I often read Meghan Leahy’s advice in her column On Parenting for The Washington Post. I saw this headline, How do I connect with my teen son while respecting his independence, and had to read what she would say to this mom. After all, this is totally my wheelhouse. She said it so well that I wanted to share it with you. I hope that parents of little children read it as well. Focus on connection shouldn’t wait for the teen years.
I work with so many parents of teens who were able to get them to do what they were told as younger children. These parents thought they were doing the right thing, but controlling, coercive methods of parenting—like time outs, threats, removing favorite things, grounding—tend to backfire when the child reaches the age of realization that they don’t have to do what they’re told anymore. They can even switch their allegiance from annoying parents to peer groups.
To be the parent your kids still look to for support and guidance, connection and problem solving rather than threats, blame and punishment connection must start early.
How do I connect with my teen son while respecting his independence?
Advice by Meghan Leahy, columnist for On Parenting in The Washington Post
Q: I need help staying connected with my 16-year-old son while respecting his need for privacy and greater independence. How do I do this?
A: As a parenting coach and a parent of a 16-year-old, I hear you loud and clear. Connecting with your teen can be a daunting task. We parents get many mixed messages. Americans are obsessed with independence, and many parents believe that their job is to push their teens out into the world, but this is not the way it should be.
Our goal as parents is to raise children who are interdependent; young adults who rely both on others and themselves. Of course your son has a right to privacy (within reason) and he should trust that you will be transparent with him when it comes to your concerns for his safety and well-being. The fallacy in American parenting is that connection and independence aren’t linked. When a child (and teen) is deeply and safely connected to a loving and warm adult, the teen is more likely to be self-governing, exercise judicious freewill and safely take calculated risks. Without deep connections to loving adults, the teen may be acting on his own (appearing independent), but he is more likely to take unsafe risks, to be reckless and unafraid, or to be too afraid to take any chances at all. True freedom comes from connection, not despite it.
All of this is to say: Strengthening your relationship with your son is the surest path toward helping him find his own willpower, self-agency, and courage.
So, how do you stay connected?
- Stay realistic. This means that not every attempt at connection will be easy, but every attempt is worth it. Your 16-year-old has his own life, friends and school stuff; it is natural that he will be distracted and may not receive your gestures as the love you mean it to be. As much as possible, don’t take it personally.
- Make a list. Have your teen either tell you or send you a text with four or five things he wants to do and tell him to make it imaginative. If he dreams of going to the Sahara, great! Have him name the big and small, the more ideas the better. You never know what could happen! Time, money and reality are always in play, but doing what your teen wants will make connecting easier.
- Think about including his friends. While one-on-one time can be great, it can also mean a lot to a teen when you bring people along for the fun. Food is often a great connector, so having them over to taste-test burgers, pizza or sushi is a fun way to connect with your teen, as well as his friends.
- Do a job together. Whether it is something for the community, the school or your neighbors, is there something that you can both participate in that could be fun, give back and end with a little treat? Aside from creating memories, you are doing good for others, and that is a win-win.
- Keep it short or stretch it out. Mini-doses of conversation about music (why did Frank Ocean not show at Coachella?) or current events can be great ways to get him talking. Sharing old SNL skits or texting funny memes can be great shared sources of laughter, which is the ultimate connector. “Stretch it out” means that you shouldn’t be afraid to spend a few days with your son. College visits, camping, hiking, road trips to see friends, family or sites, or train or bus rides are good ways to get your son in your proximity for a chunk of time. When we stretch out the time, we can allow for long periods of comfortable silence and just simply be with our kiddo. Less agenda, more relaxing. And while it’s a cliche, nature often facilitates connection, even if it is on the way to a movie marathon. Time in nature with a teen, while sometimes a slog at first, can often lead to some of the best and easiest connections and conversations during this shared experience of beauty.
No matter what you do to keep connecting with your teen, keep at it and remember that simply staying present, staying interested (and interesting) and staying brave will matter to him, even if he doesn’t say so. Yes, you may have to play some video games or watch some movies that you wouldn’t pick, but the more open you stay, the more reciprocated it will be. Good luck.
The bottom line is that to keep a strong connection, your child must trust you. If he’s afraid that he could lose his phone, be grounded, or blamed for something that doesn’t feel fair at any time, he’s not going to trust. If he thinks that things always have to be your way, if he feels misunderstood and unheard, he’s going to get angry and resistant.
Connection starts right away but it’s never too late.