Like most teens, my 17 year-old daughter is busy. Even though she lives just a few rooms down from mine, some days I feel like I have barely seen or spoken to her. On weekday mornings she is out the door by 7 a.m., has full day of school followed by a two-hour track practice. She comes home around 5:30, showers and eats a quick dinner before heading off to her room to do several hours of homework. Weekends are not much better. She has track meets, homework and then wants to see her friends. Parenting teens during the high school years means searching for common ground (and time) in their filled-to-capacity schedules.
I know my experience is not uncommon. Academics, sports, clubs, community service commitments, friends, etc… leave little free unstructured family time. It can be hard for parents to have a chance to spend any quality time with their teen. This can be upsetting for parents especially because they know their teen is growing up and will soon be off on their own and not living at home most of the year.
Independence is important for teens, but so is connection to family. How can parents strike the right balance between letting their teen go and letting them know they are there for them?
Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D. and creator of the audio series, Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids, says, “Start from a place of empathy. Really try to see things from your child’s point of view and recognize that that point of view can shift dramatically from week to week.” Teens are at a critical time in their development, trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be. They have conflicting thoughts – wanted to be close and wanting to pull away.
My own husband was feeling very left out of our daughter’s life. He said, “I walk into her room when I get home from work and she hardly talks to me.” I explained to my husband that when he walks in, she is usually trying to get her homework done so she can get to bed at a decent hour. I asked he would feel if someone just walked into his office while he was working on a big project and just started talking. Now when he comes home, he still tries say hello but if she seems immersed in her work, he doesn’t take it personally.
Carving Out Time
Before my daughter got her license, I spent a lot of time driving her to activities. These rides were a chance for me to catch her right when she was leaving practice or school and she was had things she wanted to talk about. Kennedy-Moore says, “We adults tend to value face-to-face communication, but the best conversations with teens often happen when there’s no eye contact. It can be tough with teens immediately starting to text or put their headphones on, but try to use this time to talk with your teen one on one.
Don’t worry about the quantity of time. Instead just try to carve out a little time each day or week doing something simple like watching television together or sharing a meal. If a full family dinner is not possible, just set aside fifteen minutes to sit down with each of your kids when they eat and touch base.
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Let Them Join You
Most teens like to spend a lot of time hanging out with their friends. Kennedy-Moore says, “The importance of friends does increase during the teen years but that doesn’t mean that parents become less important.”
Rather than getting annoyed your teen is spending so much time with their friends, encourage them to invite friends to your house or let them include a friend or two in a family activity. Kennedy-Moore says, “This could include going for a hike, visiting the beach, going bowling, making cookies, or exploring a new town, can pay off in two ways: Your teen will be more willing to participate, and you are likely to see the best side of your teen.”
Don’t Be Too Sensitive
Parents do matter to teens but sometimes they have a tough time showing it. Kennedy- Moore explains, “It’s easier for teens to grow into healthy independent adults when they know their parents support both the ebb and the flow of their development. There is no one right balance point between letting go and being there; it’s about responding to the needs of the teen in front of you at this moment.”
Sometimes when teens are surly with their parents it is because they are stressed out about going on in their lives. Instead of allowing bad feelings to escalate, if you feel your teen is being rude or disrespectful, express yourself to your teen in a calm and non-accusatory tone. Kennedy-Moore says, “Acknowledge your child’s good intentions: ‘You probably didn’t realize…’ ‘I understand you have a lot going on…’ “I know you didn’t mean to…’- Avoid criticizing your teen. Regardless of what your teen might say, all teens crave approval from their parents.”
A New Beginning
Parents have a great opportunity to connect with their teen on a new level. They are no longer dealing with a child bur rather a young adult. Connect with them as you would an adult. Go to concerts or movies or exercise class together.
Talk to your teen like you would a friend. Share a funny story about your day or ask for their advice on a minor issue at work. Ask your teen about his day but avoid questions with a one-word response or conversations that sound like an interrogations or lectures. Kennedy-Moore says, “Although it can be painful to be less central in our children’s lives, the teen years and beyond also open the possibility of deeper, more meaningful connection.”
Randi Mazzella has been a freelance writer for over ten years. Her work has appeared in many online and print publications including Teen Life, Your Teen, NJ Family and Barista Kids. She draws much of her inspiration from her crazy and fun life adventures with her own three children.