impressionable age where they are actively seeking role models to shape their sense of identity and behavior. Teens see the behavior of adults around them and model their own behavior accordingly. For instance, if an adult remains calm and rational in stressful situations, a teenager learns how to handle similar situations in the same manner. On the other hand, if an adult reacts impulsively and aggressively, a teenager may learn that such behavior is acceptable or effective. Do your best to model positive and constructive behavior.

15. Teenagers want opportunities to be adult-like . . .

Teachers often comment how students rise to the occasion when given adult-like responsibilities. Teenagers feel a positive sense of self when they are given some age-appropriate independence. Ask your teenager to take his sister to her game. Remind your teenager to make conversation with their grandparents. Let adult behavior be the expectation.

16. … and teenagers want opportunities to be childlike.

When teens sense their childhood is ending, they may feel a sense of loss or sadness. Simple acts like providing an Easter basket to your daughter in college, offering a goodnight hug to your 8th grade son, or even just a “goodnight” wish at your child’s door, can lend them a sense of security and remind them they are still your child.

17. Teenagers want to make the world better.

This generation does not want to conform to negative teenage stereotypes. They are aware of how teenagers are often portrayed poorly in the media, and they know those portrayals have led many adults to mistrust them. But they aspire to be a generation that offers positive change to the world. They believe in including others and building community. They know that technology unique to their generation — such as smartphones — can be a source of distraction, but they also see its potential for positive impact. They strive for a more peaceful world, and they’re actively working towards that goal. They want you to trust that they can make a difference, and show that you believe in them.

18. Teenagers today are a lot like you were at their age.

Parents often ask teachers how teenagers have changed since we started teaching. After 20 years of teaching, my answer is still the same: not much. Yes, there are phones and earbuds and social media that both complement and complicate life, but even with advancements in technology, teenagers basically haven’t changed. They’re still happy, scared, excited, and nervous young adults full of both assurance and doubt.

19. Embrace the humor and uniqueness of your child’s teenage years.

It is easy to be irked by teenage behavior. When appropriate, consider substituting irritation with amusement. Shifting from irritation to amusement gives you an opportunity to enjoy this short and significant phase of your child’s life.

20. Teenagers don’t need perfect parents.

Teenagers are willing to give adults some grace. It’s all right for us to be tired, crabby, disorganized, or frustrated. “I’m sorry” goes a long way. And if your teenager responds with a casual “you’re good,” know that it is just their way of acknowledging you’re human, and in most circumstances, you really are good enough.

Heather Tierney is the author of The Freedom of a Tangled Vine (Wise Ink Press 2014), and teaches Literature and Composition as an adjunct professor at a university in the midwest.

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