Your job as parents is to meet your kids’ emotional needs at each stage of their development so they can advance to the demands of the next stage. In the teen years, everything you have done right and wrong comes into sharp focus. If you have accepted your child’s dependency needs and affirmed her development into her own separate person, she will stay fiercely connected to you even as her focus shifts to peers, high school and the passions that make her soul sing.
It is appropriate for kids to become increasingly independent throughout their teen years. But it is critical, for most of those years, for parents to remain their teen’s emotional and moral compass. Kids will begin to experiment with intimate relationships outside the family, but to do that successfully, they still rely on those intimate relationships at home remaining solid. That means that a teen who rebuffs parental bids for contact is probably looking outside for something he was not getting at home.
The biggest predictor of how early your child will become sexually active? The closer she is to you and her other parent, the longer she will wait.
Parents need to invite their children to rely on them emotionally until they are emotionally ready to depend on themselves. Too often, in our culture, we let teenagers transfer their dependency outside the family, with disastrous results. Teens often give up a great deal of themselves in pursuit of the closeness they crave, only to crash against the hard reality that other teens are not developmentally able to offer them what they need.
It is not a sign of healthy emotional development for a teen to push parents away, or for parents to let him. That is a sign of a damaged relationship. Attempting to parent when your relationship with your teen is damaged is like pushing a rock uphill. It is never too late in your relationship with your child to do repair work, to move closer. But it is a whole lot harder to build the strong connection you want if the foundation is not there.
How can you stay connected to your teen?
- Recognize that your teen’s fierce need for independence doesn’t mean he can’t stay connected to you.
If you can let your teen exercise his own judgment and be himself, rather than who you want him to be, he will be able to grow into age-appropriate independence without cutting you off. If, on the other hand, you insist that he play the sport you love or that she agree with your political views, your teen will have to choose between a relationship with you and his or her integrity.
- Listen. Empathize. Keep advice to a minimum.
It doesn’t matter how good your advice is. Every time you offer it, you’re giving your teen the message that he can’t solve his problems himself. Be a sounding board, not a prescriber, and you’ll find your teen coming back for more.
- Be available when your teen wants to talk
For most teens, that means late at night over a snack. It’s worth a nap, and even setting your alarm for 1am. You will be amazed at how much more your teen will open up in the wee hours. Most kids don’t keep an agenda and bring things up at a scheduled meeting. And nothing makes them clam up faster than pressing them to talk. Kids talk when something is up for them, particularly if you have proven yourself to be a good listener, but not overly attached to their opening up to you. (If you push them to open up, they feel they have to defend their independence by keeping secrets from you.) Find ways to be in proximity where you are both potentially available, without it seeming like a demand. This may seem obvious, but stating your availability invites contact that might not otherwise occur: “I’ll be in the study working if you want me”.
The most important part of staying available is your state of mind. Your child will sense your emotional availability. Parents who have close relationships with their teens often say that as their child has gotten older, they have made it a practice to drop everything else if their teen signals a desire to talk. This can be difficult if you’re also handling a demanding job and other responsibilities, of course. But kids who feel that other things are more important to their parents often look elsewhere when they are emotionally needy. And that’s our loss, as much as theirs.
- Don’t try to remake your teen
Your teen is still learning the rules of grooming, and experimenting with new identities almost weekly. Think she’d look better with her hair plaited a certain way? Think he should wash his face more? Be sure any suggestions are made tactfully, and only once. After that, your teen will perceive them as rejection.
- Welcome your teen’s friends
You want her hanging out at your house, right? Keep snacks available and greet her friends with a smile when they pile in unexpectedly.
- Keep track of “goodwill balance” in your relationship with your teen and fill it with good interactions as necessary.
Scientists have found a way to predict which couples will end up divorcing: those who don’t insure that they have at least 5 positive interactions for every negative one. It turns out that maintaining this 5 to 1 ratio is effective insurance to stay connected in every relationship, including between parents and teens.
Try as we might, all of us sometimes have less than optimal interactions with our children. Remember that each one of those interactions that leave anyone feeling bad require five positive interactions to restore a positive valence to the relationship. These can be little – a smile or pat on the shoulder – as long as you make sure they have a positive impact.
- Don’t take it personally.
- Your teenager slams the door to her bedroom, screaming, I hate you, you never understand! What’s the most important thing to remember? Don’t take it personally! This isn’t primarily about you, it’s about them: their tangled up feelings, their difficulty controlling themselves, their immature ability to understand and express their emotions. Taking it personally wounds you, which means you do what we all do when hurt: either close off, or lash out, or both. Which just worsens a tough situation for all concerned. Remembering not to take it personally means you:
- Take a deep breath
- Let the hurt go
- Remind yourself that your child does in fact love you but can’t get in touch with it at the moment
- Consciously lower your voice
- Try hard to remember what it feels like to be a kid who is upset and over-reacting.
- Think through how to respond calmly and constructively.
You can still set limits, but you do it from as calm a place as you can muster. Your child will be deeply grateful, even if she can’t acknowledge it at the moment. This is not suggesting that you let your child treat you disrespectfully. It is only suggesting you act out of love, rather than anger, as you set limits. And if you are too angry to get in touch with your love at the moment, then wait to set limits until you are calm and able to feel love and empathy for your child.
- Place a premium on relationships in your family by spending some time together every single day.
Whether it is five minutes at bedtime or washing the dishes together after dinner, make sure you have time to connect with your teen every day. If your teen is resistant to spending time with you, develop routines where you share something that your teen enjoys doing: play a game of ping pong or have a cup of tea together every night, take a walk for ice cream on Monday evenings, make brunch together or play some basketball on Sunday mornings. Kids often wait for these routine times with their parents to bring up something that’s bothering them. Don’t expect your son or daughter to invite closeness or volunteer vulnerable emotions at each interaction, or when you expect it. But if you set up enough regular opportunities to be together, it will happen.
- If you don’t get the response you want to your overtures towards your child, step back and watch how you initiate.
Are you inviting a positive response? Kids have a lot on their minds, from the history test to the soccer tryouts to the newest computer game. Not to mention that by the time they are tweens who are swamped with hormones, and checking themselves out in every mirror they pass. Parents can be dismally low on their list.
So find ways to get in their face in a friendly, inoffensive way. It is fine to demand and expect connection – you have a right to a relationship with your child. But you’re more likely to find the response you want if you can help your child remember why she likes you!
“I was hoping we could go out for brunch one day this weekend for some special Mom and Alice time” will work a lot better than “You never tell me anything these days!”
- Acknowledge separations and reunions.
When you or your teen leaves, say goodbye. When you return, say hello. When you first see your teen in the morning, make a point of greeting him, preferably with a hug. This may seem obvious, but lots of families don’t do it. Research shows that men who hug their wives goodbye in the morning live longer, earn more, and are happier.
- When you physically reconnect, consciously refocus your attention.
Otherwise, it is automatic for all of us to keep thinking about the meeting we just attended or what we need to pick up at the grocery store. Teens are often ready to talk when they first get in the car, but the minute they sit down at their computer, connecting with parents is the last thing they want to do.
- Until you’ve re-established the connection, keep distractions to a minimum.
This may seem obvious, but if you can make yourself turn off the news when your teen gets in the car, you’re lots more likely to make a connection with him and hear about what happened at band practice. If she’s coming back from a sleepover, try to avoid having family friends over at the same time. Insist that she spend some time interacting with the family before she gets on the phone or computer to chat with her friends.
A close relationship with parents is one in which children talk with their parents often and regularly spend time together (eating meals together, for example), and one in which a child feels comfortable sharing his thoughts and experiences with his parents. She distinguished between parent-child connectedness and relationship-orientation, which refers to the child’s need to satisfy his parents and fulfill their expectations. Connected kids may share with parents and solicit their advice, and still make independent choices and decisions.