It can be hard to carve quality time with your partner or spouse when teenage drama rules your house.
The new social and emotional issues that older children face affect parents and the family, straining and changing the parent-child relationship and – in turn – the parent-to-parent relationship, says therapist Pamela Moss of Community Partners’ Triple P — Positive Parenting Program.
“There is a natural need for your young teen to separate and find himself or herself as an individual,” she says. “This is trying since the child you once knew is changing, different and often more vocal with wants and needs.”
The needs and desires of older children to become individuals may cause them to make their families less of a priority, Moss says.
“Now their friends and social life are more important than the family, which can be difficult for parents to understand and accept, especially when one parent understands it’s a progression of life and the other sees their behavior as being rude or disrespectful,” she says. “Often, it is a fine line.”
Indeed, different parenting styles can complicate matters. Maintaining your relationship while caring for children takes lots of work, but it’s highly important for your kids – and yourselves.
Keep communication open
Couples must be intent on keeping the lines of communication open between them, as well as the entire family, while juggling work, household tasks and raising children, says certified family life educator and program leader Maisielin Ross of the Family & Consumer Sciences Palm Beach County Cooperative Extension, University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
“Choose one or two activities that you both enjoy that you can do as a couple,” she says. Some couples might choose to include their children in such activities while others may not. “It’s important to communicate your needs and to be aware of those filters that affect the way we communicate, as well as how our partner and children respond.”
Even the way we greet our spouse at the end of a busy workday can have a big impact on the family’s communication as the evening progresses.
“Communication is hard,” says Rachel Docekal, Palm Beach County mother of two. “We abide by the first five minutes rule in our house. Essentially, that your demeanor in the first five minutes after you enter the house sets the tone for the rest of the night. It’s amazing what a genuine smile and hello can do!”
Healthy relationships benefit children
Research shows that children who grow up in healthy, happy, caring home environments develop secure attachments, are motivated to learn and experience long-term positive social-emotional, cognitive and language development, Ross says.
“Given that brain development is still occurring, children learn what a healthy partnership/relationship looks like,” she says. “This, in turn, can influence their choice of relationships/partnerships when they get older.”
Docekal agrees that kids thrive developmentally when parents foster healthy communication skills with each other. “When there is tension or a lack of warmth between parents, kids feel it,” she says. “It’s hard enough to be a kid without feeling tension in your own home.”
Addressing our own needs is a key strategy to success, Moss says. “If we aren’t healthy as individuals, making good decisions and being there for our partner or children is very difficult,” she says. “Parents need to be on the same page when parenting.”
Ross agrees that maintaining as much peace as possible in the home is best for everyone.
“Children who grow up in a house of emotional turmoil feel emotionally insecure, live in a state of uncertainty, find it difficult to trust, develop anxiety and aggression, have difficulty adapting and learn that emotional tumult is a normal way of life,” she says.
Iron out differences
We all come from various backgrounds with different ideas and experiences that influence our parenting style. Triple P offers booster sessions to help partners iron out differences in their opinions and styles, Moss says.
Jennifer Martinez, Palm Beach County mother of two, sees firsthand the benefits of a healthy relationship.
“Your children see the love you have for each other, and it helps set the tone for relationships in the future,” she says. “You want them to see the love you have for each other. They notice, even if you think they aren't paying attention to you.”
The stress from parents’ everyday challenges can extend to the rest of the family. Whether it’s economic issues, job losses, illnesses or behavior problems, all family members risk falling into chaotic patterns unless stressors are acknowledged, Moss says.
“Oftentimes, parents are so exhausted they don’t feel they have time enough to spend with their children,” she says. “This can lead to feelings of guilt. However, spending frequent small amounts of time is as beneficial as spending longer periods of time.”
Present a united front
Teenagers exerting their independence present unique challenges and carefully watch how their parents react, Ross says.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” she says. “Your relationship with your teen is more important than the pink hair, which will grow out or wash out. Strive to have your actions match your words. Teens listen to what we say and watch what we do.”
Likewise, the ways we agree to approach challenges with our spouses can have a huge impact on a family’s communication.
“When kids grow older, it is important to present as a united front as parental authorities,” says Cheryl Baldwin, Palm Beach County mother of two older girls. “Teenagers and young adults can try and pit parents against each other, or push buttons to get one parent on their side. It can be difficult to not take the bait, especially if you’re not feeling strong in your relationship at the moment. But sometimes you need to really bite your tongue and remember that you and your spouse are the ones in charge.”
Ross’s organization offers a “Teening-Up with Your Adolescent: Parenting Children Ages 9-16” class. “I usually encourage parents to attend with their teens. However, that’s not mandatory,” she says.
Parents must try to find a balance between themselves and their teen to be able to help each other launch their child safely with as much support and information as possible, Moss says.
“This is a process that should be occurring from birth and continue over time as their child grows and develops, prior to these challenging years,” she says.
Make time for each other
Setting aside time for just the two of you helps reduce pressure on the family as a whole.
“Now that we have a driving-age child, I find it’s easier to work on ‘us,’ ” says Tina Hader, Palm Beach County mother of two teenage boys. “We like to have at least two dinner date nights a month where we don’t talk about the kids and really work on reconnecting. Recently, we’ve decided to try some different dates. Groupon has great deals on things we wouldn’t normally think to do, and it’s not just dinner. It’s so important for our kids to see that we still like to have fun together.”
• Pamela Moss, Triple P — Positive Parenting Program therapist, Parent-Child Center
• Maisielin Ross, program leader and certified family life educator, SmartCouples (University of Florida Extension Office)