As children become teenagers, their attitudes, behaviours and needs change. Often parents find it harder to connect with their children in the adolescent years. Welcoming the changes, loving teenagers for who they are now (not the kids they used to be) and learning new, age-appropriate ways to connect with teens, can be a challenge.
But there’s a whole lot parents can do to develop stronger connections with their increasingly independent teenagers. Jo Lamble, a clinical psychologist who specialises in relationships, says accepting the changes is an essential foundation for developing strong connections with a teenager.
Love your changing teenager for who they are
Change in teenagers is inevitable, and it means parents have to change too. It can be difficult to let go of the child that used to depend on and trust their parent’s decision, but it’s essential. Your teenager needs to know that you love them for who they are now, not the child they used to be. It will be difficult to communicate that to them, if you’re still reminiscing about the good old days when they were little and had nothing better to do than hang out with you.
Try to see things from their perspective, so you can better understand who they are. You’ll never know what it’s like to grow up in a world with smart phones but the fundamentals of being a teenager remain essentially the same as when you experienced it. You almost certainly found your own, era-appropriate ways to test boundaries and resist your parents’ authority. And your own teenager almost certainly will too. It’s completely normal for teenagers to want more independence.
Welcome their friends
As their need for independence grows, they’ll develop closer connections with their friends and probably want to spend less time with family. It’s a difficult change for most parents and easy to feel like your child doesn’t need you anymore. But although teenagers will want more time to explore with their friends, they still need their family.
One very important strategy is to befriend their friends and get to know their friends’ families. Make sure your teenager’s friends feel welcome in your house. But understand that they didn’t come over to visit you, and give your child some space and privacy so that they can feel comfortable having their friends over.
Do what you can to help them get together with their friends, which might mean giving them a lift, providing them food to send them on their way or having their friends over to your place. If friends are visiting your home, give them some privacy, for example knock before entering the room they are in.
Try to go out with your child when they are meeting up with friends at sports matches and other family events. But try to stay away from the places they just want to hang out with their friends like the shopping mall or school disco. And understand that just because they don’t want you there, doesn’t mean they’re up to mischief- it’s just that growing need for independence teenagers have.
Understand that girlfriends and boyfriends are normal
Sooner or later being friends with your teenagers friends will probably mean connecting with their girlfriend and/or boyfriend too. This may be one of the most difficult relationships to accept. Remember that it’s perfectly normal for teenagers to explore their sexuality, and the best role parents can play is to support teenagers to do it safely. Help them find information about contraception and sexually transmitted infections. Make sure they know it’s not because you think they’re having sex, but just one of those things they need to learn.
Help them see their boyfriend or girlfriend safely in a way that’s appropriate for their age, for example offer to drive them home after the movies. Establish ground rules. Ask if there is anything you do that embarrasses your teen, then don’t do it when their friend is visiting. If there is anything you want them to do, request that and let them know why you’re asking.
Connect with your teenager on their terms
Take cues from your teenager about how to act. If they don’t like you hugging and telling them you love them anymore, find a less openly affectionate way to show them. Doing something special like making them a cup of tea or helping them with a project might be a better way to show your love if they’re not into hugs anymore. Talk to teenagers in ways that let them know you love, care for and respect them.
Communicate with them on their terms, using media they’re comfortable with like social media and SMS, but don’t feel shy to leave a good old fashioned note telling them you think something they did was great, or reminding them how much you care, if that’s more your thing.
Make a conscious effort to spend time with your teen
Keep trying, even if they push you away. It can feel like they don’t need you, but they do. Don’t assume you’ll find time- make an effort to consciously plan time. Set some routines, which might be as simple as doing homework or having meals together as a family (with the TV switched off!).
Parents will also find it easier to connect with teens if both mum and dad plan some regular one on one time with them. Encourage them to enjoy the time by doing things they like (you might even find a new hobby), rather than dragging them along to something you’ve chosen. Don’t be deterred if they reject your invitation at first. Keep trying to plan things the two of you can do together.
Remember, it’s about quality, not quantity
It can be difficult to feel connected to a teenager, but developing the connections is worth the effort. They’re teenagers now, which means that soon they’ll be adults. Embrace the changes, appreciate the moments when you do connect and use them as opportunities to help prepare your teenager for a bright and ever changing future.
Kindly contributed by Jo Lamble (Jo Lamble BSc Psych (Hons), M Clin Psych (Hons), MAPS), Clinical Psychologist and author.