This article is part of a 4-part series we are writing about building a better 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.
Again, apologizing only addresses the past.
Until the past is addressed, it is very difficult to move forward.
It’s very hard to build a house on a shaky foundation.
It’s very hard to have a better relationship with your teen if you've built a habit to not talk about and resolve conflicts.
If you've built a habit to not talk about and resolve conflict, it should not be a surprise if you don't really get along with your teen. Maybe you are struggling to know exactly what you did to make them not like you… and that is precisely why having that conversation with your teen is that much more important.
Here’s how important each stage is:
Listening to your teen explain how your actions hurt them will equip you with what you need to know in order to change.
Empathizing (taking the time to understand what it may have felt like to be in their shoes) would make your teen feel more heard and understood.
Owning your actions and apologizing for them will help rebuild trust and respect in your relationship.
Communicating that it was not your intent to hurt them would make them feel like you are on their side and that you genuinely care about their well-being.
Asking for forgiveness will help reduce any anger, tension, or frustration that has been simmering in the background for however long the situation has gone unaddressed.
If you can build a habit to resolve conflict soon after it happens, you will be well on your way to improving your relationship with your teen.
And the reality is that if you are able to do this consistently with your teen, you can become a role model for them for how they will apologize and resolve conflict with their friends, future partners, colleagues, and bosses.
These soft skills are priceless in the real world and the easiest time for them to learn is at home when there is time to practice and make mistakes.
If you are convinced this is worth implementing with your teen, here are some ideas for ways you can practice (because you don’t get good at this overnight!):
Beginner: Practice having this conversation with a close friend or relative for something small that you did you think may have cause them some hurt.
Intermediate: Practice having this conversation with your spouse or colleague immediately after a conflict happens
Advanced: Ask your teen if you can talk to them about something important sometime this week that is convenient for both of you and have this conversation with them.
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Have more questions about how to apply this? Schedule a 20 minute call with me here.
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Stay tuned for the final part of this series on "How to Build a Better Relationship with Your Teen"!
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