It is not unusual for teenagers and their parents to have periods of difficulty getting along, when they previously enjoyed positive relationships. While nothing may have been “wrong” with the parent or child, they were having trouble adjusting to the natural, normal, and healthy changes that children go through as they work toward the developmental task of independence during adolescence. As I often address this issue in my work with families, I am interested in what can be done to protect the parent-child relationship. In my research as well as in my forensic and clinical practice, three findings came up repeatedly: 1) The relationship that a teen has with a parent can serve as a protective factor and help them to make healthy decisions, particularly in risky situations, 2) parents sometimes need help in connecting with their children during these changes, 3) ongoing communication is extremely important to maintain a positive relationship. This article focuses on ways of fostering the two factors that help tweens and teens thrive: the parent-child relationship, and communication.
Make a point to connect every day (or almost every day)
Families are so busy these days. With sports, Scouts, employment, homework, PTA meetings, etc. it is difficult to find the time to spend together. A solution is to the make the most of what is already occurring in our lives.
- Make the most of family dinners. Studies have demonstrated a correlation between family dinners and mental and physical health in children, improved social skills, improved grades, and the avoidance of engaging in teen risky behavior, including substance use. Here are some suggestions for making the most of family dinners. http://188.8.131.52/~drpeggyd/ten-ideas-to-make-the-most-of-family-dinners/
- Get the most out of travel time. You could make a family rule that electronics and ear phones are not used for short car rides. These are the times when we can learn about our children’s days and their thoughts. Also, just being together, even in the absence of words, is an opportunity to connect. These are missed opportunities when our children are plugged in and tuned out on their devices. To get the conversation going, you could purchase a conversation starter to keep in the car, such as “Tabletopics Family: Questions to Start Great Conversations, which can be purchased on Amazon.
- Limit screen time and time on devices. Screen time, whether it is on a computer, smartphone, or tablet, can be addictive. For both parents and adults, this can not only take away from family time, but studies have also linked screen time with depression and anxiety. Resist the temptation to whip out the device during down time. We have small periods of down time during the day, and we have become so accustomed to being entertained and processing information that we feel the need to fill a void when nothing is happening. We need that down time to unwind, think, process emotions and thoughts, or just be. We need that down time to connect with our children or just BE together in the absence of distraction.
- Check-in with your child 5-10 minutes every day at bedtime. Bedtime is a great time to check-in with our children because it is a quiet time without distractions. This could be a time to talk about your child’s day, or just lay down next to your child and be together. At bedtime, children are tired, their defenses are down, and they are more emotionally vulnerable. This can be a time for poignant connecting on an emotional level.
Methods of bonding and strengthening the relationship
In order to keep relationships strong, we need to pay attention to them and spend time together. Here are some suggestions for connecting.
- Find a shared interest. Activities bring people together, and keep them together. There may be times when it feels awkward to just “hang out” with your teen, and finding a shared interest gives you something to do together. This could involve signing up for a class together, or engaging in an activity in the home or outside together. Having a shared interest or activity provides you and your child with an opportunity to connect for a lifetime. (Cook, bake, craft, bike, walk, ski, etc.).
- Make mother and child bracelets. Visit a local craft store and buy elastic and glass beads in a variety of colors. The mother and child each make a bracelet for each other. Each color bead on the bracelet represents a quality in the mother or daughter that is appreciated, a memory, or favorite activity. For example, purple could represent, “I love when we walk together”, pink could represent, “I love you”. Each color and related sentiment is then written down on a card and given to the other person along with the bracelet.
- Play board/card games. Pictionary, Taboo, and Apples to Apples are some great family games.
- Give to others. This could be volunteering together at a soup kitchen or food pantry, or working together to collect donations for a homeless shelter, domestic violence shelter, or children in foster care.
- Start or continue a family ritual. Read more about the importance of family rituals at: http://184.108.40.206/~drpeggyd/the-importance-of-family-rituals/
Use humor.Humor simply makes life more enjoyable, makes problems feel less daunting, and is another way to connect. So watch comedies together, purchase a joke book, or take out the old Mad Libs!
Show love. Find verbal and non-verbal ways of communicating your love to your child. Here are some suggestions. http://220.127.116.11/~drpeggyd/five-simple-things-to-do-today-and-every-day-to-show-love-for-your-children/
Communication.Ongoing communication is so important. When you keep the lines of communication open for the small stuff and really pay attention to your child, your child is more likely to come to you with the big stuff.
- Keep a Mother/Child Journal. This journal is for mother and child to write back and forth to each other. Sometimes it is easier to write something than to say it, and this could help get the conversation going. Some ideas include: sneak the notebook under your child’s pillow and write a little love note, leave the notebook out with a drawing for your child for when he/she wakes up, for mother and child to let the other know that they want to start a difficult conversation, to apologize and then start a conversation, to write down a worry, and/or write your hopes for your relationship.
- Ask interesting questions! Would you like to hear more than a one word answer from your child about his or her school day? To help get the conversation going, make your questions interesting, silly, and fun! Here are a few suggestions for when your child comes home from school. You could write these down on slips of paper and put them in a jar, and then take one or two out a day! http://18.104.22.168/~drpeggyd/30-questions-to-ask-your-child-at-the-end-of-the-school-day/
The importance of physical touch.
As your child becomes a tween/teen, there is less physical affection than the preschool years! Your daughter may not be eagerly holding your hand like she did when she was four years old. Your son may not want to cuddle like he enjoyed when he was younger. Your child is not sitting on your lap, and you no longer have a person attached to your hip! This is all part of normal development. However, as humans, we still have a need for physical affection with our loved ones. Physical affection provides a connection, and this can be particularly useful when the words are not there. There may be times when your teen/tween comes home from school, seems upset, and does not want to talk about it. There may be times when you want to express your love for your child, but the words do not come easily. These are times when physical affection can go a long way. Yet as children get older, they become less comfortable asking for the physical affection from parents that can be so comforting. And parents need the affection too! We all need physical affection in varying degrees, and sometimes it is hard for both children and adults to ask for it. Making and using a “Hug Jar” can make it fun. Here are some suggestions to write down on a piece of paper and put into a “hug jar”. Make a point to pull one out a day. http://22.214.171.124/~drpeggyd/the-hug-jar/
Here is a great article if you are interested in reading more about the power of physical touch http://www.heysigmund.com/the-remarkable-power-of-touch/
Make a point to talk about difficult topics.
Teens these days are faced with more issues and stressors than ever. In order to best help them, it is important to do regular “check-ins” to see how things are going, particularly about the use of social media. Studies show that the greatest protection against the potential harmful effects of social media is open communication with a parent (rather than parental controls or tracking systems). Talk about difficult topics on a regular basis. This makes the situation less uncomfortable when your child has an issue that they would like to discuss. So talk about friendships, bullying, social media, sex, substance use. These topics are difficult to bring up. Be brave! They are important!
Your child likely has an increased need for privacy and personal space. Allow that, while at the same time, being careful for withdrawal. It is important for children to know that they have private physical space and belongings. So if your daughter has her door closed, knock before entering. If she has a private journal, do not read it. At the same time, monitor the amount of time that your child spends alone in his/her bedroom, as withdrawing and isolation are not the same thing as allowing privacy, and if left unchecked, can be harmful.
Foster independence and choices.
Resist the temptation to comment on choice of clothes or music. Resist commenting on his/her appearance. As long as your child is not engaging in dangerous behavior, or if you do not have a concern about a related mental health concern, resist the temptation to comment as your child tries out new interests and styles.
Get adequate sleep
Teens need about nine or more hours of sleep in order to function at their optimal levels, and hardly any teens are receiving this much sleep. Adequate sleep is so important to function at school and in all of their interests. Lack of adequate sleep contributes to irritability, anxiety, and depression.
Protect your child from social media
- It is so important to protect our children from the potential harmful impact of social media. Social media use is related to anxiety/stress, pressure to be perfect, feeling left out, feeling not good enough, distraction from school work and responsibilities, and missing out on the “good stuff” in life. One study found that 92% of teenagers went on-line daily, and 25% reported being on-line almost constantly. Teens experience various kinds of “digital distress”, including impersonation, public shaming, mean and harassing personal attacks, breaking and entering, pressure to comply, smothering, and lurking (Pew Research Center Cyberbullying 2010: What the Research Tells Us, by Amanda Lambert).
- Develop a contract for the use of social media
- Check in daily with your child regarding social media use and the impact on him/her
- Stress the importance of in-person human interactions
Express gratitude and appreciation.
When I ran the MotherDaughter Connection, we began every session with an exercise in gratitude. Each mother and daughter thought about one aspect of their mother or daughter for which they are grateful, or an aspect of the mother/daughter relationship for which they grateful. Then they privately shared with each other. This is one way to help foster the mother-child bond.
- It is also important to express appreciation. Yes, your son is SUPPOSED to do her homework. Yes, your daughter is SUPPOSED to take out the trash. Yes, your children are SUPPOSED to put away their laundry. Being thanked and shown appreciation, even for the expected, can help strengthen a relationship.
- Appreciation and gratitude go a long way. Not only do they create a positive feeling in the moment, but they helps to nurture a relationship. They serve as a buffer in times of conflict by creating a sense of closeness and deeper connection. We behave our best and treat people nicely when we feel an emotional connection with them. Expressing gratitude for the person or the relationship can help foster that connection. Test it out today. What might you take for granted and not express thanks for? What small act can you express appreciation and thanks for today within your family? Take a moment to think about it, and then make a point to express it.
Help manage feelings.
- Sometimes your daughter’s emotions may be running so high, that the best thing to do in the moment is to let her take a break from the conversation. You may feel calm and able to communicate clearly, but she may not be able to do so. Trying to communicate with someone under those circumstances may do more damage than good. Give your daughter some cooling off time, while communicating to her that she is not off the hook. Make a plan to talk later. You can also be proactive and be mindful of the times when your daughter may be too exhausted to discuss a meaningful issue, and avoid bringing up difficult topics during those times.
- Sometimes the tween/teen behaviors and emotions can feel so out of control to your son that he says things he regrets, and behaves in ways that cause him to experience guilt and shame. When you may be feeling the most frustrated with his behavior is when he needs to feel your love the most. Hisown behavior may be causing him to dislike himself and feel unlovable, and he needs you to show him that he is loved.
- Set the example. Emotions feed off of emotions, and emotions are running high during the tween/teen years. This is completely normal! The trick is to stay calm. Guaranteed, if you react, your child will only meet that level, and then some! This is your opportunity to teach her to remain calm when trying to get her point across. Be mindful of your attitude and tone. Eventually, she will recognize the discrepancy between your calmness and her lack of calmness, and she will slowly begin to match your level.
- Here are some more suggestions for getting through times of high emotion and/or conflict. http://126.96.36.199/~drpeggyd/supporting-your-child-during-times-of-high-conflict/
Have your child use an alarm clock
- Your child’s independence is budding. Responsibility is increasing. It is developmentally appropriate for your child to set his or her own alarm clock to get up in the morning by the time he/she enters middle school.
- If your child has difficulty waking in the morning, or is not in the best of moods, the use of an alarm clock has the added benefit of your child not becoming angry with YOU for waking him or her. When that happens on a repeated daily basis, that can be damaging to the relationship.
Expect unpredictability and change!
During the teen and tween years, children are discovering themselves. They are discovering their interests, and testing things out on a daily basis. This is normal and healthy. If you expect it, you may be less surprised by it, and less likely to comment on it. Give your child the time and space to explore without verbal or non-verbal judgment.
The quickest way to destroy a relationship is to criticize. This is not to say that you cannot address your child’s grades if they are not up to ability, or address any other concerns. However, it can be done without using words that are perceived as critical. Remember that how you speak to your children becomes their inner voice, a favorite quote of mine from Peggy O’Mara. If you would like to read a great article on the subtleties of critical words, read this. http://www.handsfreemama.com/2015/11/03/bridging-the-gap-created-by-waves-of-criticism/
And after that, here are some suggestions for positive words of encouragement: http://188.8.131.52/~drpeggyd/encouraging-words-to-use-with-children/
Nip disrespectful behavior in the bud.
Nothing can be more damaging to a relationship than disrespectful behavior. Ever hear the saying, “We teach people how to treat us”? Well, it is true, and there will be times when you need to teach your son/daughter that disrespect will not be tolerated. Everyone has his or her own perception and definition of what constitutes disrespectful behavior. If it feels disrespectful to you, do not let it go. Stop the conversation, point out the behavior and how it made you feel, and firmly tell your son/daughter that disrespectful behavior will not be tolerated. This is so important, because once you allow it, it will very likely happen again, and over time, it can intensify.
Don’t take things personally.
Your child is developing new interests of his/her own, and this may include a new interest that does not have anything to do with you anymore! It may also interfere with a time when you are used to being together. It is normal and healthy for children to be focused on peer relationships and spending time with friends. Try not to take her interest in other things as rejection. Once we begin to take things personally, we feel hurt. In return, as parents, we may consciously or unconsciously pull back and create more space in the relationship than is healthy. A result is that we may be emotionally unavailable to our children when they need it the most. Remember that during times of difficulty and when she may seem to be rejecting you, she needs her mother more than ever, not less.
Develop your own interests.
As your child is developing his own interests separate from you, this can be a time for you to develop your own interests. Maybe take that photography or pottery class that you’ve been interested in. Get back in to a hobby or craft that has been neglected. Join a book club or walking group. If you live in the area and would like to join my weekly women’s walking group, please sign up through my website to learn of the day and location of our walks. http://184.108.40.206/~drpeggyd/services/community-services/
Share ideas with a trusted friend or professional.
- Regularly check in with a trusted friend who has children of similar ages. While not violating your child’s privacy, you can discuss general parenting issues and learn that you are not alone in the challenges of parenting a teen or tween. Make a point to spend time with a friend who leaves you feeling good and uplifted after spending time together, and not one who leaves you questioning yourself or feeling “less than”.
- Check in with a professional. Mental health professionals are available for time-limited parent consultation. You do not need to make a commitment to long-term psychotherapy or have a mental health problem in order to seek the support and guidance of a mental health professional. We all need support in parenting, and sometimes a neutral person who is not a family member or friend can be most helpful.