My oldest daughter and I were two peas in a pod. When she was little, she was always in my lap or in my bed. No matter where we were, her hand was always in mine. We effortlessly connected heart and soul—until suddenly, we didn’t.
During her teen years, school and friends consumed her so much that she was rarely home. When she was, the door to her room was tightly closed, and I was on the other side. Ouch. I felt rejected, and I wondered what happened to the days when we were joined at the hip.
Staying connected during adolescence can seem impossible, especially as your teen is pushing hard to be their own person and the parent-teen relationship gets bumpier. But experts say you should make it a priority, and the good news is that small, consistent efforts can make a big difference.
Why Connection Matters
It may not always feel like it, but your relationship with your child during the adolescent years is just as important to their development as when they were little. In fact, they continue to benefit from that strong connection in a variety of ways.
Teens who feel connected to their parents “are happier and healthier in every measure,” says Laura Markham, Ph.D., parenting coach, clinical psychologist, and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. “They do better academically, and they’re not as likely to be depressed or anxious.”
When your teen values your opinion and feels they can talk to you, they also feel cared for and are less likely to have emotional and behavioral problems. These teens also have better social skills and coping strategies and generally have fewer conflicts, more positive relationships, and an easier time transitioning to high school, according to landmark studies published in the journal Paediatrics & Child Health and the American Journal of Preventative Medicine.
Research also finds that teens who feel securely attached to their parents are less likely to drink, experiment with drugs, or become pregnant, and they are more likely to thrive in adulthood.
Of course, teens must separate from the family in order to move toward independence, but it’s important to strike a balance so they don’t completely detach. “The successful transition of adolescence is not achieved through detachment from parents,” concluded the authors of the Paediatrics study. “In fact, healthy transition to autonomy and adulthood is facilitated by secure attachment and emotional connectedness with parents.”
Connectedness can also create a foundation for a happy relationship with your adult kids. If you foster connection with your teen throughout adolescence, you’re more likely to have a close, successful relationship when they become adults, Markham says.
Parents, Take the Lead
On days when your teen is sullen and nonverbal and shoots you the eyeroll, it can be hard to believe they will ever want to connect with you again. That means it’s up to you to make connections happen.
“It’s important that parents keep nurturing the underlying relationship so estrangement and loss of influence doesn’t occur,” says psychologist Carl Pickhardt, father of four and author of Who Stole My Child? Parenting through the Four Stages of Adolescence.
Since teens are busy and preoccupied with growing up, parents need to take the initiative and create opportunities to connect.
One of the best ways to nurture the relationship is to follow your teen’s interests and create ways to enjoy time together.
Do you have a foodie? Try a new restaurant or cook a recipe together. If your teen loves basketball, learn to shoot hoops. Play their favorite video game with them, share funny posts from Instagram, or listen to their favorite band—even if you don’t like the music.
You don’t have to talk about anything in particular to maintain and protect your relationship. Spending any positive time with your teen builds an “emotional bank account” that you can draw on later if conflicts arise, says Dr. John Duffy, a clinical psychologist and author of the new book Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety.
It Can Be Difficult – But Keep Asking
You can’t force your teen to connect with you, so if they reject your efforts, don’t take it personally, Pickhardt says.
“Sometimes the adolescent will accept an invitation, sometimes not, and that’s okay,” he says. “Just keep those invitations and expressions of interest ongoing. Your message is: ‘I continually stand ready to connect in positive ways with you when you feel inclined to connect with me.’”
Even if teens act like they don’t want to connect, they still need you and want to know that you’re available to them, says family therapist Neil D. Brown, author of Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle.
That’s true even as teenagers start to build their social and emotional lives more independently from their parents, Brown says. “They need our engagement, our leadership, our validation, and our appreciation of them going through that process.”
But how do you stay connected through the bumpy parts of adolescence? It can be particularly hard to feel a bond with a teen who constantly argues or challenges house rules. What if it feels like your relationship consists of debating the boundaries that you set and they break? Is it better to abandon the rules to keep your relationship intact?
Boundaries as a Thread of Connection
“A boundary is a connection,” says Pickhardt, so don’t be afraid that you’ll alienate your teen by setting limits. Boundaries provide a thread that links teens to the family structure.
The best approach when conflicts arise is to be steadfast and enforce reasonable limits and expectations that reflect your family values, Pickhardt says. If your approach is extreme, whether it is too permissive or too authoritarian, you may drive your teen to disconnect from you.
When adolescents know you’ll listen to their objections and concerns, they’re more inclined to cooperate than when you don’t allow dissent, shutting down all argument, he says. On the other hand, when parents set no limits, teens wonder whether they care at all.
Steadfast parents need to be able to say, “We will be firm where we have to, flexible where we can, and always listen to whatever questions or disagreements you have,” Pickhardt explains.
The key is to keep calm during conflicts, adds Markham. Yelling will cause your teen to become defensive and pull away from you. If your teen breaks family rules or engages in unsafe behavior and you think some type of punishment or consequence is needed, try to re-think your definition of discipline, Markham advises.
“Discipline is guidance (or training); that’s actually what the word means,” Markham says. “It comes from the root word disciple (which means pupil) so it means ‘to guide.’”
Your Effort Makes a Difference
There are numerous ways, both big and small, to strengthen the bonds between parents and teens. The importance of connection, and the many approaches to improving that relationship, can make the task seem overwhelming. But not everything needs to happen every day or all at once, and it’s okay if some efforts fall flat. Most importantly, your teenager will see that you’re trying. Because feeling loved and cared for is such a key part of parent-teen connection, your visible effort means you’re already on your way to the relationship that both of you want.
What to Say to Stay Connected:
- What’re you watching/listening to/reading these days? What do you like about it?
- How does Snapchat/Instagram/TikTok work?
- What’s one positive and one negative thing about your day?
- If your teen is upset with a friend or teacher, don’t judge or react, but acknowledge their feelings. Say: Wow, that sounds like a big deal, or No wonder you’re upset.
- Don’t give unsolicited advice to your teen; instead, encourage reflection and say: I wonder what you could do about that.
- Don’t criticize. Instead of, That was a really stupid thing to do, say, We disagree with the choice you made and this is why.