Being a dad of primary school-aged children is easy, really – most little boys and girls think of their dad as their hero and want to have a close relationship with him. A willingness to spend time with your kids, a sense of fun, and a positive, caring attitude will go a long way with kids during this stage.
But the fathering game changes in adolescence. As young children, your kids may have put you on a pedestal and held you in the highest regard, but now as adolescents, they go to great lengths to reveal your feet of clay. As kids they would have nagged you to play with them. Now as teenagers, they may barely give you the time of day. And what’s worse, they don’t laugh at your jokes anymore. You’re just not that funny! Ouch. That hurts. If this is true for you, here are some ideas to help you connect with your teen.
Shift parenting gears
Most parents have to shift parenting gears when their kids move into adolescence. Mothers often make the shift first as they are quicker to see the signs that their loving child has been replaced by a teenager. (These signs may include your child becoming more argumentative, displaying silly behaviour, or spending more time alone.) Some dads are constantly angry with their kids during early adolescence, because for the first time they being challenged (“How dare you say that to me!”). But many are sad at the loss of their loving and lovely child. Once the shift is recognised and reconciled, a dad can establish a new, deeper relationship with his teenager – one in which he teaches, advises and inspires, giving them space to make their own decisions at the same time.
Help them form relationships with others
As our attention is drawn towards young people’s schooling, particularly with their academic performance (or lack of it), it’s easy to forget that one of the most important developmental tasks for young people is to form relationships outside their family. Peers are the stepping stones to their own family one day. The job for dads of teens is to guide and assist them to form meaningful relationships with others outside the family. This is best done by modelling healthy relationships with others, being a sounding board for concerns, and challenging some of their choices without threatening their self-esteem or sense of autonomy.
The real trick to successfully fathering teens is to be emotionally available. It’s not just being in their vicinity, because you can be in the same room as a young person but never connect. It means finding shared interests, such as a love of the same sports team so you have a connecting point. It also means having a genuine willingness to take an interest in their life as it is right now. Perhaps the most common complaint I hear from teenagers is that their fathers focus too much on what they should be in the future, rather than on what’s important in their life right now. Taking an interest in their interests may well be the most potent strategy in a father’s armoury.
There’s no doubt that adolescents are on steep learning curves, absorbing both lessons and values that will stay with them for life. While teachers and peers play a part in shaping their views, parents play a major role. Dads can easily feel locked out of their children’s lives during this critical stage. But it’s vital to claim your space and let your voice be heard albeit with sensitivity, compassion and a sense of humour.