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.

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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/

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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?

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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.

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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.

Reply

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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