Connecting with Your Teen

two pairs of legs dangling over graffiti covered wall - connecting with your teen

How was puberty for you? A period of grace, growing self-confidence and widely-acknowledged popularity? If yes, you a rare individual indeed. For the vast majority of us, the answer is a resounding no. 

Now that child development studies have revealed some of the causes of adolescent struggles, parents have a better understanding of their teenaged children’s experiences and are thus better equipped to offer guidance around common pitfalls. 

It sounds simple enough: anticipate or deduce a potential problem, apply appropriate words of wisdom, and then skip off happily with your adolescent into the sunset, hand in hand, having saved them from needless suffering. Watch as their respect and admiration for you beams from their adoring face.

The bubble-bursting truth, of course, is that as a group, teens often reject with great vigour what they see as unsolicited parental interference. Rachel Ehmke observes that the teenage years can be very like a second toddlerhood in that our teens “are doing exciting new things, but they’re also pushing boundaries (and buttons) and throwing tantrums. The major developmental task facing both age groups is also the same: kids must pull away from parents and begin to assert their own independence. No wonder they sometimes act as if they think they’re the center of the universe.” 

And so, the question remains: how can parents mitigate the often ugly side effects of these hormonally saturated years? These suggestions might help.

Sleep is Crucial

Encourage good sleep habits. This is a big one and often difficult to enforce. The hormonal changes taking place in the adolescent brain affect sleep patterns. Children need plenty of shut eye to ensure good overall health and development, especially when it comes to brain development. The following tips from can help you establish positive sleep habits in your teen:

  • provide a comfortable, quiet sleep environment

  • establish a winding down routine away from screens, including phones

  • encourage regular bedtime and waking time each day

  • set a goal of 8-10 hours of sleep each night

Sign every petition (or even start your own) in support of later start times for secondary schools. The current model caters to working class parents’ schedules, but is punitive to the natural sleep cycle of adolescents.

Be Patient with Brain Development

mother and teen playing in vineyard - connecting with your teen

In her creative piece “Dear Mom and Dad, Please Stick with Me,” Helene Wingens shares a plea for patience from the teenage perspective. This fictional teen recognizes and shares facts about her developmental stage and all its sundry stumbling blocks. In particular, Wingens emphasizes brain development, i.e., that teenagers have an under-developed prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for rational thought. 

This means that your teen isn’t stupid or learning challenged when they do something on impulse that leads to unhappy consequences. A more fully developed brain might easily have avoided making a bad judgement, but your teenager's brain might not be there yet. Here’s Wingens’ take home message: do not conflate intelligence with judgement. Save that critique for when your child is over 25 years old and their brain has achieved full maturity.

Wingens suggests that parents consider the following behaviours to best guide teens through the ocean of uncertainty they find themselves in: 

  1. Model adulting. What a child sees you do has far more impact than what you say to them. Modelling is the best way to give advice.  

  2. Allow them to figure things out for themselves. Consequences of their own actions and decisions are potent learning tools which build confidence and resilience.

  3. Tell your child about you and all the crazy things you did as a teenager. 

  4. Help them put things and events in perspective. Teach them how to rise above their current situation to see the bigger picture so they know that this terrible moment will pass. 

  5. Keep them safe and feeling secure. They need to hear that drugs and driving don’t mix and that one should never leave one’s drink unattended anywhere. Reassure them that they can turn to you for help without anger or lectures no matter how (dis)tasteful the situation. Repeat this ad nauseam in non-dramatic tones.  

  6. Be kind. Don’t ever mock or be cruel. Remember how you were at this age and adjust your expectations accordingly. 

  7. Validate their interests by actively showing your interest in the things they enjoy.

Help your teen choose a range of activities that interests them. This variety will help with crucial overall brain development. Hobbies such as music, sports, visual arts, languages, video games and nature exploration will stimulate growth in related areas of the brain. It is very important that you display interest in their interests. That said, by all means talk about their latest game or dance routine or wildlife discovery, but not to excess. Otherwise, you might drive them away from both you and the interest. Remember that it’s theirs, not yours.

Listen and Wait

Teenagers are people, believe it or not—complex people, who may not know how to recognize or verbalize their needs. Ask minimal questions and observe a lot. 

Jeni Marinucci, editor of the Yummy Mummy Club, shares her struggles and successes when trying to connect with her teen daughter. Most of her successes involved ceasing to bombard her child with endless questions in an attempt to crack into her world. She says:

So, the next day when I saw my daughter in the morning, I did not ask her if she wanted breakfast. […] But rather than starve that morning, an amazing thing happened; she looked at the empty space on the counter where a quick but sensible breakfast would normally be, and then made herself a waffle.

More validation of the choice to be less inquisitive followed when this same normally closed off child came home from school that same day. Marinucci greeted her, but suppressed the urge to ask how her day went. Her daughter then said “You won’t believe what happened today...”

Communicate When Things Change

Parenting teens is hard. Forgive yourself if you’ve been inconsistent with household policy and rules. In the face of an unending barrage of petulant snipes and energetic claims that you're being unfair, acquiescing to the occasional challenge of your authority for the sake of peace is perfectly acceptable.

If you give in to something, let your teen know whether this is the new normal or a one-time relaxation of the rules. When you grant them a new freedom, let them know their behaviour is under scrutiny and will determine future developments in their autonomy. Dangle that carrot and follow through accordingly. 

Money can’t buy a patient, loving parent or a well-adjusted adult. 

Written by Jane Thornton

Feature image: Aedrian; Image 1: Zen Chung


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