Friend, manager, or agent?

When someone shares a struggle, complaint, or frustration, we make the choice whether to respond like a friend, a manager, or an agent.

A good friend is there to listen without judgment. A friend says, “That sounds really frustrating. I’m so sorry.”

A good manager is there to help find, but not necessarily produce, an appropriate solution. A manager says, “I understand. Let’s talk about how I might be able to help you work through or around this.”

And a good agent is there to make the problem go away so her star can just be a star. An agent says, “Don’t worry about a thing—I’ll take care of it.”

So parents, which role are you supposed to play when your teen comes to you with something they’re facing?

I don’t actually have a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. But I will say that both the friend and manager roles encourage progress. The friend lets the person get it all out and gives them a chance to look at their own situation with a calm perspective. A manager offers an opportunity to find a solution without actually serving up the solution itself. People come away from those interactions changed in some way. And they’ve added some learning or growth to their emotional and intellectual bank account they can use to inform them in the future.

But while an agent who makes the problem go away has certainly done her job, she’s also ensured that her star will come right back to her the next time a problem arises. No learning or growth, just increased dependence.

That’s great for the agent, but not so great for the parent. And it’s even worse for the teen.

Good parents inevitably end up playing all three roles at different stages and in different situations. But a good approach might be to do two things:

1. Acknowledge that there are three different roles to be played.
2. When in doubt, start as a friend, if for no other reason than to delay judgment and to invite further conversation.

If the conversation continues and your teen doesn’t make it clear what role they’re inviting you to play, don’t be afraid to just ask them if they’re looking for your help, the chance to just talk, or a little of both.

If nothing else, you’ll create a space where they’re more likely to come back to you the next time, no matter which role they’re seeking when it happens.