Parenting a baby or a young child involves a whole lot of close proximity. Parents are almost always near their kids, making sure they stay out of harm's way.
As they get older, parents get a bit of a breather— most teenagers can fend for themselves. But that doesn't necessarily mean they don't want mom or dad close at hand.
"What Do Teenagers Want? Potted Plant Parents" is the headline of a recent New York Times piece penned by Lisa Damour.
She's a psychologist and author of "Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood."
What does it mean to be a potted plant parent?
What I have learned from teenagers, and what the research bears out, is that teenagers want their parents around, but that doesn't necessarily mean they want to interact with their parents. I think so often when adults interact with their teenagers, we come with an agenda. It's a parent who wants to have a conversation or teacher who's asking something or a coach who's asking something, and I think what can get lost in the mix is that it's a really wonderful thing for a teenager to have an adult nearby, but for that adult to not have any expectations.
Why is this what teenagers want?
It's sort of a perfect set-up for being a teenager, in a way. Their job is to become independent, to branch out, to move away. And yet, any of us who spend time with teenagers, one thing we know is that their needs emerge quickly and they can feel kind of 'crisis-ey.' Things can be really fine one minute and then really not okay in the next minute. So I think for teenagers, the somewhat ideal set-up for them, psychologically, is for them to say to the parent — you know, in unspoken terms: 'Let's do this. Let's pretend like you're not there, but if I need you, I'm going to need you pretty quickly, so don't go anywhere.'
What if you can't be there with your teen? What if you have to be away?
There are ways to be present, even while absent. A great way to do that is through digital means— things like, dropping a text to say 'I'm thinking of you' or saying 'I'm available on FaceTime.' Even if we're at distance, we can say to a teenager 'I'm standing by if needed.' The other thing is, that we shouldn't underestimate the value of just that. I think that we can have this sense of we need to connect, I need to hear about your day, you need to ask me for guidance. And that's great, if that's where the teenager is, and they want that. But, absent that, just saying 'I'm standing by and here if you happen to need me,' that, in and of itself, is of great value to teenagers.