When my daughter became a teenager, she did something that baffled me.
It happened when she was tired or had just woken up. She’d stand in front of me, drop her head, and not say a word. When I asked a question, she’d mumble or shrug. I could tell she wanted something, but I didn’t know what.
Then one day it hit me. I noticed her body leaning toward me, ever so slightly, and waiting for me to respond. I realized then what she wanted was something I hadn’t given her in a while.
A big maternal hug.
After this epiphany, I formed a plan game. I knew what to do when she planted her body in front of me. You want a hug, kid? Well, I’ll show you one! I’d wrap my arms around my daughter and hold her as tightly as I could. I’d embrace her as long as she let me.
I knew my instincts were right when my daughter relaxed in my arms. In these moments, I was her safe place, a source of comfort when she was tired.
Sometimes she didn’t hug me back. I didn’t take this personally because I knew the hidden truth. She still craved my love and affection, but she didn’t want to ask for them.
It’s easy to forget this as our kids grow up. When they’re small, we distribute hugs and kisses freely because they’re so cuddly and cute. They run to us with outstretched arms, making it hard to resist sweeping them up and kissing all over them.
But as they mature, they want space and privacy. They stop running to the door when we come home and giving us the rock-star treatment. As hormones kick in, their cues get harder to read. We aren’t sure when to back off.
This is why I try to love my teenagers regardless of whether they love me back. I try to show affection even if it’s not reciprocated. After all, that’s the essence of unconditional love. That is how we love our children with no strings attached.
Showing love to a teenager without cramping their style isn’t always easy. Besides affection, here are 10 ways to show care.
1. Listen. The older kids get, the more important it is to listen. Parents have no idea what it’s like to be a teenager today – or to be our child – and the only way to understand is by listening and asking good questions.
Teenagers want to know their thoughts and opinions matter. Sometimes we have to take off our parenting hat and let them talk freely, honestly, and without fear of getting in trouble.
I know a father who used to have “car time” with his teenage son when they got in a heated debate. They’d ride around to hash things out. During car time, his son could say anything. But once the ride was over, so was the discussion. The dad would make his final call – and sometimes changed his mind after hearing his son out.
Teenagers have a lot to figure out. They need sounding boards and mentors. When we listen well, they’re more likely to come to us with problems and questions.
2. Treat them with dignity and respect. Donald Miller said, “People won’t listen to you unless they sense you like them.” This is especially true with teenagers, who know when we speak from a place of love.
Parents love to commiserate about the misery of raising teenagers, and while some complaints hold truth, they don’t build trust or good will. If you overheard your parents griping about you, would you open up? Would you want to be close or put up a wall instead, saving your best behavior for someone who appreciates it?
The Golden Rule applies to adolescents, too. Since overt criticism doesn’t make anyone feel loved, it’s safe to assume that a teenager feels the same.
3. Love their friends. As our teens pull away from us, they gravitate toward friends. The friend influence magnifies. Anyone important to my children is someone I want to know, and it’s worth the time – plus lots of fun – getting to know the people who will shape who they become.
4. Spend time together. One perk of having older kids is enjoying their company like we would an old friend. The options are wide open when it comes to engaging our teens, and a good place to start is doing what they love – activities like hiking, watching movies, skiing, cooking, exercising, doing yoga, going to concerts, eating at cool restaurants, travelling, playing sports, etc.
Every family is different, and whatever “thing” we bond over with our teenager can go a long way in building memories and trust.
5. Surround them with empowering adults. It’s been said that it takes five adults consistently present in a child’s life to help raise a healthy child. While parents undeniably have the greatest influence, there comes a day when our kids realize we have to love them. We’re biased because they’re ours. Especially in the teen years, our encouragement isn’t enough. They need other adults to believe in them and their potential.
Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and family friends can create a great “village” around a child. So can those on the front line, like teachers, coaches, small group leaders, and youth pastors. While we can’t make anyone love our child, we can pray for positive influences and role models.
6. Be ready to drop everything when they want to talk. Teenagers often want to talk at inopportune times, and if we don’t take these opportunities when they come, they may not come again.
My friend who is a single working mom grabs moments with her teenagers even if they’re inconvenient. “It’s like I’m always on standby,” she says, “and thankfully I can be on standby working from home.”
She says their best moments are impromptu, and sometimes she’ll put down the dishes to simply watch a football game with her son. Even if they don’t talk, she knows that being in close proximity and intentionally spending time with him helps deepen the relationship.
7. Show tough love when necessary. Teenagers won’t understand every choice we make as parents. Only time and maturity will change their perspective. Youth pastor Cameron Cole says, “We aren’t parenting for our 16-year-old to like us. We’re parenting for our 40-year-old to respect us.” To me this means keeping the big picture in mind, setting healthy boundaries, and letting our kids face the consequences of poor choices and mistakes.
8. Pray for them – and empower them through faith. Prayer is our most powerful tool as parents. God loves our children more than we do, and He has a unique plan for each child. Through prayer, we gain wisdom and clarity into this plan.
Teenagers long for something to cling to. They’re wrestling with purpose and identity. This makes adolescence the perfect time to empower them through faith, to present God as their hope in the storm, the one thing that never changes even as life does.
9. Encourage healthy risks. Today’s world expects perfection. There’s no margin of error allowed, and to no surprise, our kids are scared to death to fail.
But adolescence is a time for healthy risk-taking. It’s a time to practice being brave, facing fears, and gaining confidence outside your comfort zone. As parents, we can help our teens overcome a fear of failure by explaining failure as part of their story, not the end of their story. We can remind them how the road to success is always paved with adversity. And when better days come, we can cheer on a deeper level because we know the story behind their success.
10. See the good in them. A mom once told me about her college-age son at Dartmouth who brought home suitcases full of wet and dirty towels for her to wash. He’d get off the plane looking like a refugee because his schoolwork was intense, and he was exhausted.
She wanted to comment on his appearance, but she doesn’t want criticism to be his welcome home. So she bit her tongue and hugged him instead. Having limited time together, she wanted to make the most of it.
It’s easy to let our kids’ shortcomings blind us to their good. To let a messy room or messy appearance or bad attitude become our focal point, the only thing we see. While we certainly have a responsibility to shape their character, instill values, and guide them in basic life skills like good hygiene:), we also have to see their good and connect with their heart. We should remember that when God looks at us, He sees potential. He sees who we can become and loves us according to that. With our teenagers, we can do the same.
In short, there is no perfect science to loving a teenager because each one is unique and has a unique love language.
Appearances can be deceiving, and just because a teenager looks grown-up doesn’t mean they don’t have emotional needs. Just because they don’t try to connect, or ask us to be at their game, doesn’t mean they don’t want us engaged in their life and cheering them on as only a parent can do.
Teenagers may ask for a later curfew or money, but they don’t always ask for what they need most. So even if my hugs and kisses go unreciprocated, I’ll keep giving them. I’ll remind my girls that they’re unconditionally loved, and I’ll savor the moments when they do relax my arms and silently tell me that even as they grow up, they still find comfort being near their mom.
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Posted by Kari on January 25, 2022