By Linda Stade
When children are young there is so much connection. As toddlers, they stare into your eyes and tell you how much they love you, just because you made a smiley face with tomato sauce on their pie.
As growing children, they seek you out in the crowd at assembly and wave furiously, or they hold your hand on the couch while you watch the scary bits on tv. They tell you all their secrets as a matter of course.
And then they become adolescents.
When your child is an early adolescent or teenager, it is as if your magic fairy dust has all been used up. They are so much more interested in what their friends think, and you Mum and Dad… you’re a bit lame. This is how it is supposed to be. Your kids are attaching to their peers and learning who they are in the world.
This change in kids does not mean you stop trying to connect and leave them to their friends. Parents, teachers, and significant adults still have an incredible impact, it just takes more thought and effort.
Obviously, all kids are not the same. Some adolescents will still want to be quite connected, but for most, if you stumble upon ten seconds of gold at a time, enjoy it.
This hurts some adults. They ask, “What about what I need?” Well, that’s the thing about living and working with kids. It’s a long-term project. They are still learning, and they don’t have adult skills yet. We can’t ask kids to meet adults’ needs.
So how do we find connection with teens?
1. Talk about what they want to talk about
If you want to connect with adolescents, that means meeting them where they are. Currently, in our house, this means a LOT of conversations about Blackpink. For the uninitiated, think Korean, all-girl, pop music.
We know each band member’s history, personal style, and signature moves. Why? Because the resident 14-year-old cares about them. When we share with her, she shares with us. Plus, don’t underestimate the laughs involved in getting middle-aged white people to do K-Pop dance moves.
2. Drop the conversation when they stop talking
When teenagers do start connecting and sharing with you, know that it won't last long. When their needs are met, it is over as quickly and randomly as it started. That’s okay. Let it be. There is nothing more excruciating than trying to carry on a conversation that a teen has already left. They will roll their eyes and walk away or just shut down.
3. Talk when they want to talk
Lourdes Hill College clinical psychologist, Kristina Morgan says our best chance of finding nuggets of connection with our kids is by talking when they are ready. She says, “Often that will be late at night just before they sleep. It makes sense, we all tend to ponder life more as we lie in bed and download the day. Unfortunately, you may be exhausted by that stage. Push through. There will often be gold.”
4. Create incidental time
If the late-night chats are wearing you down, Kristina recommends creating what she calls, incidental moments. These might be driving your child to their activities, doing the dishes, or cooking together, but they need to be one on one. “Pay attention to their interests, but also be happy to share the quiet. This time is not about asking the 100 questions you have lined up ready to go.”
Side-by-side listening, such as the examples Kristina suggests, are useful because there is no eye contact and they aren’t in any way confronting, so long as they aren’t forced and unnatural. Kids know if they are being set up. Unless it is a natural part of your routine, asking a teenager to ‘come for a walk with me’ is as threatening as your partner saying, “We need to talk”!
5. Let kids drive the conversation
When your teenager does start connecting and speaking to you in a meaningful way, take your hands off the steering wheel and let them drive the conversation. This does not come naturally to most adults, but it is a superpower if you can master it.
The agenda doesn’t need to be ours. Just watch and listen and let it play out. You might be very surprised by what really matters to your child and what insights they share.
6. Avoid building walls
The best way to shut down a connection or kill a special moment is to make it about you. Resist the temptation to say, “When I was your age, I used to….” It may be the best story ever told, but do you really need to tell it at this moment?
Similarly, connection is killed by imposing a lesson or giving unsolicited advice. Remember, unsolicited advice = unasked for criticism. Listen to understand. Listen to hear. Listen to connect.
Share jokes and watch comedy. Laugh a lot. Those shared endorphins will calm and bond you. It is easy for kids to trust and see the light in people who can laugh with them, loudly and often.
Just be aware that most adolescents do not have a particularly strong sense of self yet, so joking about them might seem harmless to you but can really hurt them. Kristina says that in sessions with her, kids often share their hurt at being laughed at by a parent or teacher. They know it wasn’t meant to wound, but it did. Perhaps consider, if you wouldn’t say it without the social buffer of humour, do you need to say it at all?
8. Maintain family rituals
Rituals are special times of the day, week, or year that exist for connection. Family occasions are especially important, even if it is as simple as ice-cream on a Friday after school to celebrate the weekend.
Rituals teach kids that we need to give space and time to those we love. It is an opportunity for us to show kids how to create connections with others, like grandparents and extended family. They learn they are part of a web of relationships and that web holds them softly and safely.
9. Own what is yours
If you want to be present for your children, you need to look after yourself and work on yourself. You can’t hear or feel connection when you are stressed and overtired and balancing too much at once.
Teach your kids by example that connection is a priority, if not THE priority. You only know that if you yourself have been through the process of sifting out the gold in life from the gravel.
Finally… let your eyes shine brightly
Maya Angelou famously said, “Your eyes should light up when your child enters the room.” It is among the best pieces of advice I have ever heard. Just imagine the difference it would make to the life of every child to know that regardless of what happens out in the world, there is someone who will see and truly hear them. Someone who will always be their soft place to land. That’s the gold you want to share.