Parenting Teenagers: Getting Creative With Connection

Before I had a teenager I used to joke that my kids will someday be mortified to be seen with me! I knew it was coming - it just doesn't feel good now that it is here. My 16 year old daughter wants NOTHING to do with me but I don't want to give up on our relationship. Help!

Margarite, CA

Margarite, Having raised three kids I can certainly sympathize with you. Even though you might anticipate some distancing during adolescence, it is still not easy emotionally. My son Brian starting asking for a "divorce" from our family when he turned fourteen! He even started looking at apartment ads nearby and no doubt would have flown the coop if we had let him go. 

Loosen, but don't let go

The thing is, even when young people ask for a divorce, they still need connection. They may not thank us, ask for it, or show appreciation for it but they still need connection. Your commitment to not giving up on your daughter is such a gift to her! Research consistently shows that one of the greatest protective factors for teens is parent connection and involvement.

Does this mean that we force them to connect in the same way they did when they were in fourth grade? Of course not. It is normal for adolescents to want to spend more time with their friends and be more reluctant to participate in family activities. So if you are parenting teenagers, focus on three things: changing our expectations, maintaining rituals, and nurturing a village. 

Change your expectations

When Erin was sixteen she was seated at the kitchen table doing homework when I got home from work. "How was your day?" I asked. 

"Fine." She muttered. 

"What did you do today?" I tried again.

"Nothing much." She replied, sending a clear message that the conversation was over before it started. 

I took a deep breath and walked in to the living room. Before I could put my briefcase down, Erin called out "Dad? Can you give me a ride to Gretchen's house tomorrow morning?"

On our way to Gretchen's the next day we ended up chatting a bit about school that week, a new friend on the hockey team, and why she was so excited for the weekend.

When I got home, my wife Monica looked at me and said "Aren't you glad that we didn't get Erin a car when she turned sixteen?"

"Yeah! That would have been way out of the budget!" I laughed.

"I'm not talking about money, Dave. I'm just saying it seems like one of the only time we get to hear more than single sentences about her day is in the car." 

She was right. Having to negotiate rides may have felt painful to all of us at times, but it did provide a time and place for us to connect. I didn't realize how much I had come to treasure the fifteen minute drives to Gretchen's house until Monica named it. This wasn't the quality time I had envisioned when I became a new parent but it helped me reframe the relative scarcity of cars in our family - from a pain in the neck to an opportunity to stay connected.

Maintain rituals

Just because we change our expectations and get more creative about staying connected (Monica used to joke that we maintained connection with our kids and their friends through an enormous pizza bill!), doesn't mean we sacrifice rituals and tradition. Our kids need to know that they are still part of a family and that we don't give up on the unique things that make our family ours just because they become more of a hassle. 

Maybe it is a family vacation or a family movie night. Hang on to the things that create memories and make your family unique - though they might change a little. For example, some friends of ours used to have a monthly family board game night. When the kids were little, they were WAY into it. Their enthusiasm faded when they hit middle school. Instead of forcing long games of Monopoly on them, they changed the rules. Each kid could invite one friend over for a Wii tournament. The parents provided the good food and the kids organized the competition. Usually after an hour our friends would wander out and let the kids have their fun. 

This night might look different but game night remains a part of the family fabric that holds them together. Plus they get to know their kids' friends too.

Nurture a village

It is important to remember that your kids might not want to connect with YOU at any given time, but they might want to talk with another caring adult. You might be too close or the issue might feel too loaded. Teens need a network of people that they trust - a teacher, coach, aunt or uncle, or a family friend. Try involving other adults in your kids' life early on so that your child can lean on that relationship if they need to during adolescence.

When Brian hit a rough patch during high school, I called two men who were my close friends and also close with Brian. "Will you two take Brian out for breakfast? I don't need to know what you say to him or what he shares with you but I need you to be talking to him. I just can't get through right now."

When he was in his twenties, I asked Brian if he remembered that breakfast.

"I remember it really well." he said.

"Was it helpful?" I asked.

"You know, it was," Brian said thoughtfully. "I still carry something in my wallet that Bob gave me that day."

I still don't know what Brian had in his wallet and I don't need to know. I am just grateful that there were some caring adults that were connected with Brian when he was in a tough spot.

Take the long view

It can be emotionally exhausting to maintain connection with your teenager while she is trying to push you away. If your teen is in a particularly rough spot she isn't likely to thank you for your efforts. However, the work you put in to maintaining that connection has an incredible long term pay off. Not only will it help her handle the challenges of adolescence but she is likely to carry these rich emotional memories and skills with her into adulthood. 

For our family, summer vacations felt like pulling teeth when we had three teenagers in the house. The fun moments seemed far outnumbered by bickering, sullen looks, and outright defiance. Now my kids are in their thirties though, and family vacations come up often as some of their most fond memories from growing up - even the vacations we took during their teenage years. Were we on the same vacations? We were. It just took them another ten years to appreciate it. This is something that is well worth the wait.

Good luck, 

Image

 

 

Dr. Dave Walsh

 

p.s. Check out more on the science of parent-teen miscommunication and some communication tips