Proven Ways to Strengthen the Connection with Your Teen

How to Stay Connected to Your Teen

Adolescence is an adventure for teens and the adults who love them – a wonderful, messy, confusing, beautiful, crazy adventure. Hormones are commonly blamed for the vast ups and downs of adolescence, but though there are hormonal changes, the changes in teens are primarily because of changes in the brain. Understanding these changes will help make the path through adolescence easier for everyone.

Adolescence is a time a discovery. Teens will discover fears, self-doubt and heartache they’ve never known before. They will discover creativity, strength and courage they never knew they had. They will find a depth of emotion they never thought possible and they will find within themselves the richness of their capacity to connect, a mind that is beautiful, bold, independent and curious and the power of their own presence and voice. They will explore and challenge their view of the world and their place in it.

All of this is normal – so normal that pushing against it will be the surest way to unravel your connection with your teen. It will lead to secrecy, arguing, disrespect and feelings of isolation. You’ll be just another one who ‘doesn’t get it’ and that’s the last thing they need. What they need more than anything is the connection with you, even if they don’t let you know it. They need your wisdom, your guidance and your loving, open presence when the world disappoints them, which at times, it will. Here are some ways to strengthen that connection:

  1. Understand what’s driving them.

    Their behaviour, as baffling and as messy as it might be sometimes, is being driven by the changes in their brain, not by their desire to be difficult. They are being rolled around by impulse and instinct and they don’t want to be disconnected from you, even though that’s sometimes where things end up. From ages 12-24, the brain is developing faster than ever before. There are for main changes that are driven by the way their brain grows through adolescence:

    •  greater emotional intensity (they might swing between being moody, reactive or impulsive and being warm, loving, emotionally generous and wonderful to be with);

    •   the need for connection and relationship (they’ll be driven to form new and deeper connections with others – friendships will become a priority), 

    •   the need for a novel ‘high’ (they will be more driven to seek out new experiences and they will find creative, courageous ways of experiencing life. The negative though is that they might open themselves up to dangerous situations and risky behaviour).

    •   the need for creative exploration (they’ll have a greater capacity for creative thinking and abstract reasoning, they  might be funnier and more creative and more challenging of the status quo, they will experiment with new ways of seeing and being in the world).

    All of these behaviours are completely normal and it’s important to remember this, because it can be daunting when you’re standing by and watching them unfold. They’ll do things that are unfamiliar to you and unexpected. If you can remember what’s driving your teen, it will be easier to give them the space to do what they need to do while being available for them when they need you – it can make all the difference to them and to you.

  2. Understand that separating from you is a need, not a want.

    One of the most important developmental goals for adolescents is to separate from their parents and to establish their own identity. This isn’t easy for anyone, but it’s so important. Sometimes, for parents who have always felt close to their children, it will be difficult not to take the separation personally. In fact, the closer they have been to you, the more they might have to push against you to find the edges of themselves. This is normal, and completely okay. Keep being a steady, strong, loving presence and wait for them to find their way back to you, which they will.

  3. Ask what, not why.

    Everything we do is to meet a need and teens are no different. The need they are meeting is always a valid one, even if they have chosen a spectacularly messy way to meet it. If you can understand the need they’re meeting, even their most baffling behaviour will start to make sense. The need won’t always be easy to identify, by you’ll have more chance of uncovering it if you start by asking ‘what’ rather than ‘why’. ‘Why’ will probably give you an ‘I don’t know’ – because they probably don’t even know themselves. Instead, ask (or look for):  What happens to them or for them when they do what they do? What stops or goes away when they do what they do? What do they need? What can you do to help them?

  4. Respect their privacy.

    Resist the temptation to check their social media or do anything else that they might see as an invasion of their privacy. One of the biggest things they want from you is trust and freedom. Let them know that they can have both, but in return they have to show you that they can be trusted with that freedom. They’ll know that your trust is a big thing for them to lose, so that in itself will work to keep them on track. They’ll be experimenting with self-disclosure, but perhaps not with you. Respect that part of their job is to separate from you and find their own identity so don’t chase them to talk if they don’t want to. Be available, and open and ready for them when and if they need you – it will be on their terms, and that’s okay.

  5. Support their friendships.

    Support their friendships. If you don’t like who they’re spending time with, gently guide them and offer your advice when they ask for it but be careful giving too much of it when it’s not asked for. Friendships are a priority remember, so the more you push against their friends, the harder they’ll push against you in protection of them.

  6. Give them space to experiment.

    The more space and support you can give them to experiment safely, the less need they’ll have to put themselves at risk. Of course, they may still be driven towards risky behaviour anyway, in which case there won’t be much you can do except talk to them about it. Do your best to support them in finding a safer outlet, but understand that if you suggest croquet, you’re probably going to lose them. The changes in the reward circuitry of the brain that happens during adolescence will mean they’ll be hungry for the high that risk and new things can bring, but novelty doesn’t always have to be risky. There are plenty of things they might try to experience the world in a new way or themselves in a new way. This might come through sport, groups, clubs, hobbies, or reaching new heights in something they’ve been doing for a while. Whatever it is, understand their need to try new things and experiment with themselves and world, and give them the space to do that. The best way to do that is to hold back from  judging, criticising or trying to change them.

  7. What they don’t get from you …

    What they don’t get from you, they’ll look to find somewhere else. Of course, there will always be some things you just can’t give them that they will seek somewhere else anyway. Know that you won’t be able to give them everything they need – and that’s okay. The main things they’ll be looking for are approval and validation and confirmation that they’re doing okay. Give them plenty of everything. Even if they act like it doesn’t mean anything to them – it does. Praise them, validate them (‘I get why that’s important to you’), and give them truckloads of approval (even if you don’t approve of their behaviour, always let them know you approve of them.

  8. Let them feel what they’re feeling.

    Give them the space to feel what their feeling, even if it’s intense. If it’s disrespectful, challenging or angry hold firm and let it wash over you. Don’t even try to reason with them when their in the thick of high emotion. You won’t be heard and it will likely just disconnect you. Walk away until it has passed and then discuss it with them. Their brain is changing – they’re being steered by impulse and instinct and they’re being barrelled by deep, intense emotions. It can be so difficult to walk away when they’re yelling or arguing with you as though it’s for their survival (trust me, I know!), but understand what’s happening inside the and know that they’re trying to deal with it as best they can. This doesn’t mean you don’t have boundaries with them – absolutely you need boundaries, around what they do and the way they treat you – just remember to pick your battles and your timing, and know that you’ll always have more influence if you have a connection with them first. There’s a lot during adolescence you can’t control but one thing you can control is what you’re able to do to maintain a connection with them.

  9. Listen to them.

    Listen to them and validate their opinion if they push against the status quo. A big part of adolescence is questioning what they believe about themselves, their world and their position in it. It’s a healthy and important part of their creative exploration, and what they need to do to work out who they are and where they fit in. Let them challenge your views and the way you’ve always done things – it’s part of establishing themselves as separate to you. Even if you don’t agree with them, validate them by letting them know that you understand.

  10. Make it okay for them to get it wrong.

    They’ll be having to make adult decisions with long before they have their adult mind. They will make mistakes and so will you – it’s an unavoidable part of growth. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that helps them make decisions and solve problems – and the kicker is that it’s the last to mature. Until that happens, a more instinctive part of the brain – the amygdala – will have a heavy hand in their impulse control and decision-making. The amygdala is primitive, instinctive, reactive and geared towards quick action without taking the time for a lot of thought. This is why when it comes to teen behaviour, a lot of it won’t make any sense at all – they will be acting more from instinct than anything – as will their friends, and as you were at their age. Keep this in mind when they do those things that baffle you. At times they will baffle them too.

  11. Enjoy them.

    Teens can be the funniest humans on the planet. Embracing and sharing their sense of humour is a wonderful way to connect. Ask them to show you something funny from YouTube or social media – they’ll have plenty. If they’re reluctant to show you, wait until they do something that lands them in a bit of trouble with you – you probably won’t need to wait long – and let them know that the consequence is that they have to find you something to laugh at to bring things back to good.

  12. Involve them in problem solving.

    They’re starting to explore new ways of looking at things and thinking about things. They’ll be creative, brave and will show you unexpected paths. You will be surprised at what they can teach you.

  13. Take the shame away.

    Adolescence is a time when shame seems to tag along like it has nowhere else to be. There are plenty of places it can come from:

    •  social (‘People don’t really like me.’ ‘I’m not as popular as other people.’);

    •  self-image (‘I hate my body/eyes/hair/the way I breathe.’ ‘I’m not good at anything.’);

    •  self-identity (‘I’m the only one who doesn’t have it figured out.’ ‘I don’t know where I fit in.’);

    •  school (‘I’m not smart enough.’ ‘I don’t understand the work.’)
;

    •  family (‘I’m not like them.’ ‘I disappoint them.’)

    The more you can build them up, point out the great things about them and let them know they’re doing absolutely fine, the more protected they’ll be from the shame that could hurt them.

    They  might not always let you know, but what you think of them really matters plays a huge role in buffering them from the shame that could potentially break them.

  14. And whatever you do – don’t take away their social media.

    When it comes to teens and social media, have limits if you want to, put boundaries around it if you need to, but don’t take it away completely. It’s their lifeline to the world – don’t cut off their oxygen supply.

The changes in behaviour and personality during adolescence are normal, healthy and important. By understanding the need they’re meeting or the reasons they’re doing what they’re doing, it’s easier to support them in finding a better way to meet the need. Otherwise, it will make it easier for you to allow yourself an almighty deep breath while you give them the time and space to do what they need to do by themselves.

Adolescence is a time of discovery, growth and learning – for both of you. The more we can support them through the changes as they unfold, without judgement, criticism or any attempts to push against them, the more they will be open to our direction, guidance and influence. 

12 Comments

V

I’d love to hear your thoughts on helping teens who are deeply depressed, have been hospitalized, and are self-harming. It appears that social media feeds into these behaviors and I’m not sure that your approach would be helpful. Can you explain? Thanks.

Reply
Karen Young

Here are a couple of articles that might be helpful for you
– Teens and Depression – Why Teens Are More Vulnerable, and the Risk Factors Parents Need to Know About https://www.heysigmund.com/teens-and-depression-risk/
– Teens and Depression – The Warning Signs and How to Help Them Through https://www.heysigmund.com/depression-teens-warning-signs-help/
– Why do People Self-Harm? When Feeling Bad Means Feeling Better https://www.heysigmund.com/why-do-people-self-harm/

Reply
Anne

My biological sons are 30 & 31 years-old. My step-granddaughter is 15, so in retrospect and realtime, I’d like to say this is the closest thing to a parent manual I’ve ever seen. Thank you 🙂

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Terri L

I struggle with the difference between approving of them as people but disapproving of their behavior. I am a single mom of two teenage girls, and I have a demanding job and, frankly, a house and yard that are too much for me. The summers are hard because I am working all day and they are at home. I expect them to take care of the house and yard and help with meal preparation. But they waste so much time! It drives me crazy, and I don’t approve. I end up disappointed and nagging, which sets the tone for the evening. They are really wonderful kids, but we seem to be at an impasse between my expectations and their unwillingness to meet them. Suggestions?

Reply
Hey Sigmund

I really get it – this can be difficult. When it comes to approving of them but disapproving of their behaviour, tell them something good about them and then focus on the specific behaviour that’s disappointing you. Remember that even though they don’t show it, they want to be your hero too. Try something like, ‘You’re great and I love having you at home during the day. It would make such a difference to me if you could have your room tidy by the time I get home. Would you do that for me please?’ Then, attach it to something they want – the wi-fi password, tv at night – and let them know that if it’s not done, that’s what will be taken away until it is. Explain that in the same way you have to go to work to earn the money so they can have the things they have, they also have to earn the things they want. But try not to get cross while you’re talking to them about it. Explain it like a business deal – they have something you want (the chores done) and you have something they want (wi-fi/tv/whatever). Also make sure they know exactly what needs to be done. For a teenager, if you say ‘clean the house’, it can trip them up because they don’t know where to start and you’re idea of clean and their idea of clean might be completely different. Be as specific as you can – take the washing off the line, fold it and put away in right drawers – or – put the cushions back on the lounge chair so they’re straight, take your things out of the lounge room and put them in your room where they belong, take any dishes into the kitchen and put them straight into the dishwasher and then vacuum the floor. You might need to write it down – but a list like this will be easier to follow then a general instruction. Finally, remember that you’re not alone on this one – getting teenagers to pull their weight is something that many, if not most parents of teenagers struggle with.

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Terri

What if they’re getting into trouble and hanging out with kids doing drugs and making other bad choices. I’ve heard a total blackout is necessary sometimes.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

This is a really difficult situation. You can set your limits, but really, by the time they’re adolescents, your control is limited. You can still make your expectations clear though – it’s better than having no expectations at all or letting your child believe that they aren’t accountable to anyone, and it gives your child something for them to use as a marker when they’re deciding how to act The best we can do is guide them, set appropriate limits, and let them know what you consider to be right or wrong. If you can do this in a loving way and without language that will trigger their sensitivity to control (so try to avoid saying things like, ‘You have to …’ or ‘You must.’) you’ll have more chance of getting what you need. I’m not sure which country you’re from but if you’re from the US, here are some hotlines that will be able to advise you http://www.drugabuse.gov and http://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline .

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Mike

Thanks for this, after years of having my eldest as my little buddy, when she hit 11, the distancing started and its been hard. Now nearly 14, she hasn’t said love you dad for about 10 months. My being a hugger and trying to hold back has not been easy either. At least I now know this is kinda normal and I might see a human at the end of this. So thanks. Mike

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Hey Sigmund

This is so normal, but knowing it’s normal doesn’t change that it’s still tough when they distance themselves, especially if you’ve been close. I really get it! Know that you’re still her hero, even if she doesn’t show it for a while. You’ve invested in her for 14 years and however far away she seems to move from you, she won’t forget that. It might take a little while, and that’s okay. It will take as long as it takes for her to do what she needs to do – but keep loving her, being open and available to her and she will find her way back to when she’s ready. You sound like a great dad and your daughter will know that.

Reply
Susan E

For Hey Sigmund…I was uncomfortable at that age hugging my dad as well. It’s an akward stage of body changes, but may I suggest just asking her for a hug now and then? It may be uncomfortable for you as well at first, but more likely than not, she could still use a hug from dad, whether she wants to admit it or not.

Reply
Anita Cleare

Really simple sound advice! Removing social media from teenagers is social death to them. If that was done to me (for a minor misdemeanour from a kid who’s still learning….) I’d have no motivation ever to be nice or good again!

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Absolutely! There are so many good things about social media for teens – it’s a way for them to vent, get support, get approval, feel connected, feel a part of something bigger. ‘Social death’ is such a great way to describe what it would be like to them not to have it.

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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