By Vicki Little
When children are young, their need for us can sometimes feel overwhelming. We constantly hear, “Mom, watch. Look, Mom! Hey, Mom!” As they grow older, our clingy little sidekicks start moving away from us, declaring their need for independence and privacy. That’s when we find ourselves wanting to say, “Hey child, watch! Look at me, kid! Hey kid!” Staying involved in our teenager’s lives requires more subtlety and patience than that, but those moments when we truly connect are so worth it. Here are some ways to stay connected:
1)Respect their need for space and privacy. The closed doors may hurt our hearts a bit, but it is normal for teenagers to want their own space. There are plenty of reasons for it, including the fact that they are dealing with all sorts of new feelings and thoughts. Sometimes they just need to get away from EVERYONE for a bit. Allow your teen to have the space he or she desperately needs at this time.
2) Be available when they are willing. Those moments when they snuggle up to you on the couch or wander into the kitchen to talk while you are cooking may be few and far between, so be available for them when this happens. Put your phone down. Invite them to help you chop the vegetables. Turn the TV to what they want to watch – anything it takes to keep them engaged for as long as possible. Keep in mind that it is often easier for our teens to talk to us when it isn’t necessarily face-to-face, such as in the car or on a walk. Take advantage of these moments to talk, if they want – or sit comfortably in silence when they don’t. Even if you aren’t talking every second, you are connecting when you are together.
3) Welcome their friends. You aren’t going to like all of their friends, but having them in your house means they are closer to you and staying out of trouble. Make your home welcoming with plenty of snacks. Offer a place where they can hang out without younger siblings and adults interfering, and be friendly and non-judgemental when their friends actually talk to you. Don’t talk badly about their friends, either. They are likely to stand up for a friend and step away from you.
4) Do what they enjoy, even if you hate it. If they are willing to share something they enjoy with you, jump on it! You will have plenty of time to do whatever it is that you like after they leave the house. Ask them questions and show genuine interest in trying to understand what they like about their favorite hobby or past time.
5) Listen without judgment and offer advice sparingly. Try to sit silently and truly listen to what they are saying. Ask open-ended questions to keep them talking. Remember to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and even slower to get angry (or judgemental). Don’t try to fix everything they are upset or complaining about, sometimes they just want to vent. Saying things such as, “I can see how that would upset you” will make them more likely to talk to you as opposed to, “Well, I never did like that Jessica girl anyway. You should stay away from her.” If they are upset about a bad grade and complaining how unfair their teacher is, bite your tongue to avoid saying, “Well, I told you to start that assignment earlier.” Simply say that hopefully, they can make up the grade next time. They learned a lesson – the grade isn’t going to change whether you comment about it or not. And they are well aware that you do not approve – no need to say it out loud. Be on their side.
6) Choose your battles. You can’t stand their music. They eat way too much junk food. Their hair is constantly in their face, and you are pretty sure they always get home five minutes past curfew, just to make you angry. All of those things will change with time, and they certainly don’t define whether your child is a kind and good person. Try to look the other way during these little annoyances, and save your arguments and consequences for the things that will truly affect them and their future – like bad choices related to drugs, alcohol, or the way they treat family and adults in their lives. If you see a significant decline in their grades or behavior, definitely step in. But if they are generally a good student but go to a party instead of finish an assignment – then receive a failing grade because of it, the only thing getting mad will do is cause a fight. Let the natural consequences do your parenting job when possible.
7) Create your “thing.” You used to love saying, “sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite,” when you tucked your sweet kiddo into bed, but now you are lucky if your teen even says, “goodnight.” Little rituals that we had when they were kids now embarrass them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have sweet traditions with our teens. Handing them a cup of warm milk laced with a bit of coffee when they get up, writing nice messages on their bathroom mirror, tucking a note into their car’s sun visor, or sending a “thinking of you” text can become something your child looks forward to each day. These small gestures let them know you care – and help them still feel protected and loved.
8) Show up. I saved the best – and most important – for last. Show up. Attend their functions. Talk to their teachers. Meet their friends’ parents. Ask questions about their day. Eat dinner with them. Make a big deal of their birthday. Send them off on their first day of school. Show up. Be there for them – when they want to sit silently, when they need to talk, when they make a mistake, when they have a game or competition they claim is no big deal, when they are sad and just want to cry, when they are mad and just want to yell, on their first day of high school and their last – and all the times in between. Show up. Watch them from afar in their moments of triumph, hold their hand during their moments of fear or pain, and pick them up when they fall. Just….show….up.
Vicki Little is a preschool teacher with two children. A Colorado native, she spends her time writing, sitting in the bleachers for her daughter’s gymnastics, and engaging in spirited debates with her son. In her free time…well, she is still waiting for some of that.
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