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.

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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.

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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!

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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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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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