Is there anything more daunting–or humbling–than the task of staying connected to your teen. Or getting connected to your teen in the first place? Just when you thought you knew what you were doing as a parent, whammo. Adolescence. Hormones. Friends’ influence. Pulling back. Independence. You’re in the belly of the beast, my friend. What the heck are you supposed to do with all of that?!?
Well, you’re supposed to keep parenting. It’s a different relationship when they hit the teen years. I mean, they’re throwing off their training wheels and getting ready to live on their own. But it’s still critical that you stay connected because your job isn’t done just yet. So how exactly do you do that?
If you’re here, and you have a child who isn’t a teenager yet, I commend you for getting out ahead of this. I also have another post just for you. This post is all about laying the groundwork with your child so you’re ready for a relationship with your teenager: For Parents of Future Teens.
I used my own experiences and observations in writing this and then asked for input from my Facebook friends. Whoa boy, I got some enthusiastic feedback! I can promise you this–There’s something in this list that is perfect for your relationship with your teen. I promise. Don’t miss it!
(There are a few affiliate links in this post, although you can do every single thing in this post without ordering anything. If you do find something you want to buy through a link, it costs you nothing more but helps cover blog expenses. So, thanks!)
One-on-one Time, Where the Rubber Meets the Road
There’s no substitute for one-on-on-one time with your teen. Quality time versus quantity time is a myth. Spend the time. You can’t get it back.
- Know their currency. Do they like talking about current events? Doing volunteer work? Crafting or cooking? Know their levers, and pull them to spend one-on-one time. My daughter loves Starbucks and will go there and talk literally at any moment. My son likes cake pops. And his currency is humor, so that’s a good inroad. Once, at Starbucks, I bought a whole box of six cake pops, and we laughed at the absurdity of it. And when I crushed the top of one so it would stand up, he thought that was the most hilarious thing ever. He’s a guy, so establishing a fun, relaxed relationship with him is a good strategy. Currency.
- Don’t let busy-ness keep you from spontaneous one-on-one times. Sometimes, those are the most unexpected and most fun!
There’s a saying that girls relate better face-to-face (think, coffee or sitting on the patio), and boys relate better side-by-side (think, fishing or working on a project). If you’re struggling to get your teenage boy to do more than grunt responses, try doing something with him he likes to do. And hey, for boys and girls, there are things you can do together that also teach life skills, like going to the gun range or refinishing a piece of furniture.
- If you have two parents at home, be sure you’re switching off one-on-one time, so both parents get that time with each kid. Think, “date night” or “dude night.” If you could swing it weekly, that would be incredible. If not, schedule them regularly. My husband took my daughter to the Daddy-Daughter Dance until she got too old for it. Now, they go once or twice a year on a fancy date night, like sushi and the symphony.
Talking, the Gold Standard of Connection
- Just like when they’re little, teens benefit from regular family dinnertime. If this has been a habit all along, keep it going. If it hasn’t, you should definitely start…tonight. But give it some time and patience. Changing to being communal at dinner is going to come with some growing pains.
Avoid awkwardness by having some conversation starters on hand. You can pick one up from Amazon (Tabletopics has lots of sets, including this general family one and this one for teens. I like those because they are card sets you can leave on the table, but here’s a great book version that is only $6.) or I can send you mine for free here:
Free Conversation Starters
Need help kick-starting conversations with your teen at dinner, in the car, on walks, or anywhere? Not to worry. These will help!
By the way, these conversation starters are also great for road trips, coffee, walks, etc. Have fun with them!
- The car is your ally. When you talk to your kids in the car, they’ve got nowhere to go. No escape! Driving your teen around is built-in time to connect, so don’t fritter it away on playlists and social media. It also provides a built-in time limit, so plan accordingly.
Also, being the mom who gives rides to friends is a boss move. Especially with girls, the conversations you’ll hear! Plus, you get to know your kids’ friends. Just don’t get caught up in it and chime in too much on their conversations. Be cool, Mom. It’s pretty great when your kid’s friends like you.
- Care about whatever they want to talk to you about. Just like when they were little, it’s not really about the topic–it’s about the kid. Be an available and interested listener. The stakes are getting higher.
One of my friends confessed that she regrets getting exasperated with her teen daughter’s melodrama. If your teen wants to talk to you about something that seems so, well, high school, remember-they are in high school. It matters to them. Coming back with, “You think you’re stressed now? Just wait!” isn’t building any bridges. And it will shut down future communication because you belittled their problem. Keep in mind that whatever it is they’re talking to you about–they’re talking to you.
- Ask the right questions. If your kid isn’t a talker, and you soft-pitch a “yes-no/fine” question, you get what you deserve! Ask more specific, open-ended questions. I also like the “high-low” approach, which works really well for dinnertime conversation, too. You just ask what was the high point of the day, and what was the low point. Boom.
- You can also connect with them spiritually and teach them to think about their day in terms of their relationship with God. For example: What did you see God do today with you/a friend? Did you have a chance to be the hands and feet of Jesus today? Did you jump on it, or miss it? What’s something you know of that we should pray about as a family? Remember the sermon/message last Sunday? Has it been relevant in your week so far?
- When (not if) they say something you don’t agree with, don’t automatically get upset. Unless it’s something major, let them express their thoughts and opinions. It’s a seed of a great conversation, and your teen could come away knowing you respect his ability to think for himself.
Teens can predict what it’ll be like to tell you about something, based on past conversations. That determines whether or not they talk to you at all, right? Wherever you are today, you are creating that history for future conversations. I’m not saying your goal is to be “the cool mom” who agrees with everything. You’re still Mom. But take a gut-check before you respond to something. This is where you use your life experiences (and mistakes, as appropriate) to help them think through things on their own.
Example: It’s one thing for your teen to tell you they like tattoos and might get one someday, it’s another thing for them to say they like tattoos and then be subjected to a diatribe about how awful you think they are.
- Affirm their good choices, whether you weighed in or not. As kids get older, they should be working their lives more and more on their own. When you show that you are paying attention without interfering, and building them up as near-adults, you make yourself more approachable and trustworthy. When they mess up, coach them in making it right if they need that. But for the most part (use good judgment, obviously), let them experience the outcomes of their own successes and failures. Teens are trying to make it on their own more, and your meddling only makes them hide their lives from you.
One dad I know used to say, “I think it’s a mistake, but it’s your mistake to make!” And then there was no “I told you so” if he turned out to be right. Give your teen the freedom to make mistakes in front of you without your making it worse.
- Advice–give it and take it. I know you’re the wisest of all, and you know you’re the wisest of them all. Your teen doesn’t know that. Give him ten more years. In the meantime, be more listener than advice-dispenser. You’ll get your chance. It’s way better to listen fully than to jump in with what they should do, and how.
A great way to be present in those “I have a problem” conversations is to ask, “What do you think you should do?” or “How are you thinking you’re going to handle that?” If they are looking for advice, they’ll ask for it. They really will. But unsolicited advice feels like criticism.
What about taking advice? This is possibly the greatest thing about your kids getting older. As they get older, they have more life experience and insights that can be helpful to you. It’s a subtle but important shift as the relationship moves toward an adult peer-to-peer relationship. Hear out and even solicit their perspective on something. They will feel incredibly validated, you will feel incredibly proud of who they are becoming, and you’ll actually benefit from their advice sometimes. As they mature in Christ, this becomes even more special. You’re entering into the fullness of being brothers and sisters in Christ with your own kids. I mean, come on!
Doing, Connection in Action
- Be involved and supportive of their passions and activities, but be sensitive to boundaries. This will actually allow you to be closer to their world than if you barge in. My kids are bandos, and I love the band world. I volunteer, help, have band-mom friends, and even have a band-mom Twitter account. But many times, I’ve told the kids, “I love that you’re so into band, and I love it, too. I want to be involved, but I don’t want to overstep into your world. If I’m ever too close or too involved, just tell me. I do NOT want to make it awkward or embarrassing.” This goes for chaperoning, too. I always ask if they want me to chaperone, or if they want to be on their own with their friends. They always want me to go, but I still ask every time.
I don’t claim to be an expert here, but I’ll tell you this–My daughter tells me all about what’s going on with the kids in band. Like, to the extent that we have conversations that sound like I know all of those kids personally. Because she’s told me so much, I feel like I do!
- Go where they like to go, and do what they like to do. My daughter loves Starbucks, so she’ll always be up for going and talking there. She also loves going to the symphony, which makes a great night out.
- If your kids are up for playing games, set aside time to play games as a family. There are eleventy million kinds of games, so I’ll bet you can find at least one your teen is willing to play. Keep it fun and relaxed, and you’ll be rewarded with many hours of laughing together, making memories, and creating inside jokes. (Bonus: Games get teens out of their rooms and off their phones for a little while!)
- Reading–It’s not just for littles. Several moms told me that reading together brought them closer to their kids when they were young, and kept them close into the teen years. There are a couple ways to pull this off:
That nighttime reading when they were little can actually evolve into quiet time together before bed when they’re teens–talking about the day, reading Scripture together, praying together, and so on. There are some great devotionals for teens you might look into. Something else you can do that it really cool is to choose a psalm for each of your kids, and read it to them before bed every night. When you feel led to choose a different one, go ahead and move on. What a great way to speak truth into them and over them before they wrap up the day.
If your kids are already teens, have sort of a book club with the family. It can be anything you’re all willing to read and discuss, fiction or nonfiction. We did this with The Case for Christ: Student Edition. Another family did something similar by reading the Chronicles of Narnia aloud over the summer together. Obviously, you can do this with Bible readings, too. Keep in mind that the point is less about thoroughly discussing the book, and more about giving your teen the floor to share opinions and insights. In other words, don’t dominate the conversation for the sake of covering all the bases on the book. This is relationship-building!
- And this is from my super awesome niece, Hope Madden: “When I was sixteen, I can tell you that my dad would make me wake him up at 5:00 and go for a walk with him. He said that he could get me to tell him anything, but for some reason on those 5:00 am walks, I wouldn’t stop talking. I hated it, but looking back, I’m so glad he did.” The walk is such a simple but powerful thing. One of my friends who is a dad to four boys says he has always taken walks with the boys, and continues to take them even with his fifteen-year-old.
- Sharing inside jokes and being co-conspirators is extremely bonding. This may be a bit controversial for your strict rule-followers, but if your teen is working hard and staying on top of schoolwork, consider taking them our of school just to do something fun together. I surprised my kids by taking them out of school to go see a movie we were all excited about. It felt like we were going rogue, and doing it together. But they had the grades and the allotted absences, so that “treat” was a bigger deal than having perfect attendance. (One friend of mine actually takes hers out of school for a week every year for a family trip they get excused as an “educational trip”!)
A Little This and That
- Give space when they want it. Read the room, Mom. You may be dying to know what’s wrong, but if you are pushy about it, they only tighten up more. My daughter will open right up, but my son needs a minute. A calming back scratch and some respect for his need to be alone with his thoughts first goes a long way in getting to hear his heart.
- When they want to interrupt your downtime to show you a funny video, tell you about a snapchat streak (my daughter has taken random pictures of me to keep one going!), practice audition music for you, whatever–welcome the interruption. Think about this: They were doing their own thing in their room, and they thought, “I’ve got to go show this to Mom!” And they got up and came out to you. Do you really want to shut that down? Be glad to see whatever they want to show you. Before you’re ready, they’ll be gone, and you’ll be able to do your own things with no interruptions at all. Bummer.
- Encourage independence. In related news, encourage your kids to do things alongside you, but for themselves. Then praise their great work and value to the family. It makes them feel grown up and more inclined to do things with you in the future. A friend of mine gave a great example: “If you are cooking a dinner, call your team in to make the salad. Don’t tell them how to make it or what to put in it just let them create it, and say it looks great.”
- Let a good role model shine. If you have multiple kiddos and the oldest is a talker, do some of that openly in the house so the others can see what that looks like. Especially with younger kids, they’ll want that one-on-one attention from you, and you can start locking that down early!
Regrets, We’ve All Got ‘Em
- Across the board, moms told me that they have huge regrets about hovering, micromanaging, and rescuing. You feel like you’re strengthening the relationship by helping, and by saving them from uncomfortable consequences like late grades and being hungry at lunch. But the truth is that it undermines their road to maturity. Learning from your own mistakes is rock-solid. But Mom telling you, “I mean it, you have to stop leaving your homework at home,” when she’s brought it to you for the fourteenth time? That teaches nothing but dependency. Go ahead and let them fail, but be gracious when they do. “Doing for” all the time doesn’t bring you closer; it cements your role as errand-runner.
- Two seasoned moms told me they regretted overlong lectures. One of them explained that she regrets lectures that “went way too long, because if they didn’t give me a response, then I would try explaining it a different way, and if I still didn’t get a response, surely there was another way to phrase it, and on and on. Pretty soon, it was no longer a packed nugget of wisdom, it became a rather harsh punishment. If I had to do it again, I would give the nugget and leave it there, because in most cases, there was no reason to wait for some kind of response like, “Cool, mom, that’s a packed nugget of wisdom I will never forget!”
- Another area of regret I heard about was the tried and true guilt trip. A friend of mine said, “No fair using sadness as a tactic or consequence when they do some something you don’t like. I was all too inclined to do this — and needed to apologize to them for my own poor attitude.”
If You’re Starting Late
So, what if you’re reading this as a mom of a teenager, and you’re thinking it’s too late. The ship has sailed, taking all of your mistakes into the permanence of history. What now?
Listen, as long as that child is in your home, it’s my opinion that you still have time. Even if it’s a week, you have a week. You may need to humble yourself and apologize for your many mistakes, but do it. If you want things to be different, then you have to start being different. It’s okay if they’re skeptical or confused because you’re going to give them the time they need to see that you want to be connected to them. Whatever time you still have, make the absolute most if it. There are ideas in this post that will give you the start you need, so get started.
God put that child, whether it’s a toddler or a teen now, in your home on purpose. He believes in your ability to be the parent your child needs, so He will be faithful to your efforts when you are faithful to His blueprint for your family. Pray, follow His leading, and love your child out of your love for Christ and His love for you. And pray that God will fill in the gaps you left at the end of the day. Because we all leave gaps, but we strive to get better, stronger, and faster along the way.
What’s one thing you’ve read here that you’re going to start doing? Or stop doing? Do you feel better equipped to connect with your teen? Let me know what you plan to do, and come back with an update!