4 Ways to Keep Your Teens Safe: Go for Connection

For any parent who fears the teen years—and who doesn’t—I can tell you how to make sure your teens will steer clear of all the horrible things you imagine. I know what you’re saying.

Obviously, I can’t guarantee anything. But if you fulfill the 4 steps below, I would put my money on it.

Studies have shown that the #1 preventive factor for all those nightmare scenarios is connection. It’s not the only factor, but it is #1. If you focus on and succeed at staying connected to your kids, your family will be in the best shape possible to weather any storm—even if something tragic happens. Connection means your child trusts you and feels safe telling you anything without fear of reprimand. It doesn’t mean you will hear everything, but it’s what goes on inside their heads that should be your concern. Connection means trusting that accountability is held for all through working problems out together.

Dr. Gordon Neufeld, founder of the Neufeld Institute and author of Hold Onto Your Kids, says that when your teen is faced with a tempting proposition by a peer, the first thing you hope he will think is, what would mom and dad say? not, what would my friends say? You may never hear about it, but the goal is for your child to weigh wisely the risks of the temptation and to be highly influenced by what he thinks you would say. So that leaves you with the daunting job of being highly influential.

Punishments, arbitrary consequences, threats, holding power over, and directing your child’s behavior reduce that influence. The following 4 steps are not easy. They require a lot of you. But hey, look what we’ve all been through and are still going through.

Because of Covid-19, we all have had to very intentionally adjust our expectations of what we can and cannot do, of how we connect socially, of what staying safe means. Wearing masks and standing far away from people has been an unpleasant adjustment. Not being able to hug or even be together with friends and family has changed how we think about greetings and gatherings. But we—well most of us—have adjusted. We quite quickly changed our new normal. All this is to say, adjusting your expectations is imperative and quite doable in times of crisis. So how about adjusting your expectations of yourself and your children to avoid as best you can an unseen crisis waiting to happen.

4 ways to keep your kids connected:

  1. Focus on your relationship with your child more than teaching.
    • Model respect, empathy, and responsibility with your words and behavior—the most important personal growth you will ever do.
    • If your child is behaving badly toward you, it’s the relationship that needs repair.
    • Pay less attention to your child’s behavior than to the emotional cause of the behavior. Your child is having a problem, not being a problem. Look for the problem.
    • Keep good boundaries. Don’t ask your child to fix your problems and don’t fix your child’s. Mutual respect means supporting and helping each other with their problems.
  2. Have dinner together as a family at least 4-5 nights and make this sacred time. Yes, this is that important.
    • Make dinnertime one of the most enjoyable times of the day for all of you.
    • Talk about what’s going on in your world and the world at large as kids get older.
    • Don’t talk about food.
  3. Make sure your children trust you more than anyone else
    • Instead of worrying whether you can trust them, turn it around. Your job is to trust the person your child is—always, no matter what.
    • Bad decisions are mistakes to learn from.
    • When you use behavior to distrust the child, she learns she is untrustworthy and loses connection with you. A child who feels distrusted is left floundering. She needs your help to find her way back.
    • Mistakes require problem-solving—true accountability. That means coming to you with the mistake and trusting in your help.
  4. Set expectations appropriately and realistically
    • If your expectations are out of reach, you both fail, and your child never feels good enough—a life-long plague.
    • Understand the development and temperament of your child. What is his maturity level and personality characteristics capable of?
    • Set your expectations for the child you have not child you wish you had.

A new year is upon us. There is a light at the end of the Covid tunnel. Our bar for happiness is a little lower than in previous years. Who would have thought this time last year so many normal and simple life pleasures would be out of reach to us now? But you did it. You set new normals. Can you do it with your children? Should your bar raise or lower to help them succeed? Do you need to listen more and talk less? Do you need to redefine your job as a parent? Once you are able to get connection in place, your job becomes a whole lot easier and your level of exhaustion and anger diminishes greatly.

“…a parent’s job: to provide shoulders. Shoulders for your child to sit on when they’re little to see the world, then stand on when they get older so they can reach the clouds, and sometimes lean against whenever they stumble and feel unsure.” Anxious People by Fredrik Backman.