Connecting with Teens


We are fortunate to have two teens living in our home. Winston is fourteen--and in ninth grade. Clara is seventeen--and a senior in high school. Their lives are always in motion, constantly swirling in a mix of different identities and moods that vary from moment to moment. I find the teen years naturally place me in a rather heightened state as I sense my children slowly distancing (as they should), shifting in a moment from a relaxed dependence to a willful independence all within the scope of one conversation -- or they move from a childlike innocence to a downright cynical version of themselves all over a plate of eggs in the morning. They are angry. No wait, vulnerable. They want a hug. Nope, no touching. They are funny. Spontaneous. Stressed-out. Passionate. Resentful that they care what you think. Beyond grateful for all you do. They are EVERYTHING. It feels dizzying at times. And as parents, we are the container that shows up to hold it all. Whatever the emotion or mood may be. To ask questions. Or not. To attempt to understand it-- or minimally, to just allow for it to appear without taking it personally.

There are times when connecting can feel like a hazardous sport. That is par for the course. John and I are hardly perfect parents. We get hurt or feel rejected at times. We can feel stunned like the best of parents. But our kids are our loves. And we remain steadfast in our devotion to them. So where do we show up? For the most part, we have had the most success showing up where they are.


Here is what that looks like right now.

  1. Show up in support of their interests. Clara and Winston both play for West High School on their Ultimate frisbee team. John will regularly offer to throw with them after dinner or over a weekend (I suffer in my frisbee throwing abilities so this is not a good mutual bonding activity. I love it. Them? Not so much). In contrast, I spent weeks and weeks trying to rally the troops for a Sunday morning hike. That just isn't going to happen. Clara trains for a half marathon on Sundays and Winston has exactly zero interest. Try to realize that teens are real people with preferences. I know. Imagine that! On the other hand, do offer new opportunities with no expectations. Clara did a high fitness class with me all summer. And she adores my yoga class. How do I know? I extended invitations with no expectations!

  2. Show up to connect by adding a little pleasure! John schedules monthly lunch dates with the kids where he either takes them to lunch during school or over a weekend (they can choose). I regularly offer Winston back massages. Or I may buy the kids their favorite treats at the store and leave them on their beds. Most nights, Clara will join me in my bed before sleep. We tickle each other's backs and muse together. It has been a soothing and lovely ritual for us at the end of the day.

  3. Show up when they bid for you. When your teenager asks for you to do something that involves spending time with them, move heaven and earth to make it happen. Recently, Clara asked if I would participate in a mother-daughter monthly book club with her best friend, Erin and Erin's mother. That is a YES! Clear the schedule for that! For the most part, Clara and Erin will choose the actual books we read (It is The Glass Castle for this month). We read, we all go out and enjoy a meal, and we all share our experiences with the book. Winston began asking John if he would be willing to take him snowboarding. John had never snowboarded before but sensed this might be a fun way to enjoy Utah winters together. They both took lessons and now, enjoy Sundays on the slopes during the cold months.

  4. Show up where they need you. John is often the supporter when it comes to test prep for the kids at school. If they need to practice with flashcards or to work through a math problem or to repeat facts, John is the guy. The same principle applies to conversation. Stop when your teens look to connect. There are enough times when the kids may not want to talk, so when they do--we stop for it. Look for needs. Offer support. Follow through.

  5. Expose them to shows that promote discussion. John and I each have shows we are currently sharing with Winston. Winston and I watch "Parenthood" together (we are in the final season now), while Winston and John enjoy viewing "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" together. Be open here. Clara proposed that we watch "The Bachelorette" this past season. I paused a second (The episodes are so long!)--but it was the perfect antidote for her rather serious school life and I never would have guessed we would have had so many moments of laughter and deep discussion! Some of our other favorite shows are "What Would You Do" and "60 Minutes" (for teens). I like the idea of brainstorming here but try to allow your teens to have a vested interest in what is chosen.

  6. Show up to gather for meals. This ritual can seem harder as teens get older. Life gets more hectic. Still, we try to have dinner together regularly. It doesn't always happen. Or someone may be missing. I find the ritual of gathering around a table at the end of the day, eating some good food, and just looking at each other -- is a good thing. We pause to share a moment of gratitude before officially digging in. And well...there is something comforting in it all. If we are lucky, our older daughters may join us too!

  7. Try to value what they value. This can be a tough one. When we moved from Logan to Salt Lake City, Winston used the medium of computer games to connect with his old friends. Quickly, this became an area of negotiation. As I asked questions over time, I realized that my judgment around video games was interfering with my connection with Winston. In the end, Winston really values his time playing on his PlayStation. To him, it is rejuvenating. The time is social and it brings him joy. Once I was able to connect with that--to what it meant to him--our strategizing sessions to find reasonable limits were much easier. If they value their friends, create opportunities to support their time with friends and offer your home as a place to gather. If your teens love music, try to just experience their favorite song with them. If they express an interest and work at it over time, don't hesitate to find ways to support it! Winston has always loved drumming. When he was small, he would drum on anything. Books. His bed. He had an amazing way of always finding a rhythm. Recently, Winston expressed a passionate interest in playing the drums. Winston had been practicing with a band and felt inspired by it. Weeks and weeks went by. I was reticent. John felt strongly that we should support Winston's interest -- so he looked for an affordable drum set to have in our home. Winston now plays nearly every day. He is amazing! He also joined the jazz band at school. He leaves early each morning to play--and stays after school to practice a couple of times each week. John's insight has literally given Winston a new world. Go, John! Value what they value. Meet them where they are.

  8. Be curious. Ask. Ask. Ask. Don't assume. Your children are amidst their becoming. It is fascinating to see their brains morph and change. To see their personalities develop. Be open. Lose your agenda for them. Eliminate the need to approve or judge them. Just witness. What are their values? What motivates them? What brings them joy? This is one of my favorite new insights into being a parent. And I am still learning how to do it!

Parenting is one of the most rewarding and challenging journeys in life. The instinct to protect our children from pain is real--but it can be a wasted effort. Pain is inherent in life. We must provide our kids with coping tools and a safe place so that they can learn to navigate the suffering that they will face. We must remind them of their own strong and resilient hearts.

John and I are like all parents. We have failed our children countless times. What we hope for-- is to keep striving. To stay in the game. To do better as we learn. And to take responsibility for the fact that we didn't know what we didn't know--and that sometimes, our children were hurt by that. We remain fierce in our commitment to show up for them.

Now, it is your turn! Do you have teens in your home? How do you connect? What strategies have worked well for you? What do you love most about having teens at your house? We are all in this together. Yes? I love the idea of sharing our experiences.