How do you say 'I love you' to a teenager?
Lisa M. Schab, L.C.S.W.
You used to give him kisses on the nose that would send him into a giggle fit. You used to rub his forehead until he fell asleep. You used to say, "I love you!" a hundred times a day and know you'd hear the same thing back.
Try any of those expressions of love with your teen and you're setting yourself up for eye-rolling at the least. Although teens want and need your love just as much as ever, they'd sooner clean their room than admit to it. Their individuating egos are telling them that parental affection is taboo, and they'll be quick to pass that message along if you try anything that even closely resembles endearment.
Don't let the rejection get you down. Just like labor pain, this too will pass. This Valentine's Day-and every other day-say "I love you" by expressing what a teen needs to hear:
• "I want to hear what you have to say." The greatest show of love you can give a teen is simply to listen to him. (Simple, but not easy.) Can you listen without criticizing, advising, or saying "When I was your age . . . "? You validate his worth as a human being when you can look in his eyes and focus on what he is saying while keeping your thoughts to yourself (unless asked).
• "I can see the good in you." The only time you may see your teen is when he's running out the door and often this is the time you choose to yell, "You forgot to empty the dishwasher!" "What's with that C minus on your math test?" "You're wearing that out in public?" Remember to address the positive as well as the negative, so he can hear more than just what he is doing wrong. "You're doing so well in English this year!" "That was very kind of you to help Mrs. Smith yesterday." "Thanks for being a great person!"
• "I care about what happens to you." No matter how much your teen fights your limits, do not stop setting them. You are still responsible for your child, and he still needs to know you care. Let up on rules as he shows increased maturity, but don't eliminate them completely. Seat belts, curfews, underage drinking-these limits keep him safe and tell him that he matters to you.
• "I want to know who you are." His music may hurt your ears, his clothes may hurt your eyes and his ideas may stress your sanity. Nevertheless, make an attempt to visit his world in some way on a regular basis. When he comes home with "a hot new CD," let him play it for you. If you don't like it, just smile and say, "Wow." Let him know that he can bring himself to you without fear of being criticized or rejected.
• "I choose to make sacrifices for you." Yes, it's a hassle to drive kids all over, and it's expensive to pay for field trips, sports equipment and the ongoing college fund. But don't make your teen feel guilty for these inconveniences by complaining about them. When you choose to have a child, you incur a responsibility. Fulfill your obligation without whining. Instead, try feeling good about all that you are able to give.
• "You are a valuable part of this family." He may not spend as much time with the family these days, but make sure he knows he still belongs. Keep inviting him to watch "The Simpsons" reruns with you or go camping on summer weekends. Let him know that while he is under your roof you will expect him to share in certain family rituals-whether that is dinner, worship services or visiting Grandma-not just because "it's the rule," but because you value his presence in the family.
• "You are important to me." Your teen will realize this when you take the time to stay involved in his life. Go to parent-teacher conferences and the school open house. Go to the baseball games and the dance recitals and the science fairs. Be in the front row at the school play whether he is working the lights or has the lead.
• "I'm here when you need me." While your teen may not choose to "hang with you" anymore, there will still be times when he needs your support, advice or encouragement. When that time comes, be there for him, with a nonjudgmental ear, a kind word or a helping hand.
• "I will not give up on you." No matter how rocky things get, don't ever throw in the towel. Most teen-parent relationships go through hard times but come out on the other side with the love still intact. When he acts the most difficult is when he needs to know most that no matter how difficult things may get, you will not stop trying to work them out.
Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 20 and 24. She can be reached at (847) 782-1722.