This article is part of a 4-part series we are writing about building a better relationship with your teen.
[This Post] Part 3: It's not too late! How to turn a relationship around that has gone sour
Part 4: Tools and tactics to build a more open and communicative relationship with your teen
It's not too late -- how to turn a relationship around that has gone sour
I never expected my closest friend (let’s call him Eric) from elementary school to give me the middle finger.
I know, this doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with your relationship with your teen, but trust me, I’ll make it worth your while.
Eric and I were in similar classes, had a close group of friends, played online games together, we both started playing trumpet at the same time and switched to French Horn together, and we both transferred to Miller Middle School in 6th grade.
In middle school, Eric and I started liking different girls, and it became very normal for us to poke fun at each other about who we liked, embarrassing things that we did, and laugh at each other (e.g. “Ha-ha-ha, remember when you did this embarrassing thing? Ha-ha-ha I’m going to tell everyone!” or “Ha-ha-ha, Eric likes Jessica, ha-ha-ha"). At a certain point, the way we made fun of each other became more hurtful than funny.
The problem was that I didn’t realize that it was hurtful until it was too late.
During one lunch at school in 8th grade, I was poking fun at Eric as usual. He made some jabs at me, I poked back. I don’t remember how it got so bad, but at a certain point, Eric seemed visibly hurt, and walked away.
That’s when I realized I went too far.
And then the lunch bell rang.
I wanted to apologize. I never meant for it to be hurtful. I didn’t want to hurt my friend.
We had the next class together — it was band. We both played French Horn, so we sat in the same section, so I was hoping to talk to him when he came in.
I was hoping to apologize. I hoping to make it right, or at least understand what I did wrong.
When he finally came into class and headed toward our section; we made eye contact. His eyes were red — it was clear he had been crying. I was about to ask him if he was ok, but before I could say anything, he stuck out his middle finger at me and he silently mouthed, “F*ck you” and he turned to sit in his seat.
I was confused.
How did it turn so quickly? What had I done to provoke such a strong response? Was he about to throw away our 5 years of friendship because of a joke? Where did I cross the line? What happened?
I was hoping to find the answers eventually.
But as a 13 year old, I didn’t really know how to navigate these situations nor did I really have anyone I felt I could get advice from.
I assumed that we would eventually talk. I guess we didn’t.
We kept walking past each other at school and he kept ignoring me. I figured he wasn’t ready to talk, maybe he was still angry with me?
1 day turned into 1 week.
1 week turned into 1 month.
1 month turned into 1 year.
1 year turned into 10 years.
We never resolved the issue. We never talked about it.
And even 10 years later, at our high school 5-year reunion, Eric and I saw each other and made small talk, but neither of us brought up that experience.
Here I am, writing about it now 15 years later!! Writing about this actually makes me want to reach out to him to talk about this.
Why am I sharing this?
How does this fit with parents’ relationships with their teens?
In my situation with Eric, I did something that I thought was harmless and good-natured fun but in reality, it was actually very hurtful.
By the time I realized that I did something wrong, the hurt already happened. And I had the power to choose to face it, to have a difficult, maybe awkward conversation about it, or not.
I had the power to listen to him and hear why my actions hurt him.
I had the power to empathize, understand how it would feel if I were in his shoes.
I had the power to apologize and express that I was sorry for hurting him.
I had the power to communicate that it was not my intention, that I would never try to hurt him — he was my friend!
I had the power to ask him to forgive me for my actions so that we could continue our friendship where we left off.
I did not do any of those things.
Choosing to not confront the situation ended up affecting our relationship… for more than a decade!
What started as a beautiful friendship was derailed by 1 misunderstanding that was never resolved.
So again, why am I sharing this?
What I see too often is that parents unintentionally hurt their kids with their words or actions.
And after causing that hurt, parents often do not have a conversation with their teen to:
Listen -- How did my actions hurt my teen? How were my word hurtful?
Empathize -- After listening, do understand how my teen felt as a result of my actions? Does hearing that I hurt my teen make me want to “undo” what I did/said?
Apologize -- Can I take responsibility for what I did and apologize for hurting them?
Communicate -- Can I share with my teen that I didn’t intend for my actions/words to hurt them?
Ask for forgiveness -- Am I willing to ask for forgiveness so that we can move forward on a clean slate
And because parents don’t have that conversation, they do not understand why their teen felt hurt to begin with and potentially repeat their hurtful behavior over and over.
That's the equivalent of me continuing to make fun of Eric everyday after the first time in the same way because I didn’t realize how hurtful it was. If I continued to do that, it would have made Eric more and more frustrated with me until one day maybe he would explode on me.
What’s the point here?
You cannot build a long-lasting relationship with anyone if you do not develop a way to resolve conflicts, big or small.
Small conflicts eventually build on top of one another and lead to a big outburst.
Big conflicts… create big reactions.
You cannot expect to have a relationship in the long run if you sweep “difficult conversations” under the rug and hope it doesn’t affect things. Doesn’t matter if it’s a colleague, family member, or friends.
No one would expect Eric and I to be good friends again if we never resolved that conflict. And that’s exactly how it has played out.
One difference between my story with Eric and parents reading this article is that Eric and I didn’t live under the same roof!
Your teen may still be your teen regardless of whether you address conflict or not, but choosing to not to address it means that they will eventually tolerate, dislike, or feel annoyed by you because of a growing laundry-list of ways that you have unknowingly hurt them. And that may be a result you are okay with, but if you are reading this article, it’s likely because you want more for your relationship with your teen.
If you have a strained relationship with your teen, the only way to get better is no different than what it would take for Eric and I to be friends again.
Address the past:
I would have to ask Eric to have a conversation, he would have to agree.
I would ask him to revisit that situation in 8th grade and hear how my actions affected him.
I would have to empathize with how hurt he felt because of my actions.
I would have to take ownership of my actions.
I would have to apologize for hurting him.
I would have to apologize for not talking to him sooner about it (and instead, taking 15 years)
I would have to communicate that it was never my intention to let something in between our friendship
I would have to ask him to forgive me, and he would have to be willing to forgive me.
And only then, would the idea of rebuilding our relationship be a possibility.