The most common theme with my clients who have kids aged 8 and up is their concern that their relationship is changing and their fear that they’ll lose their close connected relationship with their kids as they get older.
My experience and research tells me that we WILL likely lose our close connected relationship with them if WE don’t make some changes in the way we relate to them. And I think you can never start too early, because it takes practice. But it’s also never ever too late.
The moment our kids start pushing up against us (at 8 or 14 or anywhere in between), is the time when we need to learn some new skills. Mike Riera, a teen expert and author, tells us that it’s time to shift from managing them and their lives to being more of a consultant – from control to influence (I prefer to say connection).
The tween and teen years are a constant call for us, as parents, to let go of our need for control … a constant call for us to check in with ourselves and examine our agendas.
Our attempts to control and impose our agendas onto their lives WILL cause disconnection in our relationships with them.
But before we get into the specific tips to stay connected to them, let me remind you of a few things.
Their job at this age is to individuate.
They love you so deeply and have known nothing but being closely connected to you. Suddenly (and this can happen overnight), they feel a strong biological need for autonomy and independence. They simultaneously want to be close and to push away. It’s very confusing and perhaps scary for them. In order to push away, sometimes they have to get defensive and even aggressive – it’s as if it’s the only way they can find the courage and strength to individuate when they sometimes just want to crawl on your lap and be a little kid again. When parents react strongly and get upset, it adds to their confusion. The more we can put words around it and explain that it’s normal and that we, the adults, CAN handle it, the easier it will be for them.
But that doesn’t make it any easier for us.
Our job is to not take it too personally.
It DOES hurt. It can be sad. Our kids do give us the impression that they don’t want to be with us. They sometimes seem repulsed by us. They reject who we are in order to stand for who they believe they are. They tell us we don’t know anything and act like they don’t care what we have to say. So often our feelings are hurt and we get resentful. But that’s why we must lean on and get support from friends, partners, therapists and other adults. They can help us soothe our broken hearts and find our way back to being the parent our kids need us to be through these years.
Because if they don’t individuate, they will have difficulties in adulthood.
And don’t forget, even though they don’t act like it, they still need us. But with one very big caveat.
Our kids need us to be there, but on their terms – when they want us. It’s totally developmentally appropriate to have narcissistic tendencies during adolescence. They also want us to believe in them and to stop treating them like a little kid. Think of it as “your little secret” – they know they need you….you know they need you – but they don’t want you to treat them like a little kid who needs their parents. So whatever you do…don’t talk about it ;).
15 Tips to Stay Connected to Your Tweens and Teens
1 – Don’t try to start a “real” conversation while they’re on their electronics. It’s a recipe for disaster. Pick the “right” times to talk to them.
2 – Remember you’re really raising an adult. As they get older, they are closer to adulthood than childhood. If you want a close relationship with them when they’re older, it’s time to focus on genuine relationship building. And you will be teaching them how to be in adult relationships with others by doing so. I don’t mean you give up on being the parent.
- Listen fully and respond without judgment, anger, or criticism. Remind yourself that your goal is to keep them talking and hear everything they want to say…not to shut them down. When you feel the urge to jump in, resist the urge and stay calm, and nod your head.
- Try to refrain from interrupting, comparing, fixing, advising, soothing…and just listen.
- Make “shared meaning” your goal – for everyone to be heard accurately. Once everyone feels heard and understood, then you can move into action if necessary.
- Not everything has to be a teachable moment, sometimes they just need to feel heard and understood.
4 – Spend time doing things together and set aside time to be present and to be genuinely curious about them and their opinions. Who are they? Sadly, kids often perceive their parents are too busy to really talk.
5 – Own your part. When your kids are acting out, take the time to look at how you might be contributing to the behavior patterns. See if you might need to lighten up a little, set some more clear boundaries, or spend more time with them. When you feel strong feelings of anger, resentment, sadness, etc. take the time to examine your beliefs and childhood hurts. Be careful not to vomit your baggage onto your kids. Examine your double-standards. Oh, and when you screw up (which you will), circle back and own your part – take the time to repair trust with them.
6 – Genuinely empathize with them – Empathy is genuinely caring about what the other person is going through even when you don’t agree with them
- Empathy is the oil that keeps relationships running smoothly
- It creates bonds of trust – your child will feel like you “get” them
- Feeling understood often diffuses the situation
- Empathy regulates our brains and allows us to have the capacity to problem solve
7 – Come to them with a positive bias – believe they are great and assume they will do great (because most likely they are and they will!)
8 – When in doubt, bite your tongue. You can always say something later. There is almost nothing at this age that requires us to say something immediately. The more time we take, the more sane our response will be.
9- Show you are real and relatable – admit your mistakes, talk about what’s good in your life, share some stories from when you were their age. Share your limitations and allow space for their limitations.
10 – Get a hobby and practice self-care. Show them that you have your own interests and be an interesting person. It will help you from being too involved in their lives. Make sure you practice self-care. This is great role modeling, but even more importantly, when your cup is full, you will have more capacity to be present, self-aware, and patient.
11 – Don’t criticize your teen. Focus on the behavior not the person. Get curious about WHY they’re doing what they are doing – what are the needs beneath the behavior? Help them understand their actions. Be non-judgmental and supportive.
“Acting Out” behaviors are usually a child trying to get their needs met but they don’t have the words to explain themselves or aren’t fully aware of what they are feeling. Another possibility is that they’ve tried to tell you but you haven’t really been listening, so, out of desperation, they begin to act out so you will pay attention. Try to be a detective – trying to figure out what needs and feelings are behind their behaviors, meeting them with empathy, curiosity, and compassion.
12 – Be creative in how and when you talk to them:
- Try side by side conversations in the car
- Be ready to talk when they want to (late at night)
- Communicate with a variety of tools – in person, text, phone, email, notes, one word reminders, and other creative ways
13 – Ride their emotional waves with them. What they say in this moment might not be how they are feeling in the next. See if you can be present with them even as they are crabby and irrational in one moment and loving and sensible the next. They are as bewildered by this as you are.
14 – Give them space. And remind yourself it’s not personal. Allow them the space to go to their rooms. They need space (space feeds their need for autonomy). They need to learn to sort some things out on their own. Respect that what they do to escape (video games, snap chat, loud music, etc) is their choice – no judgments.
15 – Energetically have your arms wide open. Always be available as their soft place to fall, your arms open always to connect with them when they want to. Never close your heart to them, no matter how mad they make you, no matter how horrifying their behavior, and no matter how hurtful they are acting. Meet yourself with self-empathy, take care of yourself, but stay connected to them and continue to remind yourself that it’s not their fault :). They need your unconditional acceptance, love and support.
Remind yourself over and over – they may begin to look like grown ups, but they simply don’t have the skills to navigate this time and to understand their emotions so our job is to be compassionate, open-hearted, and to model the skills of being an adult and demonstrating how to consciously cope with life’s challenges. One moment they act so grown up, the next you wonder if they are going through toddlerhood again. Our best chances for success are when we are able to meet each moment with our teen with curiosity and compassion, asking yourself “who is my child right now?” and “what does my child need from me right now?”
If you find yourself losing your temper and having a hard time being patient, download my free “React Less and Connect More” PDF and get 10 days of supportive emails to guide you towards being the parent your kiddo needs you to be!
Post below if you have any additional tips for parents of tween and teens. What works for you? What are you skeptical about?