Staying Connected During the Teenage Years

It may feel like in the blink of an eye, your child who loved to cuddle with you on the couch before bed, now prefers being holed up in their room, as far away from you as possible. Or perhaps your teen is so busy with homework, friends, and after-school activities that you hardly have a moment to spend together. It can be harder to connect with your child as they grow into their tween and teen years, but it does not mean your relationship has to crumble.

To help navigate this challenging period, we spoke with Cindy Kaplan, parent coach and conscious family therapist, for some advice on how to maintain your bond as a support and confidant with your teenager. Because whether they admit to it or not, they still need you.

Why do teens pull away during this time in their lives? 

There are several reasons that teens pull away during this time. Some of them are developmental—they want more independence and there are so many changes going on within their body and brain. Even when they pull away, they still need us; it may just be in a different way.

One reason that teens pull away is that we are still holding onto them too tightly. They, at times, feel like a grownup and want to be treated as such. That said, they are still children and need limits, but including them as part of the conversations in setting those limits can be of value.

Teens are very good at reading our cues and if they feel like we are judging them, they are likely to remove themselves from our presence.

Teens, like all of us, are seeking connection. If kids are not feeling connection and acceptance from their parents, they are likely to go find it somewhere else.

Social media and video games provide stimulation in ways that are tough to compete with (that’s a whole separate conversation), so we need to look at the things that interest our teens, and join them in those, whether they interest us or not.

I think it is very helpful to zoom out our parenting lens and look at the quality of connected moments versus quantity.

How do I know when to try and connect and when to give them space?

We can look to our teens for clues. When they say, “just get out of my space”, we can do just that and let them know that we are here for them when and if they want to talk. Of course, if there is a matter of safety, we need to intervene.

Most teens will give us the seeds, or the openings for connection and we need to be present enough to see them and then engage. If we are staring at our phone when our teen initiates an interaction, and we say, “just a minute”, we have likely lost that opportunity.

How can I try and connect without looking like I'm trying? (They'll see right through it!) 

Yes, our teens see through all of our stuff, and know when we are being real or not. The first thing we need to do is expand our definition of connecting and know that connection does not need to be through words. I recall a two-hour car ride with my teenage son while looking at colleges, and we probably only spoke twenty words to each other the entire way. We did listen to music and we occasionally both sang along. Connection can be a feeling, not needing words at all. If you feel like you are TRYING to connect, it is the trying that will be felt. It is sometimes so hard but we need to let our teens initiate the connection at times. The more we stay quiet, the more space we give them to reach out to us. This is when we find the openings to conversation and that often means just listening and asking questions to help themselves find the answers.

Setting up a puzzle on the table without asking your kid to help you do it, can sometimes end up with your kid sitting down to work on it. Gently join in and you may find a connection.

Don’t hesitate to ask questions, but don’t take it personally when they decline to join you or respond in the way you were hoping.

Connection has much more to do with how you are being with your teen, and less about what you are doing with them.

What if my teen has already grown distant? What can I do to build back our relationship?

I think it helps to know that almost any question we ask our teens feels like an interrogation to them. As our kids grow into teens, they begin to let go of us and we need to begin to let go of controlling and managing them. Not an easy task. And while it seems like they are growing apart, they still need us. What they need from us more than directing, guiding and nagging, is trust, curiosity, support and advocacy. They need to know that we’ve got their back. Begin to notice the actions and qualities in your teen that you can acknowledge and that you admire and let them know.  

While it is easy for us to remember our teen years, and understandable that we want to spare them from our mistakes and tough experiences, our kids need to grow from their own experiences. There is great power in asking them what they need from us.

How do I walk the line of being a confidant and friend to my teen, but also be their parent? 

Sometimes it feels like a fine line, but that depends on how we define being a parent. I don’t think we need to sometimes be a friend and sometimes be a parent. A parent sets and maintains clear limits/boundaries and is also there to support and enjoy their kid. Be clear on negotiable and non-negotiable boundaries. Teens will push back and that is normal – that is part of how they assert their independence. When we expect the push back, we can hold the space for it, not take it personally, and set a limit from a place of calmness and confidence.

If we want to be a friend to our teen, is that for their benefit or is that to fill our egoist needs? Part of being a parent is to continually build on connection, which requires true acceptance of who they are and the ability to be there to listen and allow them to grow.

What can I put in place now to help build the foundation of connection and trust as my child grows up?

I believe the most important thing to put in place as a parent is self-care; self-care on the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual levels. We absolutely cannot give our children what we don’t have ourselves and we cannot parent well if our cup is only half-full or empty.

Aside from self-care, we need to become more conscious as parents, looking at our triggers, understanding them, and learning to be a witness to our emotions so that we don’t dump our negative stuff onto our children.

Lastly, we need to parent the child we have and not the child that we want to have. When we accept them as they are, we can help set them up for success and not carry the weight of expectations that they are not able to meet.

Do you have any other advice you'd like to share?

Own your mistakes and emotions. If you have been a nagger and it isn’t working for you, let your teen know that you realize that nagging isn’t helping and you are going to stop. Ask them what would be helpful to them. If their suggestion proves not to be effective, then come back to the discussion and let them suggest something else.

Teen behavior can drive us crazy if we let it, but that is because of what our inner voices are saying to us not what our teens are doing. Rather than imposing strict limits just because you think “that’s how it should be,” be clear on your concerns and have your teen be an active part of that conversation.

Cindy Kaplan.jpg

Cindy is a Certified Parent Coach, a Master’s level Family Therapist, and Yoga Practitioner for children with special needs. She has been working with families, parents, and children in a variety of settings since 1995. Her study of yoga infuses her family work in ways that help parents be less reactive and more responsive. She brings humor, keen listening skills, and many resources to the families with whom she works. Cindy lives in Newton, MA and has three kids between the ages of 11-19.

PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.