Do you feel connected to your teen? My teens are always wearing noise-canceling headphones, which makes it a struggle just to communicate. And it can be hard to connect with someone who seems to be shutting you out.
But even though it may be challenging, it is important for parents to find ways to create and sustain connections with their teens. According to a new CDC study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, there are noticeable benefits for teens who feel connected to their family and school. In addition to experiencing better mental health, teens with strong connections are also less likely to have experiences with risky or violent behaviors as adults.
“When kids hit the teen years parents often feel like they say the wrong thing or their teens rebel so they back off or they get over-controlling—none of that works,” says Dr. Laura Markham, clinical psychologist and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. “What works is to realize that teens still need your guidance, but you can’t control them. The only way you are going to have any influence is through your relationship with your teen.”
Learn to connect with your teen
Dr. Markham stresses the importance of building a relationship with your teen through empathy and understanding. Parents can take a different approach and create a connection with their teen while setting limits at the same time.
For example, if a teen has not emptied the dishwasher because he is playing his guitar, a parent might be inclined to yell across the room, “Get in here and empty the dishwasher.”
Meanwhile, the kid is thinking, My parents don’t understand. I’m almost done practicing this song. He might then respond, “Just a minute, Mom,” which turns the situation turns into an unhappy interaction with both people feeling like the other person is wrong.
Dr. Markham suggests taking a more empathetic and understanding approach.
For the parent, emptying the dishwasher is a priority, but the teen doesn’t understand why his parent is so upset about it. Yes, he is supposed to do the chore, but he thinks what he is doing is important. He would also like his parent to notice how much better his guitar playing has become.
Dr. Markham suggests that instead of yelling at the kid, the parent could sit next to them on the couch and say, “I love to hear you playing the guitar, but I need to get dinner started, so the dishwasher needs to be emptied. I would love to hear you play some more after you empty the dishwasher.”
“In this scenario, the parent is not fighting with their teen,” she explains. “Rather, the parent is telling their teen what they need to do, in an understanding manner, so the parent has protected the relationship even while they have enforced a limit.”
Create connectedness through routines and rituals
“Parents know they are supposed to have date night with their significant other in order to have a healthy relationship,” says Dr. Markham. “But what about date night, or some version of it, with your teenager?”
Using her own experience as an example, she explains how her husband and daughter would go to brunch once a month. During their time together they would play cards, read the newspaper, and talk about topics that mattered to them.
She says that the routine or ritual we choose to share with our kids can be any activity, as long as we do it on a regular basis. It can even be a chore, such as doing the dishes together. By doing this activity together, we create a connection that becomes the foundation for a healthy relationship.
Make sure you’re available
Dr. Markahm points out that teens often open up on car rides. “You are not looking in their eyes and so they feel more open,” she says.
But your conversations don’t have to be confined to the car. She mentions a father who would wait up until midnight for his older teenagers to get home and then have a snack with them. This ritual, and making himself available, encouraged his teens to open up about their friends and interests.
If your teen asks to talk to you, make sure you’re available, or schedule a time when you can give them your full attention.
Be a good listener
“Most parents are terrible listeners,” says Dr. Markham. “Parents get anxious when their teen tells them about a problem.”
She explains that most parents’ initial reaction to a problem their child might be having is to try to solve it. But she recommends resisting the urge to figure out a solution. Our job is not to solve every problem, it’s to listen and offer validation.
“If the parent listens and validates the issue by saying things like, ‘That must have hurt your feelings. Sounds like you are upset. And then what happened?’ You validate what is going on,” says Dr. Markham.
Validating a teen’s feelings helps them develop good judgment. Rather than fixing the problem for them, our validation empowers them to believe they can do something to make the situation better themselves.
Helping your teen feel connected at school
“Encourage your teen to see teachers at the school as a resource,” says Dr. Markham.
Feeling connected to their school is not only good for teens, the CDC study found it can also have positive results for them when they are adults. We can support our kids’ connectedness to school by encouraging them to attend school-sponsored activities, like sporting events or performances.
“Cheering as a group for a team makes us feel close to the people around us,” explains Dr. Markham.
Connected teens become healthy adults
As the CDC study highlights, the benefits of connectedness in the teen years carry over into adulthood. Teens who feel connected to their family and school are less likely to experience violence, be diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection, or abuse controlled and illegal substances as adults.
“There is zero doubt in my mind that when kids feel connected to their parents, they are healthier and happier,” Dr. Markham says. “A connected teen is going to become an adult that feels the world is a good place and they are cared about. It is an emotional safety net–someone cares.”
Cheryl Maguire holds a Master of Counseling Psychology degree. She is married and is the mother of twins and a daughter. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, Parents Magazine, Upworthy, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessing and Your Teen Magazine. You can find her at Twitter @CherylMaguire05.