Teenagers: The Power of Like

A few days after Halloween, my eight-year-old daughter reminded me, “Mom, you promised we were gonna carve the pumpkin!”  Life had been busy and we had never gotten around to our annual tradition of pumpkin carving. She was obviously disappointed and since I promised, I knew I should make good on it. However, I had a pretty serious obstacle – I really didn’t want to carve a pumpkin. I found my solution in my 13-year-old son. I asked, “Hey, do you want to have some fun and earn some money by carving a pumpkin with your sister?” He was initially apprehensive but also eager for cash, so he agreed. He and his sister spent the next hour researching the best carving methods, planning the design, and creating their masterpiece. As I looked out my kitchen window, I saw them work together, laugh, and bond.  

I love having a teenager. He puts furniture together, takes out the trash, and will stay up and watch Psych with me. I get to talk to him about the books I am reading – from Dante’s Inferno to a history of the Comanches.   After years of my ramblings, we can have  great discussions. He loves telling me about the social dynamics in his middle school and the game plan for his upcoming basketball game. 

I hear the groans, “13? You haven’t seen anything yet lady!” I’m sure you’re right. The prevailing view of many parents with teenagers agrees with what Mark Twain once wrote: “When a boy turns 13, put him in a barrel and feed him through a knot hole. When he is 16, plug up the hole.” With this perspective in mind, I write this piece for myself more than anyone, I have five future 16-year-olds.

Many mothers seem to expect that our precious children will turn into horrid monsters once they hit puberty – an expectation that may be, in part, a self-fulfilling prophecy. I suppose there will be hardships ahead but I certainly don’t dread raising five teenagers, I am looking forward to it. (Daughters-in-law, now that I dread). If we have worked to develop a strong, charitable relationship with our children, if they respect us and we respect them, if we have open communication and areas of common interest then I believe our beloved son or daughter will still be there on the other side of 13.

The Need for Like

Recently I was chatting with a group of mothers. They began discussing how hard teenagers are and one said, “Of course, I love my teenagers, but usually I don’t like them.” The other women laughed in agreement. But to me, this attitude is a shame. To like someone means you want to be around them, you think they are impressive, you respect them. Teenagers generally know, despite conflict and demands, that they are loved by their parents. What they don’t know, in these years of self-doubt and chaos, is if anyone actually likes them. And if their own mother doesn’t like them, who ever could? These difficult years are made steadier if teenagers can rely on the like of their parents.

Mother Comforting Teen Daughter, Haddon Sundblom

Modern parents are often consumed by the desire to be liked by their children – but too often this emphasis backfires. The Dali Lama has said it is more important to love than to be loved. For parents, it is more important to like our teenagers than for our teenagers to like us.

“If your relationship with your child is governed by your own desire to be loved by him or her, the odds are good that you will not achieve even that objective.”

Leonard Sax

The likability of our teenagers is often born in early childhood. One of our primary jobs as parents is to socialize our children and teach them to express gratitude and exhibit self-control, making them likable. Dr. Jordan Peterson describes the importance of “liking your children” by developing them to be likable. (link here) Unfortunately, many of our efforts to make our children likable will be unpopular with them (as anyone teaching a child to share knows); therefore, fearing our child’s negative reaction, we may opt out of the difficult socialization. Hence, because of our focus on being loved by our children, we end up with a teenager that is more difficult to “like”.

Despite our best efforts there are also times when our personalities simply clash or we have a particularly stubborn child – and as mothers we can all feel times of frustration with a child. Nonetheless, we need to show our child that we like them so we can maintain a close and influential bond. If we have neglected our socialization duties, creating an unlikable child, that isn’t their fault – and if we have done all we can and we still don’t like them – we need to fake it till we make it. There is at least one positive quality we can latch on to and emphasize.

This quote by C.S. Lewis I believe applies to us mothers in our struggles to like a difficult teenager, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”

When our child becomes a teenager and matures into an independent adult, if they are unsure that we like them, they will turn to their peers for support and encouragement – not us.

“When parents matter more than peers, they can teach right and wrong in a meaningful way. They can prioritize attachments within the family over attachments with same-age peers. They can foster better relationships between their child and other adults. They can help their child develop a more robust and more authentic sense of self, grounded not in how many “likes” a photo gets on Instagram or Facebook but in the child’s truest nature. They can educate desire, instilling a longing for higher and better things, in music, in the arts, and in one’s own character.” 

Leonard Sax, The Collapse of Parenting

This doesn’t mean that our teenagers will not push back, or that they will always “like us back”. The teenage years are a time of individuation and transition, but like a lighthouse on a stormy sea – if our light stays on despite the storm – they will return to us.

Considering the young age of my own children, I am aware of my own inexperience and ignorance. However, I do know several mothers who like their teenagers, and whose teenagers like them. One of my friends had a teenager who went through a very rebellious time and her poor self-confidence caused her to follow a rough crowd. She was often hostile with her siblings and sometimes her mother. My friend said she got through those years by staying firm on family rules and expectations but taking every opportunity she could to point out her daughter’s many positive qualities and speaking to her hopefully about her potential. She treated the conflicts for what they were, bumps on the long and glorious path ahead of her daughter. She ensured that their family time was not compromised by too much emphasis on “friends”. She picked her battles but kept her attitude towards her daughter positive. She told me it required a lot of prayer and patience and when she ran out of it, her husband took over. Seeing the close relationship she now has with her daughter, I cannot imagine that it was ever strained. It was a stage that she moved through quickly because there was a warm and safe lighthouse to return to.

In discussions with successful parents, and my own research on relationship-dynamics, I have compiled four strategies for showing our teenagers we “like” them.

How to Demonstrate our Like

First, we need to stop complaining about our teenagers. It’s shocking to see moms who trash their teenagers freely, and even in their presence! This tells them implicitly that they are not liked, not appreciated, and not respected. They will repay in kind.

“Children are like wet cement whatever falls on them makes an impression.”   

Haim Ginott, Child Psychologist

Secondly, we need to show our teenagers that we genuinely want to spend time with them. If we welcome them home enthusiastically after a long day of school, and if we answer their phone call, happy to hear from them, they will feel liked. If we are willing to bend our own rules and sacrifice our well-laid plans for them, they will feel valued. Occasionally we can stay up late talking to them about life, despite it being a school night. We can drop our list of to-dos and have them skip school and go out to lunch with us. Since we get such a short time with our precious children, the teenage years should be the reward for many years of hard labor. We can finally have an intellectually stimulating conversation! We can share clothes! We can get help setting up our new phone, navigating in the car, and deciphering slang. Our kids can start teaching us things. Their talents and passions can broaden our own horizons.

“Turn off the device and take your child for a walk through the woods or on a hike up a mountain. Go on a camping trip. Late at night, when it’s absolutely dark, take your child’s hand and ask her to look up at the stars. Talk with her about the vastness of space and the tininess of our planet in the universe. That’s reality. That’s perspective.”

Leonard Sax

Thirdly, we should be affectionate with our teenagers. If it feels awkward giving our teenage son a hug, we can rub his feet after basketball practice or pat him on the back, or tossel his hair. These small affectionate actions mean more than we realize.

“Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our natural lives.”  

C.S. Lewis

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we show our children we like them by specifically telling them the things we like about them. If we have convinced ourselves that we don’t like our child, it may be hard to know where to start. Dr. Jordan Peterson explains a simple trick that helps us maintain a positive relationship with anyone, but applied to teenagers, it can change the unlikable dynamic of our relationships. If we see anything we like – point it out. Be specific. They will repeat it. Positive reinforcement is infinitely more powerful than negative reinforcement.

“Watch the people around you and whenever they do anything that you would like to see repeated on a regular basis, tell them exactly what they did in detail, be positive about it, and just indicate you noticed…As a transformation technique, Even in extraordinarily difficult relationships, there isn’t any technique I know that is more effective”

Dr. Jordan Peterson

With Dr. Peterson’s advice in mind, when my son finished the pumpkin carving, I told him how happy it made me to see his patience and consideration of his sister. “I saw how you let her take the lead on what design to pick. You were more patient than I would have been in teaching her how to cut it out. Thank you so much for doing that for me.”  He was proud of their pumpkin and I know he went away aware that his mother appreciated him. I hope that was reward enough because I forgot to pay him. 

I was a teenager myself, – I am sure I was not always easy to raise. I am not judging mothers who struggle with their teens. However – as with anything in life – if we focus on bumps in the road, we hate the trip. And if we label our teen as unlikable, they will meet our expectations. As we show our teenagers we like them, we will begin to. Within the safety of a deeply-rooted relationship of respect, conflicts need not alter the strength of our bond. If we like our teenagers, and show them that, these crucial final years with them can be joyous.

At the very least, that pumpkin taught me an important lesson – I now have a source of cheap labor if I want to avoid gingerbread houses and Easter eggs.


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