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How to stay connected with your teenager

December 07, 2015

How is your communication with your teenager? Do you feel like they trust you enough to share anything with you? How would you know if something bad has happened to them? Pause for a moment and think about these questions.

Parenthood is such a rewarding thing and yet, it’s full of difficulties in the area of communication. Children grow up and they begin to detach themselves and need us less and less. Or at least, that’s what it seems like. I often hear parents complain that they have a hard time communicating with their children, especially during the teenage years. This period is a bridge between childhood and adulthood and so many changes are taking place inside your children. So it’s no wonder why many parents find themselves at a loss for how to balance their relationship with their children. This is a time when good intentions don’t cut it. Saying “because I say so” or “wait until you move out and then do whatever you want” only make matters worse. I’ve talked to parents that fall at either end of a spectrum: they either become very authoritative and strict or they become too permissive and lack appropriate boundaries.

I want to share with you some practical tools that have proven to be effective with children, especially teenagers.

Transitioning from authority to influence in your teen's life

A while back I watched an episode of “How Stuff Works” on Discovery Channel regarding anchors in big ships. I couldn’t help but relate its characteristics to those that should be found in parents of growing teenagers. An anchor is a device that helps ships stay grounded and safe. It doesn’t hold the ship firmly in one place. Actually, if you look at the ship, it still moves but it has a connection that only allows it to go so far. Think of your relationship with your children as the anchor and the quality of your relationship as the chain between the ship and the anchor. As your teenagers grow up, that’s the role you play in their lives. You begin to move from being the captain of their ship to being the anchor of their ship. Unfortunately, many parents want to remain as the captain.

Don’t get me wrong, you should still have authority over your children but what’s more important is to have influence over your children. Otherwise, conversations will turn into power struggles. Eventually you will run out of things to take away. Being an anchor is an opportunity to remain attached to your children and keep them safe when life’s storms hit. It’s ensuring you will always be there with them no matter where they choose to sail.

Your children will drift away and storms will come. I know we wish we could keep our children from them but that’s not realistic. Ships are supposed to sail. And your children actually need these storms to become better “sailors.” Trying to overprotect them will only handicap them. The reality is that you can’t prevent the storms and the more you try to remain the captain, the more they will resent you and hide things from you. Therefore, since you can’t prevent the storms, you can work on being an anchor and be there to help them be safe as they navigate them.

I’m going to use the acronym A.N.C.H.O.R. to share with you practical ways to be that for your teenagers:

  • Attune to your children. To attune is to pay attention to your children. It is an attitude of constant curiosity for their emotions, thoughts and inner experience. It’s putting aside electronics and distractions to fully see and hear them. When they feel seen and heard, they feel trust and confidence in you as a source of comfort, safety and acceptance. Let me ask you this, can you tell the difference between sadness, boredom, loneliness and discouragement in your children? How about anger, fear, and hopelessness? All of these are emotions felt very intensely during the teenage years, and although they may look similar to you, they require a different action from you. Sometimes providing some space is helpful while other times that will add to their problem. Tuning into what they are feeling will help you decide the best action to help your child navigate through the seas of emotions. If you want a visual for this, watch the movie Inside Out by Pixar.
  • Non-defensive listening. Don’t take things personally even when they are directed at you. Non-defensive listening means that you make an effort to listen not just to the words but the meaning behind them. Sometimes, it will mean taking a few breaths before responding or postponing the conversation until you’re in a better position to listen. Teenagers are willing to share with those that will listen.
  • Create new rituals. Small things done often have more value than anything “big” done once in a while. Create simple ways to start the day, connect throughout the day and/or end the day. For example, you can start the day by finding out something that will happen in that day (i.e. a test, a presentation, etc.) and send a brief text wishing them good luck around that time. One ritual I personally enjoy is to pick one particular month and text an appreciation/nice message or a funny picture every day for that month. It adds a lot to the relationship and keeps the anchor in good condition. If you choose to create a ritual for the end of the day, you can try having a brief family prayer or meditation time, or saying something nice/positive to each other.
  • Honor their development. Celebrate every milestone. Take pictures, tell old stories to them, and create a conversation about what they remember and why. Something you can start at any time is to create an email account for them – without them knowing – and send emails, pictures, videos, etc. to this account and give it to them on a special day.
  • Open-ended questions. Use questions that start with “what do you mean by ___, tell me more about ___, help me understand ____, in what ways ______, etc.” Asking yes/no questions, leading questions, and especially why questions will guarantee that your teenagers will shut down. Open-ended questions feel more inviting and respectful to the teenager. Tone of voice is crucial though.
  • Relate at their level. To remain relevant you have to stay relatable. This doesn’t mean that you have to start talking or dressing like them. This means that you can find things they are interested in and use it as a way to relate. For example, if your teenager likes writing, get a journal that will go back and forth between the two of you. In the journal, you and your teenager can write to each other and respond to a previous entry. One time, I had a mom and daughter in treatment that started using text as a way to talk to each other, even when they were literally sitting in the same room. It gave the teenager enough “space” to think about her responses and feel comfortable sharing more and more. The conversations eventually moved to actual dialogue and texting became a way to just say things that weren’t said during the conversations because of the emotions. If your teenagers like sports, take them to games and while you wait, start a conversation. If they like video games, play with them and begin a casual conversation while playing. If they like singing, help them write a song that would them express what they’re going through or you can have them select a song from their music library that expresses it for them. Listen to it and create a conversation. The possibilities are endless but if you notice, it’s about finding something they like and use it to connect.