By Amy Burrows Perkins ‘92, Director of Student Services
A teen recently shared with me that he is “socially awkward, but totally fine when texting.” As parents, we need to coach kids into understanding that what feels awkward, difficult, and uncomfortable may actually be healthy -- and in fact, part of normal development. As adults we know that relationships aren’t all Valentines and roses. It’s important to help our children understand that too, and value their own worth but learning to love themselves first.
Make a Selfie Matter
Students these days communicate differently than teenagers did back when we -- their parents
-- began dating and making friends independently. Today’s teens spend much of their time “speaking” to each other through texts and social media posts. They see images that are only the “highlight” reels of their friends’ lives. The next time your teen takes a “selfie,” ask them, “What about this moment is worth capturing to you?” Help them explore how that moment is giving them a sense of that ideal self they are trying to achieve. Ask how they feel - ask them to share a feeling word - joyful, happy, funky - or explain what they see in the picture: “I look happy” or “I love how this place makes me feel.” Listen for how a single photo may reflect something they value, and talk about what else they can do to feel this positively in other situations. As a parent, ask “How can I remind you of this positive feeling?” Share examples of other times when you have seen your teen experience that same, positive, feeling outside of a “selfie” moment.
Downplay the Highlight Reels
As adults we know there is no “perfect” relationship. If our teen’s primary source of relationship norms comes from what they learn watching TV or scrolling through Instagram, they are setting themselves up for something other than reality. This means that no real-time relationship will meet what they believe to be the “ideal” image. You, as their parent, can help identify what actually is realistic in a relationship and how to recognize it. Teens may not understand what is normal or that boundaries are healthy. During a movie or TV show, when a situation or relationship between two people is unrealistic or lacks boundaries, follow up with a question. Ask your teen, “What do you think of their relationship?” An open-ended question gives them the opportunity to answer for themselves, and can provide a lot more insight into their perspective than a something like, “Isn’t that a messed up relationship? That would never happen in real life!”
Embrace the Awkward
A teen’s ability to develop a sense of self is complicated by the fact that their peer relationships are the most important ones to them right now -- even more important than their relationship with you. A teen’s relationship with herself through her self-worth and confidence is often sacrificed to pursue those peer relationships. When talking with teens about their relationships, we need them to develop a sense of their own boundaries. Boundaries apply to a romantic relationship just as much as a friendship. We need to help them determine what those boundaries are -- which will reflect who they are -- and, in turn, informs them when those boundaries are crossed. If they recognize that a boundary has been crossed, the goal is that they feel comfortable enough to talk about it with the friend or partner or even a trusted adult. Those conversations are awkward, but vital. As a parent, you can prepare them by embracing the awkward. Tell them you want to practice helping them talk through different scenarios that make sense for your family, as if they were having a real conversation.
Teens may avoid talking to each other because they fear being rejected, or worry about people taking what they say the wrong way (adults do this, too!). As parents we need to help them understand that conversation - in person, out loud, face-to-face - is actually the best way to be sure that someone understands you as you intend, and gives you the chance to clarify things immediately in real time. Point out that a flat statement on social media or via text can often be misconstrued or taken out of context. Communication in person requires thoughtfulness, consideration, insight into the other’s perspective, nuance, and it also requires work of ourselves, too -- admitting we were wrong, that we were unkind, or that we didn’t consider another’s perspective. All awkward, but worth it.
“Selfie-reflection,” understanding what is realistic, and taking on tough conversations all help develop soft-skills that will serve teens now and as adults. Learning how to love themselves -- even through awkward moments -- is what self-acceptance is all about. The ultimate goal is that we can all have relationships worth celebrating. Help your teen understand what Sharon Salzberg means when she writes: “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your kindness and affection.” This year on Valentine’s Day, encourage your teen to celebrate themselves! Happy Valentine’s Day -- to me!
Resources for talking to your teen about healthy and safe relationships: