How Parents and Teens Can Repair Damaged Relationships

Ameen Akbar is a longtime educator and youth development expert known for using restorative practices with young people. He is currently the Chief Mission Officer at Philadelphia Youth Basketball. In our Q&A, he explains how using restorative practices can help children and parents earn back each other’s trust. He also offers tips for parents and teens on bringing restorative practices into daily life to help relationships that have gone off track. 

Eden Pontz: Can you explain what the word restorative means in the context of positive youth development? 

Ameen Akbar: When you use the word restorative in the youth development space, it is about the daily practices and habits that adults and young people create to form healthy bonds. Some of the work comes from the restorative justice movement and looks at how human beings and communities gain justice when harm has been done. What we’ve done with the restorative movement is take the practices of accountability, community building, relationship-building, and apply them every day to maintain healthy relationships. And like any relationship that is off or damaged, we use what we already built to restore it. It’s not an endpoint; it’s ongoing. 

EP: Why are restorative practices so essential to consider using with adolescents? 

AA: Restorative practices are important. I’d even say they’re crucial when working with adolescents, because they involve the habits you create when building relationships. Those habits turn into norms, which need maintenance. Then, when the norms of a relationship are frayed, you can begin to restore and repair based on what you’ve already created in those relationships. 

EP: What can a parent or caring adult do regularly to build relationships with adolescents? 

AA: As role models, we must create environments for young people to trust us and know what it means for us to be trustworthy in the eyes of adolescents. Build those day-to-day habits and relationships to create a level of consistency. For example, if you give a young person a curfew, be honest that not all curfews look the same, depending on a particular friend’s house or an outing. This teaches young people that while you have consistency in the fact that there is a curfew, not all curfews are treated the same. You’re teaching young people about slight differences in situations. The consistency by which you show up daily in these practices and relationship-building matters a lot because young people depend on that consistency. 

In the restorative practices world, we talk about concepts like high discipline, high structure, and high support. What we mean is we must give young people guardrails and structure and support them. Lastly, honesty is important as well as how a parent shows up in that relationship and is fully honest. That’s honesty in terms of emotion, honesty in terms of what structure and support looks like. For example, in that curfew, if there is some disagreement with your young person, be honest about explaining how you came to that. Sometimes as parents, our worlds are hectic, and we feel like we don’t have time to explain things, but our young people read our emotions. We let a young person assume how we feel without explanation. But it’s often worse when we don’t explain how we think. 

EP: What can an adolescent do every day to help build strong relationships with the adults in their life? 

AA: The first is how you, as a young person, create an environment for a parent or caregiver to trust you. If you have a curfew at 11 o’clock, come into the house at 11 o’clock. If there are chores or expectations, like cleaning up your room, do them. What parents are looking for without saying it is a level of consistency. Point two is that you end up being consistent with your behaviors when you create that environment. So, the level of trust that your parents extend to you continues to grow. Point three is that once you’ve established one and two, you now have an environment that you create where you can have honest conversations with a parent or caregiver. You can be unafraid to have an honest discussion because what you’ve been doing is creating the practice and the habits that will allow your parents to trust you. Now you get to relay how you feel about something at home or about your relationship with your parent. When we as professionals teach young people these habits, these restorative practices, we encourage them to use a ton of emotion, say how they’re feeling, and use “I statements.” So, to sum it up, create an environment where parents trust you. Be consistent with creating that environment. That opens up the lane for young people to have honest, emotion-driven conversations.

EP: From an adult perspective, what if you’ve lost your cool, and your teen is shutting you out? What can you do to help ensure that your relationship isn’t fractured?

AA: The most important thing is to show up with great accountability, humility, apologies, and sincere engagement. After you’ve apologized, it goes a long way in creating a trusting relationship with a young person. Often with our young people, nobody apologizes to them for anything that has happened. This is the number one thing we tell parents – show up with a great deal of humility and accountability to begin repairing relationships.  Humility can mean a lot of things, but here it means being willing to state that you too can learn, even, or especially from your child. 

EP: On the flip side, if you’re a teen and things have gone wrong in your relationship with the caring adult in your life, how do you start to repair it?

AA: If you’re a teen in a relationship with a parent or caregiver that has gone wrong, first, assess the situation. Ask yourself where things have gone wrong in the relationship with a parent or caregiver. Write down the things that have been great about the relationship and the things that don’t feel so good. After you’ve done that, share them with a friend or trusting adult to help balance yourself. Next comes the hard part – having the conversation with your parent.  Prior to that conversation, think of a couple of words that are important to you about how you want the conversation to go. Ask your parent or caregiver to come up with the same things. What we often find is that you both may come up with similar words because your parent or caring adult knows that their relationship isn’t going so well either. Just know that after that difficult conversation this is about the next series of conversations that you’ll both have to check in on each other. They don’t all have to be as intense as the first difficult conversation that you’ll have. This is about the habits you are creating to continually restore the relationship with your parent or caregiver.

EP: What do you say to adults who feel frustrated that things aren’t going to get fixed overnight?

AA: Relationships take work. The restorative journey and building relationships take work. You may have heard this proverb, “The master will appear when the student is ready.” Over the years and with my involvement with youth development, I’ve remixed that a bit to say, “The parent or the teacher or the coach will appear when the young person is ready.” It’s our obligation to keep teaching, parenting, and mentoring. Often, that’s the most challenging thing for us as adults. We think we have all of the answers, but they don’t match with the day-to-day practices and work that it takes to get a young person to show up. There will always be a lightbulb moment for a young person. But that light bulb moment doesn’t happen if we don’t continue to parent, to teach, and to create trusting relationships with young people.

EP: Are there lessons you learned from your children that we can learn from?

AA: One major lesson I learned from parenting was with my oldest daughter. She has a rare disease called Williams Syndrome. Emotions are intense for her. Now, I don’t consider myself a yeller as a parent. I do raise my voice to get attention. There was a moment that I raised my voice. She approached me and said, “Dad, can you not yell at me? Because that does not work for me.” Since then, I’ve taken a step back. It changed and enhanced the way that I became a parent. I had no choice but to listen to her. I asked her to explain what she meant. She said, “Dad, if you took time to explain what you meant, even if it’s the second or third time, I will do what you asked me to do.” I realized then, that by communicating the way she could better absorb my message I didn’t lose authority, or position as a father, or a parent. I gained more of a trusting relationship because I listened to my daughter.

About Eden Pontz

Eden Pontz is Executive Producer and Director of Digital Content for CPTC. She oversees digital media content development and production for Parentandteen.com. She also writes, copyedits, and produces articles, podcasts, and videos for the site. Her pieces cover a range of topics including teen development, peer pressure, and mentoring. Eden brings years of experience as a former Executive Producer of Newsgathering at CNN, as well as a field producer, writer, and reporter for CNN and other news organizations.

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