The parent-teen connection can sometimes be more fragile than in early childhood. Why does it happen and how can parents build that relationship?
On Friday I asked a 14-year-old girl at school how her world was feeling. Without pausing she said, Sometimes I feel like my dad doesn’t care about me because I don’t see him very much. He works a lot. But he never even texts me hello or I love you or goodnight. She was miserable. It was a Friday afternoon, the whole weekend ahead of her, and that was what she was thinking about.
What upsets me most about this story is how easy it would be to address. All she needs is a text or funny email during the day, a quick cuddle in the morning. A few seconds. A few moments of connection.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying dad is a bad bloke. He may be working hard because he loves her. However, it happens all the time, parents love their children dearly but sometimes don’t hear what their kids need from them or don’t recognise the importance of connection.
Kids need connection
It’s not just parents. Kids need connection with lots of adults in their lives. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, older cousins, teachers, coaches, neighbours and friends. We all contribute to a protective web of close relationships.
Research tells us that connection has a powerful impact on physical and mental health. Dr Emma Seppala from Psychology Today says, “People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. Social connectedness, therefore, generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being.”
Why is connection more difficult with adolescents?
We find connection with babies and young children easy. Their responses are so open and warm. We are instantly rewarded with smiles and cuddles, so we continue to connect regularly. Adolescents are more complicated.
Santa Maria College Psychologist Beth O’Regan says, “It’s normal for an early adolescent to want to branch out from their family and make more connections with peers. That might mean a little less family time is available. It is up to parents to lean in and make sure that family connection doesn’t fade out.”
It is only when a child feels totally safe and connected at home that they can tread boldly in the world. Even then they need to constantly return to that parental connection to replenish their confidence and sense of self. Their relationship with you tells them whether or not they deserve love and respect from others.
Unfortunately, in daily life, this need for you doesn’t always seem obvious. They may not need connection when you want to give it and so they brush you off. Add to this the paradox of teens; they are likely to push you away at exactly the time they need you most. They will test your love and the connection with you.
This is beautifully illustrated in this clip from teen expert Josh Shipp. He says, “They need to know, at a time in their life when so much is uncertain, you are certain. At a time in their life when so much is unstable, you are stable.” He uses the analogy of a lap bar on a roller coaster ride. It’s well worth a watch.
Social media isn’t helping
This connection with you is becoming increasingly important in an age where disconnection is becoming the norm, especially for our young girls. They curate a version of themselves online that is disconnected. They post doctored photos of their bodies and their lives, to the point where they can’t possibly live up to their online persona.
They have relationships with others online that are superficial at best, based on likes or Snapchat streaks or texts made up of emojis. There is minimal authenticity and a lot of our kids are deeply lonely. They need real, solid, committed relationships with people who care about them. This is especially important at times of transition, and let’s face it, an adolescent’s life is full of transitions.
10 Ways to Build Connection Daily
We don’t need to have deep and meaningful conversations with kids every day. In fact, if we did, they would run a mile. But there are little gestures that build connection instantly:
1. A quick pat on the back or a touch on the shoulder
2. A fly-by kiss on the head or a hug
3. A wink
4. Holding a gaze, a little longer than usual and smiling
5. An in-joke.
6. Noticing something personal, like “We have the same hands”
7. A quick text message
8. A few minutes of focused one-on-one time
9. Turning your phone off when they want to talk to you
10. A coffee together
Whether we be parents, relatives, teachers, coaches, whatever… When it comes to our children, we have a few short years to get it right. That responsibility falls to all of us. What kids need most from us is connection. When we make the world human and connected, safe and consistent. Then…they can learn, love and thrive.
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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single-sex and co-ed. Currently, she is a writer, speaker and consultant in Western Australia. You can find out more about her work here.