Connecting with Your Teen

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

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

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

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

Reality check—the bubble-bursting truth 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 precious ones “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.” 

The question remains, though: how can parents mitigate the often ugly side effects of these hormonally saturated years? 

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 oodles of shut eye to ensure good overall health and development, especially brain development. The following tips from raisingchildren.net 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

And 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.

Brain Development

mother and teen playing in vineyard - connecting with your teen

Helene Wingens shares a plea for patience from the teenage perspective in “Dear Mom and Dad, Please Stick with Me.” This fictional teen recognizes and shares facts about her developmental stage and all its sundry stumbling blocks. In particular, brain development is addressed, as teenagers have an under-developed prefrontal cortex, 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 that a more fully developed brain would easily have avoided. Please do not address them as though they are. 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 these following behaviours to best guide your child in this seemingly rudderless boat plowing through an ocean of uncertainty: 

  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 lest you drive them away from both you and the interest. 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 it involved Marinucci 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...”

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 of emotional abuse, acquiescing to the occasional challenge of your authority for the sake of peace is perfectly acceptable. Just let your little darling know that this is not the new normal and that their behaviour, when granted a new freedom, 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