Staying Close to Your Teen
Creating Together Time
Simply being in the same place at the same time with a teen can be a struggle. Teens have countless enticing ways to spend time without you — from their peers to the mall to any of their multiple screens — but there are many activities you can share, as well as ways to turn everyday situations into bonding opportunities.
- Chat during chores. We all know that family dinners play a key role in raising healthy, happy, communicative kids. But I’ve found that it’s actually before dinner, when my daughter and I are prepping the meal, that we have some of our best times together. No matter that I come from a long line of reluctant cooks: Cutting up carrots for chicken soup or rolling out cookie dough lets me and Lisi work cooperatively, share a goal, and produce (usually) edible results. So while family dinners can seem a bit forced or even confrontational for some during the teen years, the kitchen can be a level playing field where parent and kid work — and talk — as equals. And depending on your child, there may be other bond-boosting ways to work as partners: shoveling snow, painting the basement, or volunteering together.
- Car talk. Next time you’re in the car together, take advantage of your captive audience. “When we’re driving, my 16-year-old is definitely more willing to talk about her concerns — her friends, how things are going at school — than she is otherwise,” says Ruth, a 49-year-old mom in New York City. “And she’s more responsive when I ask questions.” Openness can actually be easier for your adolescent when you’re shoulder to shoulder instead of eye to eye, which can make a teen defensive. And the car is neutral territory, so your child won’t feel her personal space is being invaded, the way she may if you try a sit-down in her room, says Gene Beresin, M.D., director of child and adolescent training at Massachusetts General Hospital.
- Share your passions. Inviting your kid to try an activity you love shows you at your best — and, if you’re lucky, can lead to enjoyable hours together. Believe me, I had my doubts. I am an artsy-craftsy type and my daughter decidedly isn’t, so I wasn’t sure she’d be game to try my latest obsession: making jewelry. But once she saw the cool beads I’d found online — and I showed her how easy it was to make earrings — she was hooked. We’ve spent hours creating together since. Even if your child isn’t motivated to join you, sharing your passion — whether it’s stargazing, rock climbing, or political blogging — offers him a new perspective on you as someone with interests beyond his math grades or messy room.
- Get a handle on her hobbies. Try the inverse of the preceding principle, as Jennifer Johnson, a Salt Lake City mom, does. She jams at least once a week with her garage band-loving sons: She sings, 15-year-old J.C. plays drums, and Truman, 12, plays guitar. She may not be Chrissie Hynde, but she’s found a way into her kids’ world by learning to appreciate their music. Whether your kid asks you to watch an old episode of Freaks and Geeks or read the (new to her) poetry of Charles Bukowski, once she’s offered you entry into her obsession du jour, demonstrating a real willingness to enjoy it with her is a surefire way to strengthen your bond. She’ll appreciate your taking an interest as she reveals new sides of herself.
- Take the time to watch. Sometimes simply paying (positive) attention can intensify your relationship with your kid. “It’s easy to forget that teenagers, just like toddlers, really want you to watch them,” says Debi Yohn, a counseling psychologist and author of Parenting College Students: 27 Winning Strategies for Success, who used to hang out with her own son by cheering him on as he shot hoops in the driveway. Jamie Willis’s son, Elijah, was a Dance Dance Revolution fanatic, and before he went to college, the 44-year-old Cincinnati mom provided him with an appreciative audience — and not because she enjoys video arcades. But Elijah liked showing off his skills for his mom, and she was delighted to enhance his fun by being a spectator.
Getting Your Teen to Talk
Even when the situation’s right, conversation may be tricky, since adolescents can be all too ready to take offense — or simply ignore your overtures. Sure, you already know the basics, like “listen more,” “nag less,” and “yes/no questions elicit yes/no answers.” But here’s the in-depth scoop on talking — well and at length — with your teenager.
- Don’t play 20 questions. “Teens often find the questions we ask intrusive and annoying,” says Susan Smith Kuczmarski, Ed.D., author ofThe Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go. Instead of posing queries that your kid may interpret as prying, “try to pick up on her interests, just as you would with a person you want to get to know at a cocktail party,” recommends Stanley Greenspan, clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington University and author of The Secure Child. Ask general questions about a topic your teen loves, or, when he makes a comment, add your own. Keep an eye out also for your teen’s covert conversational openings — a dramatic sigh, an exclamation, a lingering look. If you don’t know what’s behind it, try, “That was a look!” Then wait. You just may have begun a discussion.
- Talk by typing. You may feel that nothing is as close as a face-to-face, but teens can actually be more comfortable with cyber communication. Learn to speak your kid’s language of choice, whether it’s e-mail, cell phone texting, posts on Facebook, or chatting online. Even if it feels impersonal, that sensation probably won’t last for long. A 2008 Samsung Mobile survey found that 68 percent of American parents have begun text-messaging with their kids — and 51 percent of them agree that they communicate more now. What’s more, 53 percent of teens who text-message with their parents said that it had improved their relationship. Laura Stack, a productivity consultant in Highlands Ranch, CO, became a convert because she found that her 13-year-old daughter, Meagan, will text on topics she’s too shy to discuss in person, like cute boys and crushes.
- Know when to linger. Just being in the right place at the right time — and in the right frame of mind — can up your chances for a heart-to-heart. If you observe your teen’s routines and casually manage to be around when he seems most receptive, you’ll lay the groundwork for some great discussions. “My teenage son’s a night owl,” explains a single mom I’ll call Rachel, in Oakland, CA. “I use this to my advantage by making a point of being there when he makes his nightly trip to the kitchen for a snack.” It turned out that her son was often in search of a good talk as well as a bowl of cereal. And the technique works both ways: Having regular times for hanging out yourself lets your teen know when you’re available and willing to listen — without you ever having to say a word.
- Adjust your attitude. When your teen’s in trouble, communication can easily break down if you start dictating or lecturing. To foster closeness when the going gets rough, “you need to realize that your teen is not a problem to be solved, but a person to be understood,” says Jamie Woolf, author of Mom-in-Chief: How Wisdom from the Workplace Can Save Your Family from Chaos. A key rule: Don’t overreact. “The biggest reason kids don’t share information is because they’re afraid their parents will freak out,” says Linda Perlstein, author of Not Much Just Chillin’: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers. “Before you get mad at your daughter for ‘dating’ too early, for instance, talk to her calmly. Your definition of dating and hers may be completely different.” Don’t underreact either. If your kid comes to you with a problem that seems trivial, like a bad haircut or a friend’s dis, don’t just dismiss it, advises Robin Goldstein, Ph.D., an instructor of human development at Johns Hopkins University. “Take what your kid says seriously. She’ll be more likely to confide in the future if more worrying problems crop up.”
- Don’t be put off by a brush-off. A few weeks ago, Lisi invited me to watch an episode of Arrested Development in her room. About to settle in for a chat afterward, I was crestfallen when she said, “Are you still here?” and announced it was time for her to go hang out with Nicole. Sure, I was disappointed, even hurt. But at times like that it helps to remember that your kid’s not purposely playing bait and switch with your expectations. According to Kuczmarski, all teens are ruled by the Three F’s: freedom, friends, and focusing on themselves. It’s just a part of their growing independence.
It also helps to know that research shows teens want to spend more time with their parents, even though they seem to push us away. “It’s the seesaw of adolescence, one foot in childhood, the other stepping out as young adults,” says Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., author of I Just Want My Kids to Be Happy: Why You Shouldn’t Say It … “So don’t take a snub personally. It really is just a phase.”
Reprinted with Permission of Hearst Communications, Inc. Originally Published: Staying Close to Your Teen