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.

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!

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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.

Reply

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Sometimes we all just need space to talk to someone who will listen without giving advice, or problem solving, or lecturing. Someone who will let us talk, and who can handle our experiences and words and feelings without having to smooth out the wrinkles or tidy the frayed edges. 

Our kids need this too, but as their important adults, it can be hard to hush without needing to fix things, or gather up their experience and bundle it into a learning that will grow them. We do this because we love them, but it can also mean that they choose not to let us in for the wrong reasons. 

We can’t help them if we don’t know what’s happening in their world, and entry will be on their terms - even more as they get older. As they grow, they won’t trust us with the big things if we don’t give them the opportunity to learn that we can handle the little things (which might feel seismic to them). They won’t let us in to their world unless we make it safe for them to.

When my own kids were small, we had a rule that when I picked them up from school they could tell me anything, and when we drove into the driveway, the conversation would be finished if they wanted it to be. They only put this rule into play a few times, but it was enough for them to learn that it was safe to talk about anything, and for me to hear what was happening in that part of their world that happened without me. My gosh though, there were times that the end of the conversation would be jarring and breathtaking and so unfinished for me, but every time they would come back when they were ready and we would finish the chat. As it turned out, I had to trust them as much as I wanted them to trust me. But that’s how parenting is really isn’t it.

Of course there will always be lessons in their experiences we will want to hear straight up, but we also need them to learn that we are safe to come to.  We need them to know that there isn’t anything about them or their life we can’t handle, and when the world feels hard or uncertain, it’s safe here. By building safety, we build our connection and influence. It’s just how it seems to work.♥️
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#parenting #parenthood #mindfulparenting
Words can be hard sometimes. The right words can be orbital and unconquerable and hard to grab hold of. Feelings though - they’ll always make themselves known, with or without the ‘why’. 

Kids and teens are no different to the rest of us. Their feelings can feel bigger than words - unfathomable and messy and too much to be lassoed into language. If we tap into our own experience, we can sometimes (not all the time) get an idea of what they might need. 

It’s completely understandable that new things or hard things (such as going back to school) might drive thoughts of falls and fails and missteps. When this happens, it’s not so much the hard thing or the new thing that drives avoidance, but thoughts of failing or not being good enough. The more meaningful the ‘thing’ is, the more this is likely to happen. If you can look behind the words, and through to the intention - to avoid failure more than the new or difficult experience, it can be easier to give them what they need. 

Often, ‘I can’t’ means, ‘What if I can’t?’ or, ‘Do you think I can?’, or, ‘Will you still think I’m brave, strong, and capable of I fail?’ They need to know that the outcome won’t make any difference at all to how much you adore them, and how capable and exceptional you think they are. By focusing on process, (the courage to give it a go), we clear the runway so they can feel safer to crawl, then walk, then run, then fly. 

It takes time to reach full flight in anything, but in the meantime the stumbling can make even the strongest of hearts feel vulnerable. The more we focus on process over outcome (their courage to try over the result), and who they are over what they do (their courage, tenacity, curiosity over the outcome), the safer they will feel to try new things or hard things. We know they can do hard things, and the beauty and expansion comes first in the willingness to try. 
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparent
Never in the history of forever has there been such a  lavish opportunity for a year to be better than the last. Not to be grabby, but you know what I’d love this year? Less opportunities that come in the name of ‘resilience’. I’m ready for joy, or adventure, or connection, or gratitude, or courage - anything else but resilience really. Opportunities for resilience have a place, but 2020 has been relentless with its servings, and it’s time for an out breath. Here’s hoping 2021 will be a year that wraps its loving arms around us. I’m ready for that. x
The holidays are a wonderland of everything that can lead to hyped up, exhausted, cranky, excited, happy kids (and adults). Sometimes they’ll cycle through all of these within ten minutes. Sugar will constantly pry their little mouths wide open and jump inside, routines will laugh at you from a distance, there will be gatherings and parties, and everything will feel a little bit different to usual. And a bit like magic. 

Know that whatever happens, it’s all part of what the holidays are meant to look like. They aren’t meant to be pristine and orderly and exactly as planned. They were never meant to be that. Christmas is about people, your favourite ones, not tasks. If focusing on the people means some of the tasks fall down, let that be okay, because that’s what Christmas is. It’s about you and your people. It’s not about proving your parenting stamina, or that you’ve raised perfectly well-behaved humans, or that your family can polish up like the catalog ones any day of the week, or that you can create restaurant quality meals and decorate the table like you were born doing it. Christmas is messy and ridiculous and exhausting and there will be plenty of frayed edges. And plenty of magic. The magic will happen the way it always happens. Not with the decorations or the trimmings or the food or the polish, but by being with the ones you love, and the ones who love you right back.

When it all starts to feel too important, too necessary and too ‘un-let-go-able’, be guided by the bigger truth, which is that more than anything, you will all remember how you all felt – as in how happy they felt, how loved they felt were, how noticed they felt. They won’t care about the instagram-worthy meals on the table, the cleanliness of the floors, how many relatives they visited, or how impressed other grown-ups were with their clean faces and darling smiles. It’s easy to forget sometimes, that what matters most at Christmas isn’t the tasks, but the people – the ones who would give up pretty much anything just to have the day with you.
Some days are great days. We want to squeeze every delicious moment out of them and keep them forever somewhere safe and reachable where our loved days and precious things are kept. Then there are days that are truly awful - the days we want to fold in half, and then in half again and again and again until those days are too small to hurt us any more. But days are like that aren’t they. For better or worse they will come and they will go. Sometimes the effects of them will stay – the glow, the growth, the joy, the bruises – long after those days have gone. And despite what I know to be true - that these are the days that will make us braver, stronger, kinder and wiser, sometimes I don’t feel any of that for a while. I just see the stretch marks. But that’s the way life is, isn’t it. It can be hard and beautiful all in sequence and all at once.
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One of the tough things about being human is that to live wholeheartedly means to open ourselves to both - the parts that are plump with happiness, and the parts that hurt. We don’t have to choose which one can stay. They can exist together. Not always in equal measure, and not always enough of the beautiful to make the awful feel tolerable, or to give it permission to be, but they can exist together - love through loss, hope through heartache. The big memory-making times that fatten life to full enough, and the ones that come with breakage or loss. The loss matters and the joy matters. The existence of either doesn't make the other matter any less. 
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What I also know to be true is that eventually, the space taken up by loss or heartache changes space for enough of the beautiful to exist with it. This is when we can start to move with. Sadness still, perhaps, but with hope, with courage, with strength and softness, with openness to what comes next. Because living bravely and wholeheartedly doesn't mean getting over loss or denying the feelings that take our breath away sometimes. It means honouring both, and in time, moving with.♥️

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