Whispered conversations in my circle often begin with, “How do you connect with your teenager?” or “Is anyone else experiencing [insert challenge] with their teen?”
I promise it is a universal struggle. I glean great reassurance just from Julie A. Ross’ title How to Hug a Porcupine because it reminds me I am not alone.
Prickly thy name is teenager. (no, not always but lotsaways)
Suddenly, an unsettled feeling may permeate our homes. We embraced the early years, navigated the school-aged season and now….it feels like someone changed the rules.
Staying connected to our teens can be especially challenging when they appear to thwart our efforts. For a while, we may feel like our status changes from Hero to Tolerable. Almost overnight. Stereotypes abound about eyerolling or closed doors, but experiencing it first-hand is very different.
We make small attempts.
Oh – you don’t want to chat over breakfast? No problem. I’ll just keep staring at my coffee.
I don’t even drink coffee, which makes the whole moment even more awkward. [sigh]
Or we ask questions that seem reasonable until they are spoken out loud and met with muffled mumblings.
Connecting with our teenagers can feel like asking someone to the prom. We present a timid offer and risk rejection.
The bad news is, it stings if we take it personally. The good news is, it is perfectly normal. Maybe read that last part again while filling your lungs deeply with hope. It’s perfectly normal. Michael Riera, author of Staying Connected to Your Teenager, brilliantly frames this stage:
“During adolescence, teenagers need to extend away from their parents, all the while staying connected to their parents. Their job is to extend; your job is to connect.” – Michael Riera
They’re not rejecting us. Our teens are just doing their job.
And while they many not show it, teenagers do still want to be close. The Child Mind Institute reassures us:
“…most teens say they want to be closer to their parents but don’t know how to do that. So while your kid is doing the work of separating, you need to do the work of carefully bridging the gap.”
As they extend, how can we stay close? While they separate, how can we bridge the gap?
These are the questions parents ponder, myself included. As we fall asleep and when our eyes open to a new day.
Recurring themes become my signal to deep dive into issues and call on experts. Parents I know in real life, fellow writers and professionals who speak to this regularly. You will love their wisdom.
Any parent-teen relationship can benefit from these practical ideas. Even if you are soaring through this stage in an uncomplicated way.
But remember: choose to be inspired, not overwhelmed. It’s the Lightly Frayed way.
So, how can you connect with your teenager, when they seem distant?
lay an honest foundation with teens
When our son (the oldest) was in 8th or 9th grade we had this talk in the car. I told him we were going to need to have a lot of grace with each other since I had never been the mom of a teen before and he had never been one himself. It set a positive tone and helped us both navigate tension a bit easier down the road. Lori Kay Ziegler
understand teens need to fire us
So the first thing we really have to do when [our kids] fire us [as their managers] is, grieve a little bit…then get rehired as the consultant which is different than a manager. It’s not the face to face paradigm, it’s actually about a half step back, side by side relationship with them and from the consultant role, we can begin to think more about influence than control. Now you can have a healthy relationship with your teenagers as they go through adolescence. Michael Riera
Watch the full video here at Kidsinthehouse.com (1:44 video)
follow their lead
When they push away, give them space. The tighter I held on, the more they would push away. I needed to be willing to engage on their terms. Julie Homquist
linger, to connect with your teenager
What I am learning is you have to linger with your teens. They talk in their own time. I often lay in bed with my 13- year-old-son and then he will talk. Lea Turner
be their sounding board
After school have a “you can tell me anything session” and let them jabber without correcting them. Have lots of cookies on hand as they confide in you, and just listen. Talk to them about your concerns later when you’ve had time to think clearly. Cindy Seaton
When my boys show the slightest inclination of wanting to do something with me I try to drop everything I’m doing. If they ask for a shoulder massage, I make myself available. If they want to grab a burger, I’ll do my very best to say ‘yes.’ Of course the trick is to not appear too desperate or excited. #bechillmom Karen Gauvreau
build in simple routines of connection
My husband was in the habit of always doing the dishes by hand after dinner and our son was the dish dryer. This allowed for great one on one time with them. They didn’t always have long discussions, but their camaraderie and laughter built the foundation for communication. Patricia Marshall
focus on their individuality
When my older son was going through the pulling away phase and didn’t want to have friends over, I played games with him (Catan, Yahtzee, etc) because he’s really competitive and this was something we could DO. My daughter loves having people over but is a night owl. I’m a morning person so I’ve had to learn to pace myself as there are friends in our house until midnight when she hosts game nights. Jill Dixon
When they distance, we know it’s temporary and not about us. Pride demands, love listens. So we wait and they come to talk. Christine Abraham
choose words carefully
We try not to make every conversation about what our teenagers are doing or not doing. It’s easy when life is super full to get in a conversation rut when there doesn’t seem to be room for heart conversations or talking simply because you enjoy each other. Amanda S. Bacon, Mom of 8
ask surprising questions
‘If you were suddenly given a large sum of money and that money could only be donated to one charity or cause, what would it be and why?’ This might seem like a random question, but it can actually get your teen thinking about what matters to them beyond their own experiences. The conversation could lead to something they’ve learned at school or seen in the news, opening it up to a wider discussion. Jennifer Kolari from Connected Parenting
Feeling inspired so far? Grab this copy to give you bite-sized, actionable ideas your teen will love.
speak their language
If your teenager no longer responds to affection in the way they used to, don’t despair. I grew up learning about Love Languages by Gary Chapman. When our teens pull away, we may have to try another plan. If they no longer want to be hugged, try reaching them through affirming words or acts of service. Better yet – have them take this online quiz so they can understand their own wiring. Focus on the Family.
It helps to realize our teenagers often have a different feeling about our relationship than I do. Because I’m a female, I view closeness much differently than they do. Many times in feeling distant, I would ask my boys questions and realize they don’t feel that distance like I did. Julie Holmquist
enter your teen’s world
I use technology as a way to connect, by sending them goofy Snapchats or even texting them when they’re up in their bedroom just to say hi…Also I listen to their music and we have had many good talks about what constitutes a good song. Teenagers can shut down in an instant if they feel judgement, because they are so vulnerable at this age. Deborah Patricca
connect with your teenager as chauffeur
Our teens may pretend they don’t need us, but remember who holds the car keys. Just last night my boys asked me for a drive to the thrift store. My mind immediately went to my lengthy ‘to do’ list. But I felt a nudge to do this for them; to set aside my list and support their entrepreneurial business in this way. When teenagers are excited about a project, and we are by their side, we get bonus points. When you parent a teenager you need all the bonus points. Karen Gauvreau
date your teen
My husband had a standing date one night a week with our daughter. Sometimes they talked about “nothing.” Other times it was a safe, calm place to discuss emotions or mishaps from the week. She still talks about how much that meant to her. Lori Kay Ziegler
study your teen
If you’re an extrovert with an introvert kid, learn about what’s normal for introverts so you don’t take things personally; recognize that there WILL be changes & even some of the healthy ones will be painful – don’t make your kid feel responsible for the pain. Jana Snyder
Is your teen a foodie like you? Invite him or her to help make dinner, Sunday brunch, or have them choose a weekly recipe that you make together to contribute to the family meal plan. Not only is this a good way to get some extra hands in the kitchen, but it’s also a great time to reconnect and talk about what’s going on in your child’s life. Motherhoodmag.com
I’m a mom to a brand-new teen…and have tried to use humor as a way to connect. My son and I have mismatched personalities in some regards…and humor has successfully cut through those differences. The best humor is when I’m making fun of myself or making myself look ridiculous. Heidi Robins McGinnis
find reassuring support
Any challenge in parenting feels magnified when we believe it is unique to us. And we will be less connected with our teenagers if we act out of fear and isolation. We need other parents to journey with us. But the stories of our teens are no longer ours to tell. This tension is pondered here.
be a cheerleader
After-school activities are often a large part of a teen’s life, so taking an interest in their preferred hobby is a great way to connect. Make time in your schedule to go to a game or play and enjoy sharing in your teen’s talents. But remember, you’re not there to help them get better at their activity; that will be perceived as a criticism, and they’ll dread riding home with you. You’re there to appreciate! Just say “I love to watch you play! Ahaparenting.com
remember your own teen years
I remember going through that stage myself as a brooding teen after my parents divorced. My dad took me on dates to places that made me come alive, which for me involved coffee and music. Janette M. McLaughlin
play ‘what if ‘
We take our teens out to dinner and have the best face-to-face conversations. We roleplay “What If” and present scenarios. What if your friend has a drink of alcohol…do you let her drive you home?” If they give wrong answers, we make a gong sound, then share examples from our own teen years. Realizing mom and dad were once teens has built their trust. Christine Abraham
Teens want to make the world a better place, and they want to see that they can make a difference. It will mean a lot to see that you share that commitment. Elyse Suter
Yesterday I asked my son if he emailed his friend about a change of plans. He replied lightly, “I messaged him Mom. Nobody emails. Just looking out for you.” Our teens may not expect us to be completely current, but the more relevant information we have, the better. For them. For us. Every parent of teens should sign up for Axis‘ Culture Translator for weekly bullet points on staying current.
rethink your advice
It doesn’t matter how good your advice is. Every time you offer it, you’re giving your teen the message that he can’t solve his problems himself. Be a sounding board, not a prescriber, and you’ll find your teen coming back for more. Laura Markham
tell them stories
When you share your memories of the funny, sweet and infuriating things they did when they were young, teens gain a sense of being connected to your unique family history — of knowing they belong and that they matter to you. Today’s Parent
aim for a win-win
Our girls desire independence and alone time, which we give them, within limits. When they are responsible, their “ropes” lengthen and they earn more independence (THEIR WIN). Then they are much happier participating in activities with family and friends such as get-togethers, dinners, hiking, and game nights several nights in a row (OUR WIN) Ashley@Navigating The Years.
limit screen time
I take the phone away. But I do explain that it is not a punishment but because I miss them and love them. I just need to know where they are at…what they are thinking. We have also started making our 16-year-old turn his phone in at 9 pm every night. I am noticing a difference in my son since I have instituted this new way to love him and connect with him. Shannon Jacobyansky
lean in during conflict
If something has come between you and your teen, sit down with them face-to-face and start asking those tough questions to get to the root of the issue. Start by saying, “You are very important to me, and I’m sorry if our relationship hasn’t been what it should. But I want to change that. So what could I do to make our relationship better?” Be prepared to patiently listen to the response, even if it’s painful. Criticism is never easy to hear, but this is a chance for your teen to share her heart, and for you to hear how you can improve. It will require humbleness and self-evaluation. But think of it as in an investment towards a greater, future reward. Mark Gregston
…show ‘ruthless compassion,’ meaning you set everything else aside, including your own feelings, and concentrate on showing unrelenting understanding of what the [teenager] is feeling. Jennifer Kolari
connect with your teenager, rinse and repeat
Life, with its infinite distractions and constant separations, has a way of eroding connection. While our teens are separated from us, they orient themselves around other things: their peers, their team, their computer. All parents need to repeatedly reconnect with their teens, just to repair the daily erosion created by life’s normal separations and distractions. Laura Markham
How is your hope-ometer?
At Lightly Frayed, we make a choice to be inspired, not overwhelmed.
Choose one or two ideas to try – even simple changes can pivot your relationship.
For parents who have a hard time carving out time to research, I am here to serve you by collecting tips and offering a calorie-free buffet.
May this insight from parents and experts offer you hope to keep trying to connect with your teenager. Be creative. Have fun. And operate from their perspective that their job is to extend. It is liberating.
Bookmark this post and keep coming back whenever you need perspective or a pep talk.
Or connect with me by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. With two teens, one tween and a little caboose, I really understand and would love to encourage you further.