Teenagers can be mysterious creatures. Sometimes they are elusive, throwing out one-word responses and disappearing to their room. Sometimes they make themselves known, yelling or stomping or slamming doors.
As a parent, it can be hard to connect with your teenager. Hearing that their day today was “Fine.”, just like the day before, and the day before that, makes it hard to know what is going on in the life of your teen. Not only that, but more and more teenagers are living a large portion of their lives virtually, through texting and social media platforms. Teens often have new interests, and are less and less likely to follow you around for your Saturday errands or spend time doing things they used to do with you when they were younger. Consequently, we can feel disconnected (and sometimes rejected) by our teen.
So, just like you often have to do as parents, we must adjust. Here are a few ways to help you start to feel more connected to your teenager.
#1: Ask Questions
It is hard to get a teenager to open up about their life. The standard “How was your day?” often gets a one word answer if you are lucky, and a grunt or sarcastic facial expression if you aren’t. Why not try something new?
First, we can change the way that we ask questions of our teenager. The main difference between closed- and open-ended questions is that closed-ended questions (“How was your day?”) can be answered with a yes or no, a good or a bad (or a ‘fine’, glare, or grunt). Open-ended questions ask for more. Therefore, it makes it more likely that you will get more of a response. Yes, you might get the typical “I don’t know” response, but that’s a blog post for another day.
If you want to know about how your teenager’s day went, maybe try the following questions:
- “What happened at school today?”
- “How was math class today?”
- “What are you looking forward to this week?”
- “What are your plans for the weekend?”
- “How do you feel about your friendship with Joe?”
- “What did Sarah do that made you upset?”
- “What is the hardest part about your Spanish project?”
- “Why did you enjoy reading that book?”
- “What was your favorite part about today?”
Notice their body language
Commenting on body language or things that you notice is an active listening technique. Reflecting on what your teenager is doing is not only a way for you to ask them what’s going on, but it helps them notice what is going on too. Here are some examples to get your teen talking:
“You seem happy today. You are smiling. What happened today that made you happy?”
“I notice that you are angry tonight. Did something happen at school?”
“You are staring off into space. What are you thinking about?”
Even if your teenager shrugs you off or even storms away, the important thing is, you NOTICED. Teenagers want your attention, even if they are spikey or shut you down. You communicated to them that you are paying attention. That you care. So even if you don’t get the conversation you were hoping for, you definitely told them you are there for them.
But most importantly…
The most important thing about connecting with your teenager using these question styles? LISTEN. When they start talking, drop what you are doing and listen. Teenagers want your attention and respect. As a parent, you can make that obvious. Listen to the little things, and they will trust you with the bigger things.
#2: Spend Time
As much as we feel rushed as adults, the same can happen for our teenagers. They have school, homework, clubs, sports, friends, jobs…etc. Trying to mush our schedules in with their schedules often means missing each other or not even running into each other for more than a few minutes in a day. Being intentional about spending time together can help you build your relationship with your teen, and allow more opportunity for you to connect.
Spending a meal together or a regular basis can be tough. But the research about family dinners is clear. Not only does it help in your child’s development, but it decreases the risk of obesity and eating disorders, and increases the chances that your child will graduate high school. Plus, in American culture, food brings us together. Carve out time, even if its once a week, for family dinner night.
BONUS: While you are eating together, play the “Crappy and Happy game”. Go around the table and have everyone say something that was crappy that day, or didn’t go as planned. Then have that person say something that made them happy, or something that went well.
Pursue their interests
Your teenager may start to develop new interests that you have never shared with them. It’s healthy, part of the developmental process of forming their own identity. However, it can feel like someone is driving a wedge between you. So if you want to connect with your teenager, show interest in their interests (even if you aren’t interested).
Is your teen really into video games? Ask them about their favorite game. Take them for a ride to the game store. Have they recently taken an interest in a sport? Watch a game with them. Ask them to teach you a move. Are they reading a new book series? Take them to see the movie. Go to the bookstore with them to get the next book in the series. Ask them about their favorite parts.
You may know from your personal conversations that people are more likely to start talking and keep talking when they are talking about something they like. Tap into that for your teen and look for what they like. Even if you can’t stand their latest interest, maybe pair it with something you enjoy. If you want to take a walk outside with your teen, offer to take them out to lunch or to a store they like to visit on the way home. If you like to shop, have your teenager spend an hour with you in the mall before they meet up with their friends.
#3: Embrace Technology
I know, I know. You are likely shuddering right now. But, this is where teenagers spend a ton of their time. And so if you want some of your teen’s attention, its time to embrace technology and enter their world. We’ll start from the most comfortable and move on from there. Remember, even if you just take one of these steps, it will help you to better connect with your teenager.
It is the new form of communication these days. No more phone calls or snail mail. We are all sending text messages all the time. This includes your teenager. If all you get in response to your questions are grunts and rolling eyes, this may be an alternative. Since this is where they are spending most of their time, it can be a way to spend time together – only virtually.
Often the texts messages we send are asking your teenager where they are, when they need to be picked up, or where they left their lunch. Instead, send texts to your teen during the day letting them know you are thinking about them. “Hope you are having a good day!” or “I just saw a commercial for those cookies you like. Thinking of you!” It can go a long way in showing your teen you care.
Instagram is a social media site where you post pictures to all of your “followers” (similar to facebook “friends”). After you post a picture, you can tag people in the photo, or use “hashtags” to make your photo appear in other searches. For example, you can post a picture of your coffee in the morning. In the text, you can write: “I’m ready for Monday. #coffee #breakfast #Mondays” Then, every time someone looks at pictures labeled #Mondays, your photo will show up. You can learn more about Instagram here.
This may be a fun way to connect to your teenager. Posting pictures of things you do together, or things that remind you of your teenager, can be ways to stay connected through their world of social media.
A more popular social media tool for teenagers is Snapchat. Similar to Instagram, you have “friends” who you can send messages to. Another photo-focused platform, you post photos and videos and send them to your friends. Your messages or “snaps” are only visible for a limited period of time. You can learn more about Snapchat here.
Again, this is a good way to connect on a platform that your teenager is likely using multiple times a day. It is similar to sending interactive messages that are more visual than texts. Sending your teenager photos of waiting in traffic to pick them up at school, or a photo of a place you have been together can help you stay connected.
Don’t know what social media your teenager is using? ASK. They are likely more than happy to tell you. Again, people like to talk about things they like, and for most teenagers, social media is a like.
As the parent of a teenager, you should remember these two things: Persistence and Listening. They say being a mom is a thankless job, and this seems especially true as you try to parent a teenager. They may shut you down, they may ignore you or worse, scream at you. But keep it up. Be persistent. And when they are ready to talk, be there to listen.
When I ask teenagers in counseling how they know that their parents care about them, you know what the most common answer is? “When they nag me.” Teenagers know that their parents care when they nag them. You are paying attention, and training them to be the successful adult that you want them to be. So keep it up, and keep nagging.
I’d love to hear from you. What are some ways you have found to connect better with your teenager? Please leave a comment below.
Erica K. Cieri, LCSW is a therapist and trainer at Made to Thrive in Williamsville, NY. She specializes in working with kids, teens and college students dealing with anxiety, behavior problems, tough relationships and difficulty managing their emotions. She collaborates with her clients to develop strategies to manage their current issues, but also to discover long term how to find peace. Erica can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.