When your child becomes a teen, you might feel your connection with them weakening. It seems to be harder and harder to talk to them about anything, harder and harder to bond over the activities, games, movies, books, jokes and topics you used to bond over.
Your teen no longer wants to listen to you or follow your rules. After all, “they believe they know how to live their lives,” and they’re forming their own identities, said Liz Morrison, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in teen counseling.
Teens also have a lot going on internally. “Hormonal changes, shifts in brain chemistry, [and] physical maturation contribute to moodiness, irritability and physical exhaustion,” said Sean Grover, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in working with teens and creator of award-winning youth programs.
Plus, teens typically have more feelings than words, he said. They don’t yet have the tools to regulate or express their emotions. They might not know why they’re feeling a certain way. They might not even know what they’re feeling.
Connection is tough, too, because parents naturally forget what it’s like to be a teen. “Instead of offering support, they lecture, possibly impose a punishment, or make the teen do what they think is best without really listening to what the teen needs,” Morrison said.
Many parents invade their teen’s privacy. They put tracking devices on their phones and read their emails, texts and journals, she said.
Parents might set rules that only apply to their teen and not to them, Morrison said. That is, you take away your teen’s phone for using it too much, while you’re constantly checking email and scrolling social media.
Many parents also criticize, compare, blame and push, which increases “internal pressure at a time when most teenagers already feel overwhelmed emotionally,” Grover said. You likely know these behaviors aren’t helpful, but in the heat of the moment, it’s all too easy to lash out, especially if it appears your child is being “lazy” or isn’t listening. (Which is why it’s vital to stay as calm as possible, and when you can’t, to take a time-out, and take many soothing deep breaths.)
While your connection with your teen may change, it still can be strengthened. The below tips may help.
1. Reconnect to your teenage self. Grover stressed the importance of remembering the feelings, insecurities and vulnerabilities you experienced as a teen. “If [you] can form an emotional identification with [your] children it will help [you] have greater patience, compassion, and empathy.”
Maybe you can talk to your own parents (or siblings or any close family) about how and who you were as an adolescent. Maybe they’ve even kept some of your things from your teen years, such as journals, letters or other writings. Or you can read books from a teenage perspective, whether they’re novels, memoirs or poetry collections.
We tend to dismiss teens as being dramatic and their problems as insignificant or just not that serious. (Which isn’t true; their problems are just as real as ours; they, too, are trying to navigate conflict, set boundaries, achieve goals, make sense of their thoughts and emotions and figure out who they are.) And, if you do this, your teen will feel it. They’ll be able to discern the difference between you placating them and genuinely caring and wanting to know what life is like for them (without judging them).
2. Let your teen know you’re always available. According to Morrison, you might start conversations with these kinds of sentences:
- “You are looking a little upset about something. I want you to know that you don’t have to tell me what is going on but if you want to, my door is always open.”
- “I give you a lot of credit for balancing everything you have in your life right now — school, friends, extracurriculars. If you ever want someone to process your day with, I am absolutely here to support you.”
- “Do you need help with anything, and can I offer my help in any way?”
3. Ask your teen for their opinion. Talk to your teen about something you’re struggling with, and ask for their input, said Grover, also author of When Kids Call the Shots: How to Seize Control from Your Darling Bully—and Enjoy Being a Parent Again. “Model for them that it’s OK to feel insecure, and that it’s a natural part of growing up.”
4. Find activities to do together. Grover doesn’t recommend sitting and talking face to face because that can boost anxiety. Participating in activities together helps teens to feel safer and creates the space for them to express themselves. These activities can be super simple, such as walking or riding bikes, he said.
You also might read together. You can join a book club or become your own book club, reading the same book at the same time and then discussing it. Another option is to read a book aloud to each other (which this mother and daughter have been doing for the daughter’s entire life).
It might feel like your teen would rather talk to anyone but you, Morrison said. And maybe sometimes that is the case. But it’s still important for them to know that you’re always here — regardless of how embarrassing, difficult, severe or scary a situation is, she said. And that starts with you taking them seriously.