Creating Connection with Your Teens
For many parents, it happens all of a sudden. The generally happy, content, involved kid you've always had suddenly spends more time in his room with the door closed. He comes out only to eat and go to school. One word answers are his love language..."fine, good, okay" become his repertoire. You can't believe the level of irritation and annoyance he gets to in approximately .5 seconds when you <GASP> ask a question about something. Doesn't matter what it is, could be if he had a good day. After repeated experiences and interactions with this new version of him, you might be left feeling defeated, rejected or downright angry. Who does he think he is? He was not raised to behave this way. Why is he so blatantly disrespectful? Where did my child go?
All this questioning might then lead you to respond with: "Fine, I'm done. I don't need this. If he doesn't want to interact with me so be it. Two can play at that game." What you end up doing is functioning with your teen from a place of anger, hurt and defensiveness. Instead, what will be more effective for you and him in the long run is to begin functioning from a place of offense and empathy. Yep. Do you remember what it was like to be a teenager? I sure do. Absolutely brutal. I remember turning 13 and suddenly EVERYTHING my parents said and did was like nails on a chalkboard. I didn't even know WHY I was so irritated. I was literally pissed off for no reason. What I realize now, of course, is that the actual chemical makeup of my body and brain was changing and shifting. According to Dr. Frances Jensen in book The Teenage Brain, "the most important thing to remember is that the teenage brain is "seeing" these hormones for the first time. Because of that, the brain hasn't yet figured out how to modulate the body's response to this new influx of chemicals." In short, it's really difficult for teens to physically and emotionally adjust to all these changes.
So how what can you do? Let's consider the following strategies:
1. Do Remember That It's Not Personal
It can be really easy to have our feelings hurt by our kids. It's painful and upsetting, especially when you feel like all you are doing is trying to be the best parent and support them. If you are going to consciously and deliberately take steps to continuously create and maintain connection with your child, you have to hang in there. You can't throw in the towel the first time they yell at you. I'm not suggesting you keep showing up to get beaten down, but I am suggesting that you remind yourself that it's not about you. This is about learning how to redefine and recreate relationship. If you give up every time it gets hard, you are essentially giving up on them.
2. Do Respond Clearly and Calmly
When kids of any age are angry, irritable, or moody, the last thing they need is a parent who is mirroring back the exact same thing. That only exacerbates the situations and leaves everyone feeling hurt and out of control. Instead, try something like "I get that you might feel angry right now, but speaking to me that way is unacceptable. Is there something I can do to help you or support you?" Another tactic, is to offer choices. "You could go up to your room and we can talk later", or "Do you want me to just sit here with you? We don't have to talk." Bottom line is, when teen emotions get high, you need to do your very best to stay calm. This is not an endorsement of poor behavior. This is a strategy for diffusing poor behavior and creating an environment for self-awareness and an opportunity to process and regroup.
3. Keep Providing Opportunities to Connect
You might assume that when your teen suddenly begins to spend all his time in his room, he is saying he doesn't want any part of the family. What he's probably actually feeling is, "I'm not sure how all these changes in me fit in the family anymore." Keep working at providing opportunities for everyone to practice being together, even if it is met with groans, sighs and major eye rolling. If you regularly attend church as a family, keep doing it. If you always go see Christmas light displays, don't stop. If you decide you want to do something together as a family, expect everyone to go, even if you think they will be miserable. "Forced Family Fun" is an excellent way to learn and adapt to new ways of doing what you love as a family. Continue with family dinners, bedtime check ins, being active together, getting up with them in the morning before school if you can, even if your teen continuously lets you know he wants no parts of it. What you are essentially doing, is providing predictability and consistency for your teen during a time when everything in his life feels unpredictable and messy. And, you might just get some unexpected details on what's happening in his life.
4. Listen, Validate and Ask Permission Before Giving Advice
One of the most impactful ways to connect with your teens is to start by actively listening. Make sure you understand what has been said by repeating back what you've heard. For example, "So you're saying that your feelings were hurt when Michael posted that comment to your Snapchat story?" Then you want to communicate to them that you understand how they feel. "Oh, I'm sorry. That really stinks." Next, ask them "How are you going to handle this?" Please note, you are not immediately jumping in and saying what he should do. You are believing in his ability to problem solve and giving him space to do just that. Only after further discussion, you may say, "Do you want my opinion?" If he says no, that's it. Back off. Another avenue would be to simply say, "How can I help or support you?" You do not need to fix it. Instead, you are giving your teen the space to feel the emotions around the event, and resolve the problem on his own. If your teen comes up with a not so great solution, support him further by asking him to think about what might happen if he goes that route. Again, you are teaching real life problem solving skills. Bravo.
The key to staying connected with your teen is to not allow the changes that are happening in the family system to derail you. Rather, it's time to settle in and learn how to readjust the family sails.