help4yourfamily

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6 Tips for Connecting with Your Teenager

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Now that my children are in their teens, and I’m working with and talking to many parents of teens, I get asked a lot about how to connect with teenagers. While children growing up and building their own social networks is part of the normal developmental process, it can be hard when your once talkative, open, elementary-aged child begins to spend more and more time in their room, talking to friends, and we begin to feel like we are losing them to devices. Harder still is when you are parenting a child with trauma or abuse that you may not have had much connecting time with before they began the transformation into adolescence.

Fear not parents! Adolescence, while a challenging new time for you and your teenager, can also be a wonderful time of growth and new connections for you both. Even if you have had a rocky path thus far, it is not too late. Our latest scientific understanding about adolescence is that it is an excellent time to build new understandings about relationships and parents still have a very important role to play in this process. To that effect, here are a few ways you can build your connections with your teenager when the old ways don’t seem to work so well anymore.

1. Always remember, you are part of their team. Teens and parents can quickly fall into an us vs. them mentality. This does not have to be the case! After all, why are you trying to play detective to figure out their social media activity? Well, to make sure they are safe of course! Instead of “I caught you doing something you weren’t allowed to do!” consider addressing the issue from a place of concern. “I’m worried about the choices you’re making. You deserve to be safe from people that could be out to harm you and sharing personal information with someone you met online could make you vulnerable.”

This does not mean there are no consequences for breaking a rule. In the above example, it would make sense to follow up with, “I’m going to hold on to your phone until we have re-established the trust between us.” In essence, the message goes from the traditional “caught you being bad or sneaky” to “I know you slipped up and I’m going to be part of your team to help you make better choices.” In a “caught you being bad” scenario, it is easy for a youth to get side-tracked into being resentful about the consequence rather than thinking about what caused the consequence in the first place. I the “caught you” method is one you have been using, expect it to take some time before your child starts to see you as part of their team as they may have you pegged as the punisher.        

2. Be real. Adolescence is when we figure out our parents are not perfect. We already knew this about ourselves and it is time to own it! The more real you are about your imperfections (no I don’t mean your hips are too big, think character flaws like being a perfectionist, or messy) the more teens can talk to you about theirs. Own up to things you’d like to work on in yourself and invite conversations about this from your kids too. An example in my family is when I was reading the book “Smart but Scattered.” One of my kids asked about it and the whole family ended up sitting around and taking the executive functioning quizzes together at the start of the book and laughing about who had what things they do well or need help with. We then had a light-hearted conversation about what we would like to work on. These conversations can be fun! Even when it’s not light-hearted, it is important to be real. We teach people how to treat us, mostly by how we treat them. If your child accuses you of an attitude and you realize you actually had one, admit it! You will earn their respect for admitting it and pave the way for them to admit it when they have one as well.  In turn, expect them to reciprocate in relationships and be real with them if you think they are not. Frank conversations, without shaming them, will help their brain develop the understandings of what it takes to be in a reciprocal relationship.

3. Allow do-overs. Have you ever said something and immediately wished you could take it back? Have you ever had your intentions misunderstood? Of course you have! Teens are no different. In fact, they are developing the part of their brains that help them learn to reflect on their behaviors. It is our job as parents to help them reflect on their behaviors, not our responses. If we come at them with the attitude we think they have, even if they didn’t intend for it to come out that way, we will definitely get attitude back. A simple, “Are you asking for my help?” in response to a demand can give your adolescent a moment to think. If they say they are asking, give them a chance and say, “Can you ask me nicely? I’d love to help if I can.” While it may seem to go against what we have been taught, I know it certainly was for me, remember- your goal was for you to have them ask you nicely in the first place. If we give them space to do this, doesn’t that meet the goal you were seeking while keeping the two of you a team? Some quick and easy ways to signal the opportunity for a do-over for your teen (said with a playful smile if at all possible): Try it again nicely and you’ll get a better answer!  Are you asking or telling? I’d love to say yes- help me out. I know you can ask nicer than that, show me! Do this helps to avoid the shut down in conversations that can come with a more traditional approach where parents might respond to a demanding tone with an equally demanding tone to address it leading to anger and, again, a child who is focused on a parents response, rather than their actions.

4. Be the coach not the warden. Dr. Karyn Purvis, the mother of Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) tells us to be the coach not the warden of our teens. After all, the major brain development that is happening for our teens is the development of the frontal lobe, our problem-solving, time managing, multi-step process, self-reflective powerhouse. In order to build this part of our brains we need a lot of opportunities to reflect on what we would have done differently, problem-solve, mess up time management and multi-step processes so we can learn differently next time, etc. In order to do this we have to have a lot of trial and error along the way and MANY things to reflect upon. The best way parents can help to develop this frontal lobe is by coaching your child through it whenever possible rather than punishing for mistakes. Punishing stops the conversation, while coaching is a teaching moment.

Think of your best coaches. When I think of my best coaches, they often had their arm around my shoulders giving me ideas of how I could do it better next time, not taking something away or threatening me. Remember, the best coaches don’t go out on the field and do it for you, they give tips and pointers, they are happy for you when you succeed and, with care, they help you figure out what went wrong. I want to please my coach, while, if I had a warden, my focus would be more on staying out of trouble which would be more likely to mean deceiving them than actually sharing my struggles.

5. Be Playful. Teens and parents alike come into my office bewildered by the massive changes that can happen to a family in the span of just a couple of years. Kids get to high school and parents see how little time we actually have left to teach our children what they need to know to go out in the world just as we begin to see them less and less! It can be easy to forget that some of the same playfulness we had when they were younger is still important. Instead, we find ourselves directing them about what to do or feeling like we only have ten minutes so we better cram in some important knowledge or life skill. In studies about learning, one thing that is clear and that is that learning happens through play.

Playfulness with a teenager looks different (sometimes) than playfulness with a younger child, but it is still vital for keeping connections strong. It really does not take much time to do this and, by being playful, which can be as simple as keeping a lighter tone while talking to them, when it is important to talk about grades or to coach them through one of the harder lessons, you will have a stronger foundation which will make them more open to taking in what you have to say. Playfulness is especially important with a child with a traumatic history as it disarms the fight, flight, freeze, appease part of the brain that is more easily triggered even in teens without a history of trauma.  Dad jokes, sharing silly memes, playing cards or having a little friendly family competition to see who gets to decide where you get pizza from next time you order out are all great ways to keep playfulness in your life with a teenager. Don’t be put off by the rolling of their eyes when you do it.

6. Remember the main goal. In the end, what is our goal? I know mine is to raise adults who can take care of themselves, contribute to reciprocal relationships and seek help appropriately when needed. I want my kids to look at me and see they have a supporter but not an enabler who is friendly but not a friend. I want them to remember their mom had their backs, even if having their backs means helping them to see the ways they could have done things differently.

In the end, we want to stay connected with our adolescents and this is our chance to start building the relationship we would like to continue with them into adulthood. One where they can call you when they need guidance and find that what you have to say is helpful and meaningful. We all want our kids to know we have their backs!

What is discussed in this post gives a long-term view of what we need to do to be connected to our teens, look for my next post with ideas about how to do this on a day to day, practical basis with ideas for activities and check ins that can work with your adolescent!

Share how you connect with your teens, or your challenges in the comments…

April 11, 2019 - Posted by | adolescence, attachment, child development, development, discipline, family, help for parents, Help for struggling parents, Parenting, teens, Uncategorized

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