When our children are young, we have so much control. We control when they go to bed, we choose their food, even when they do their homework.
Once our kids reach their teenage years, the game changes; we can no longer place them in their car seats, drive away, or tell them it’s bedtime and turn their lights off. The parenting role needs to shift heavily into connection if we want to influence how things play out for our children. And even then, we need to release our agendas and expectations to some degree.
Raising teenagers is also a stage in our lives with our teens where our pains from our teenage years can resurface, and our teens may experience things that will trigger our unhealed wounds. We may see them getting rejected by a friend, failing a class, or struggling with body image. If we have been able to ignore our unhealed parts until now, this is an opportunity for us to heal alongside our teen, which is truly a gift for us if we are ready to accept it.
The degree to which you struggled in these teenage years will impact navigating these years with your teens. It is a fantastic opportunity to deeply heal yourself while connecting with your teen if you are willing to have the courage to lean in.
If you were an obedient and pleasing child and teen, you might be triggered by their audacity to question authority when you see your teen acting out. If you were a rebellious teen, you might be frustrated when you watch your child partying or hiding things from you. Whatever opportunities arise in this window in time, I invite you to lean in and seek connection with your teen. Here are some steps you can take to move you towards a deeper relationship with your teenager.
Our children can feel energy very strongly. If you have a weak connection with your teen, stop correcting them for a few weeks. That means no nagging about schoolwork, food, hygiene, chores. Whatever the things you have to say to your kid when you see them: bite your tongue and don’t. For a short time, work at dropping those demands and slowly, you may see your teen spending a little more time around you. Change takes time, but gradually as they see your agendas drop, they will slowly begin connecting with you again.
According to clinical psychologist Dr. Shefali Tsabary, we aspire to 80% connection with our teens and children and 20% correction. Chances are, if you feel disconnected from your teen right now, you may be doing more correcting than connecting. Spending most of your time connecting will make the correcting go much smoother as the resistance will lessen. Focus on connection, and you may find the energy shift so much that they might even start talking to you more as they don’t need to feel as on guard and defensive. We can still support our kids to remind them on occasion, but be mindful of when we do this and how often.
Many of us wake up and jump on our tasks and don’t spend time connecting to ourselves. Spending a few minutes with no phone, no distractions, just taking a few mindful breaths can start your day off in a lighter way. Same for your teens. Put your phone down when they walk into the room; give them your undivided attention. Make eye contact and pay full attention when they talk to you. Show them you appreciate their presence. If they seem tired, attune to that and keep your voice soft. When we tune to ourselves, we can more easily attune to the non-verbal cues of others.
When you make requests, refrain from subtle shaming and guilting. Nothing is more effective yet more harmful than guilting our children. It is so effective, “you wouldn’t want to disappoint me, would you?” yet it is tough for our children and teens to handle these types of communication and maintain a strong sense of self-assurance. The teen years are also a time for us to lead from behind. We need to take a back seat and allow them to become autonomous and self-advocating. You may even feel a grieving for the children that once needed you so much. It is okay to grieve, but we also want to keep an eye on the bigger picture that we are here to free them to become autonomous, strong adults.
As much as we think it is, our job is not to shape our kids into adults. We want them to feel empowered and strong. When we constantly control and manage them, we are teaching them that we don’t trust them. When our child does something that doesn’t work for us, connect with them, ask them what happened? Try and understand their perspective. If we immediately jump in and ground them or yell, we bypass the opportunity to self-reflect and feel their innate inner compass. They know right from wrong, and if we keep imposing from the outside, they don’t get the chance to listen to their inner voice and develop that strength.
That said, the brain is still maturing until approximately the age of 25. Sometimes it is helpful for us to “lend” our rational brain. We can subtly do this. Using suggestions, negotiations, compromises, and keep them aware of their commitments while also allowing them some power and control over when and how they complete their responsibilities.
The energy we bring is more than half of our communication. If we come to our families with panic and urgency, this feeling will emanate in our family culture. Consider learning simple mindfulness and meditation techniques to keep yourself from the default of worrying. It is natural for us to worry about our children; we want to control for the best reasons so that their life will turn out for them. But if you reflect on your experiences, some of the best lessons come from our failures and struggles. If we can hold space while things are messy and uncertain, our teens can learn to build strength and confidence even when things get challenging, and if they see you calm and with ease, they may be more likely to connect with you if they need advice. If they see you panic at everything that isn’t going well, they may be less apt to come to you as they may not want to stress you out. Learning to handle the loss of control and stress helps with connection and models calmness amid struggle, which is a fantastic tool for teens to learn.
You may be wondering how to handle issues, like breaking the rules, overdue assignments, etc. To start with, check within; how is the specific issue triggering you? What part of you is it impacting? Is it your inability to control? Are you feeling disrespected? Do you fear your child’s future? Handle your concerns that are arising from your trigger BEFORE you speak to your child. Once you deconstruct your motivation and what is causing it, you can ask yourself this question: What does my child genuinely need right now? Do they need a boundary? Do they need me to release control?
If you’re reading this and struggling to connect with your teens, forgive yourself if you have found this challenging until now, and trust that building connection is still very possible. Making this time about treasuring moments, calming your energy, and being in the space of safety will better your chances of a lifelong relationship with your children. And remember, we all mess up, we all lose our cool. If that has happened, just forgive yourself. We can always make better choices once we know better. And self-forgiveness is a fundamental trait to model also.