Connecting With Your Teen (when they are rarely at home)
By Cheryl Maguire
I feel like I never see my 17-year-old twin teens anymore. School, sports, activities, work, and friends all call them away from home. I try to convince myself that their packed schedules help ease me into the transition of them going to college next year, but the truth remains — I miss spending time with them.
According to Maria Sanders, LSW, a clinical social worker and certified parent coach, my situation is, well, ordinary. “Doing your own thing is normal and healthy in those teen years but it is really difficult for us parents.”
She’s right. It is difficult. For me, and for many other parents. On the one hand, as teens shift toward adulthood and become more independent, we’re excited for them. Ken Ginsburg, MD, author of Congrats – You're Having a Teen!: Strengthen Your Family and Raise a Good Person, says that “the major difference between the teen years and the tween years is the extra experiences that young people have. They've learned to stretch their wings and to succeed.”
But he also says, “In addition to that, they have the ability to think differently.” In other words, as our children mature into adulthood, they form their own thoughts and opinions, which may not align with our ideas and make it more difficult for us to connect with our teens.
We want a deeper connection with our teens, but…
Our teens don’t have much time for us
Sanders says that once our children move into their teen years, they most likely have figured out who they are, and they’re capable of better conversations and potentially forming deeper connections with family members. It can be a real strain on the entire family when teens don’t have time to invest in those core relationships because of other commitments, like jobs, friends, activities, and school. When our teens aren’t at home much anymore, it’s like a practice mourning period, according to Sanders. “We're missing our teens — they're out of the house and there is a period of loss. There is a period of, ‘I see where this is going, they are going to leave soon.’”
We worry (a lot) that our teens are taking unnecessary risks
Now that our kids have grown more independent, they’re also taking more risks than they did as tweens. In 2022, the CDC released their injury and fatality statistics for 2020, stating, “About 2,800 teens in the United States ages 13–19 were killed and about 227,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes in 2020. That means that every day, about eight teens died due to motor vehicle crashes, and hundreds more were injured.” Data like that supports the worry we feel when our teens drive cars, or when they’re a passenger in the car of a new driver. Of course, we’re going to worry about their safety on the road.
We have lots to worry about with their growing independence. For example, now that our kids are teenagers, we also worry about their access to drugs and alcohol, and having sex, too. If our teenagers are sexually active, we worry about STDs and pregnancy. We may also worry about their friendships and romantic relationships, and whether they’ll be hurt emotionally or manipulated. We worry about a lot of things because, as Sanders says, “there are a lot more opportunities for teens to get together without adult supervision so drugs, alcohol and sex come into play.”
Our teens pick a lot of fights with us
Teenagers are pros at testing our limits and pushing boundaries, which can sometimes lead to arguments when parents try to dictate what their teenagers can and cannot do. “When parents try to control their kids, it comes from a place of fear: ‘I'm afraid I'm going to lose my child.’ We want to clasp on as hard as we can to feel like we're in control. But we can't control our kids,” Sanders says.
Despite those challenges, experts tell us we can still form deeper connections with our teens.
How to form deeper connections with our teens
Adolescents are moving towards becoming independent of their parents physically, emotionally, and cognitively, and yet they still need parent and family support as much as they did when they were younger. Here are some ways experts suggest we support teens.
- Be Curious
- Create Rituals & Routines
- Know That You Still Matter To Your Teen
It can be really hard to stay centered and calm when our teens are determined to criticize us at every turn. Our first instinct might be to respond with anger, but Sanders says this will only cause more problems. “There's a phrase called ‘no action in reaction.’ If we are having a reaction to something our kids did, let's say your child comes home late. Then that's not the time to act, because you are in a reactive mode. Don't take any action. Instead, take a deep breath, a big pause, maybe sleep on it, and discuss it when there is a good time and you're calmer,” Sanders says.
If your teenager is having trouble with following limits, like not coming home in time for curfew or letting the car run out of gas, Sanders recommends using Dr. Ross Green’s method of collaborative problem solving, where parents and kids work together to solve problems within their relationship.
Sanders offers an example of how this might work when your teen is struggling with coming home on time for a curfew:
Parent: “It seems like you've had a difficult time getting home at curfew. Help me understand what's going on.”
Teenager: “Nobody starts to hang out until nine o'clock. So if I have to be home at 10 o'clock, I only get an hour with my friends.”
Parent: “Okay, that's good information. What's important to me is that you do get home because I'm concerned about your safety. After 10 p.m., things start to get sketchy. So I’m wondering what ideas you have so you can still hang out with your friends and make it home on time.”
Sanders explains, “It's not just the parent, dictating what the consequences are. It's the parent and the child, having their concerns put out on the table and figuring out a solution that works for everybody.”
Ginsburg agrees with Sanders. “Your ultimate goal with your teenager is to have a relationship that lasts for decades after they've left your house. If they are struggling to become independent and you become very controlling, they will push you away.”
He also stresses the importance of communicating that we respect them. “When we tell kids what to do based on our experience, kids are hearing the message, ‘I don't think you're capable of figuring this out on your own.’” Ginsburg suggests instead that we be curious and ask questions about how they can solve problems on their own. He reminds us, “When we ask them what they're experiencing, and ask them what they think is going to happen then we give them the opportunity to think things through.”
Create rituals and routines
Rituals and routines are a great way to connect with a teenager who is often not able to spend as much time with their parents and siblings. For example, even though my teenagers didn’t need me to walk them to the bus stop in the morning, I created this routine so that I could have extra time to connect with them.
“It’s important to find those family traditions that can be carried through to when they are older so we're able to have that connection,” Sanders says. She offers the example of her family’s annual summer camping trip, where they go screen-free because quality time together without their screens is good for developing adolescent brains and for family dynamics.
Know that you still matter to your teen
The teen years are full of incremental moves to separate from parents. For both parties, it’s an exciting time for personal growth; yet, those moves toward separation can also be scary and stressful.
Ginsburg reminds us, “There are a lot of myths out there about adolescence. One suggests that adolescents don't care what adults think and don't particularly like their parents. Know that definitively and without question: You Matter to Your Teen.”
Cheryl Maguire holds a Master of Counseling Psychology degree. She is married and is the mother of twins and a daughter.