Photo by Marcel Strauß on Unsplash
Photo by Marcel Strauß on Unsplash

One Question That Can Change the Relationship with Your Teenager

You might be thinking that the title sounds too good to be true. How can one question change the relationship with your teenager? It's probably hard to believe that something so important could be so simple. But yes, one question can improve or dramatically change your relationship.

The tears streamed down Kathi’s face as she looked away from her parents. She was so angry with them again. Mr. and Mrs. Jones glanced at one another with a look of defeat. How long was this going to last? It seemed like just yesterday that they understood what their little girl needed from them. But now, as a teenager, Kathi seemed distant. They didn't feel like they really understood her or what she needed from them. Were they going to lose her? It was a thought that they were too scared to consider. But at the rate they were going, they would surely lose their daughter if something didn't change.

Many parents of teenagers face these same kinds of questions and fears. Adolescence can be a very turbulent time in many families. What once worked for your son or daughter when they were younger, no longer seems to be effective. What can parents do to understand what their teenager needs during this confusing period?

One of the greatest things you can do is to discover your teen's built-in parenting manual. Built-in parenting manual? Many parents fail to realize that they have one of the world's greatest relational instructors living right under their own roofs. Teenagers! The reason we make this bold statement is because teenagers have a natural insight into what they need from their parents to build a strong relationship. In other words, most family members could list the specific things they need from each other to feel loved. For example, a wife might say that quality time, sharing housework, and going to church are her needs. A husband may need encouragement, respect, and help with the yard work. Finally, a teenager might request time with friends, privacy, ways to earn trust, and the occasional use of the family car.

The key is that each individual has different needs and desires which help make a strong relationship. Therefore, each person is a gold mine of relational information. As parents, we need to learn how to tap into this built-in knowledge. Mr. and Mrs. Jones discovered how by asking Kathi one relational changing question!

Before we get to the one question that can improve or even change the relationship with your teenager, two preliminary questions need to be answered. First, determine the type of relationship your teenager wants to have with you. In other words, by using a scale from zero to ten, with zero being terrible and ten being a great relationship, ask where would you like the relationship to be? When the Jones' asked Kathi, she hesitantly said a nine or a ten. “After all,” she explained, “I'm tired of living in misery!”

Next, evaluate where the relationship is currently. “On a scale from zero to ten,” Kathi's parents asked, “Overall, where would you rate our relationship today?”

“It's at a one!” Kathi said with hesitation. Although painful to hear, Mr. and Mrs. Jones now had a clear picture of what they were facing. The next question would now help them do something about their relationship with Kathi.

When you ask your teenagers this question, if a difference occurs, don't let it discourage you. Be sure to give them the necessary time to share why they've rated the relationship the way they did. Each opinion can provide such valuable information. The next question, however, is the crucial one. In fact, in some ways it doesn't matter how the other questions were answered. Potentially, this question can flip open the pages to your teen's built-in parenting manual.

The question that can improve or even change your relationship is: As you consider our relationship, what are some specific things we can do over the next week that would move us closer to a ten?

As Kathi answered this question, her parents hung on her every word. As she talked, she literally provided them with the exact things she needed to improve their relationship. It was a miracle!

The power of this question is that the focus of the relationship is changed. Instead of feeling overwhelmed because the focus is on the problems, listing the ways to improve the relationship turns the attention towards solutions. Being in the middle of a family conflict can feel like you're stuck in quicksand. The more you dwell on the problem and who's to blame, the faster and deeper one sinks. However, solutions are like a rope tied to a tree. They provide the means to change, therefore freeing the relationship from sinking hopelessly in the quicksand.

As your family begins to answer these questions, remember that they may be reluctant at first. Kathi did not believe that her parents really wanted to listen to her. Likewise, your family may fear that you don't care or that feelings might get hurt. It's crucial to patiently give each other the time necessary to talk. Constantly reassure each other about the security of your relationship–no matter what is said or how things are rated. If each person feels secure in your love, almost without exception they'll be able to provide many helpful specifics which can strengthen the relationship God has given you.

During a two hour conversation, Kathi and her parents were able to understand what they needed from each other to strengthen their relationship. Although they knew that problems would surface again, they now possessed the necessary information to deal with those problems.

We are convinced that answering this last question on a weekly basis could reduce long standing family conflicts. The key is remembering that love is a decision and not merely a feeling. Many times we do not feel like loving each other. We can, however, make the decision to love our teenagers by doing the things that strengthen the relationship.

Greg Smalley, PsyD
Website | + posts

Dr. Smalley previously served as the director of Marriage Ministries for The Center for Healthy Relationships. He is the author or co-author of twelve books concerning marriages and families, and currently serves as the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.

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