When I was a teenager, I sat down to breakfast each morning and waited for my dad to pass me the sports page. The 20 minutes we spent talking headlines, him in his suit, me in my flannels and Timberland boots – it was the 90s – was critical to our relationship. It was just the two of us, there were no outside distractions, and it involved a shared interest.
Technology brings new challenges. Newspapers have been replaced by phones and the amount of information at our fingertips is overwhelming. The needs, however, remain the same. Teens, even as they begin to develop their independence, want to be seen and appreciated. While every family is different, here are some ways I have connected with my teens in recent times.
The recent popularity of online word games has acted as a substitute for the sports page I shared with my dad. Each morning over breakfast, I work through the Wordle with my elementary aged kids, the Dordle with my high schoolers, and the Quordle with my middle schoolers. We have developed a routine that is unique to them. While we are working independently, we are puzzling together. And it is fun! We also maintain a family group chat where we share interesting current events, celebrate family successes, and generally stay connected throughout the day. The chat is a safe place full of positivity.
In working with parents, I often hear how phones are a major cause of frustration. I get it. There probably isn’t a telephone in our idyllic view of what family time should look like. On the other hand, if I approach my teens on their terms, I can expect they will be more open and willing to deepen a relationship. As parents, we pick our battles. There will be times when phones, devices, and other distractions will be off-limits. However, it is important to look for entry points. Are there times we can use our teen’s interests to deepen our connection? Take a step in their direction.
Walks are an easy way to grab one-on-one time with our teens, especially when they don’t come with an ulterior motive. Bike rides, hikes, a meal at a favorite restaurant – they all serve the same purpose. Intentional, individual time that provides space for deeper conversation. Personally, I get a lot of this in the car while driving my kids to various sporting or club events. This is a time I ask my teens to put their phones away. In exchange, I let them pick the music, lead the conversation, or just sit in silence.
It is during this one-on-one time that my teens will typically open a discussion about relationships, school, or the future (which can feel overwhelming for many in this age group). I am careful not to solve their problems or ask a hundred questions. Instead, I reflect their feelings (e.g., “that sounds hard”, “that is frustrating,” “that is exciting”). When we reflect feelings, our teens feel seen and heard. Listening without judgment or a need to solve a problem is a simple show of empathy. If I see my teens are thinking and may want to offer more, I say, “tell me more”. It is amazing how much they will offer if they feel they’re in a safe, judgment-free zone where I’m not trying to guide, fix, or direct them.
Use of reflecting language is outlined in the fantastic book How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk, by Elaine Mazlish and Adele Faber. The first chapter is parenting gold! They also have a version for younger kids that I recommend to every parent I work with at One:12.
Wordle and walks are only a few ways to get one-on-one time with our teens. It is the time and ability to listen that will take parents the furthest. Additionally, it is important to meet teens in their safe space. Some other tips for deepening your connection include:
- Looking at old photos together
- Telling fun stories of when they were younger
- Telling honest stories of when you were younger, complete with the struggles that come with being a teen
- Establishing and maintaining rituals, like PJs at Christmas
- Listening to their music
- Following their favorite athletes, movie stars, and influencers are social media
- Showing interest in their friends and hobbies
- Saying I love you, even if you don’t always hear it back
Teens are my favorite population of clients at One:12. As teenagers, we are the most curious we will ever be – but we lack the wisdom to process what we’re seeing. This mix of emotion can often leave teens feeling overwhelmed and confused. For these reasons, it is more important than ever that we seek a deeper connection with our teens so they know – even if they won’t admit it – that there is a foundational support system lifting them up.