As the author of a book on slow parenting, I’m often asked by parents if it’s too late to connect or re-connect with their teens. The good news? It’s not. If you’ve already established some nice routines and favorite activities, this can be a great time to revisit them. Even if you don’t have the connection you would like with your teenager, it’s not too late to forge one. The following suggestions may help.
Engage in low-key, side-by-side sharing.
It’s easy to forget that just as we wish to be let into our teenagers’ worlds, our teens often still need to talk to us, too. The sharing might just happen in a different way than before. We often have to be patient, provide some space, and let it unfold.
As kids mature, they respond more to side-by-side communication than face-to-face. The pressure is lower; it can seem less interrogative and more relaxed. Try to provide activities that older kids might like to do with you, like baking bread, planting seeds, doing puzzles, or tossing a baseball. Neighborhood walks or drives also provide excellent opportunities for side-by-side sharing.
According to Mike Riera, PhD, author of several books about parenting teens, “The most powerful conversations of adolescence happen behind an art easel or on the soccer field.”
Stay up to chat on their schedules.
Teenagers have different circadian rhythms than adults, and many are energized at night, especially after a social outing. Sometimes their guard is down, too. This can be a great time to check in, see how they’re really doing, and hear about their peer group. Try to stay up to greet them when they come home so you can make a connection with them.
Listen more than you talk.
This is a challenge for many parents. We want to lecture. We want to teach from our experiences. Our kids may have a lot to tell us, but even the chattiest among them will likely clam up if we seem judgmental or interrupt with lots of suggestions, instructions, and rules. Try simply to listen and learn and resist the urge to turn their every tale into a “teachable moment.”
There is plenty of other time for low-key teaching and life-skills instruction. Driving or cooking, for instance, provide occasions to teach by demonstration, and this technique might feel less threatening to some kids and make them more open to learning from you.
Get out in nature.
Homework and school, college admissions, peer pressure, as well as social-emotional and physical changes put a lot of stress on teens. Nature can provide a temporary escape from stress, a reminder of the world’s beauty and wonder. In addition, a growing body of research demonstrates the tremendous health benefits of nature to people of all ages. Frances Kuo and Andrea Taylor, writing in The American Journal of Public Health, found that children’s stress levels fall within minutes of simply looking at a green space. They also found that green outdoor settings appear to help those with ADHD.
Often, teens feel relaxed and expansive in nature and share things they might not otherwise. Even if they don’t, time in nature together can provide a much-needed break for relaxation, contemplation, or silent companionship. If you can get your teen to completely “unplug” while in nature, all the better.
Switch it up.
Maybe there are activities you didn’t get around to when your teens were younger. Why not try them now? Older kids might like ice skating, going to certain museum shows or sporting events, or shopping for vintage clothes. Have a budding photographer? Gather some peers and head to a city or other photogenic place. Split off in pairs or teams (which allows your older child some independence). Regroup at a pre-determined time and have a fun slide show to see the different photos.
Have some goofy fun.
Teens still want to be silly sometimes, even have fun with you. They just might not want to do it in the same way they did when they were younger. Try some things that allow them time with their peers, too. One successful activity at our house was a potato chip taste-off, during which our daughter and her friends tasted different chips and rated their favorites. Everyone enjoyed being a food critic. That said, some kids might find comfort in their favorite childhood games or activities and enjoy introducing them to new friends.
Make time to have meals together.
One of the top predictors of family and teen success over a wide range of characteristics is the frequency of family dinners. Teens who have fewer than three family dinners per week are two and a half to four times more likely to try tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana than those who have at least five family dinners per week, according to Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
Even if the meal consists of a quick bite between organized activities, the time spent together is vital for family togetherness. While not every meal together will result in deep discussion, mealtimes can provide time for light check-ins and bonding.
Assess the schedule.
Some teens are simply too busy for their own and their family’s health. If soccer or dance is no longer of interest to your teen, taking a lot of time, or adding to the family’s stress level, it may be time to drop the activity in favor of much-needed downtime.
Ask your teen’s opinion.
During holidays, school breaks, weekends, or other times when your family enjoys downtime or special traditions, ask your teen what he would like to do. The answers might surprise you. One friend’s daughter revealed that she wanted to learn her mom’s shortbread cookie recipe before she went away to college, and the two made the recipe together. Another mom asked her sons which traditions they wanted to keep enjoying and was surprised and moved by their answers. It can be very enlightening to learn what is meaningful to your kids.
Likewise, don’t be afraid to try something new together. Recently, our daughter became interested in vegan cooking, so we sought out recipes and made them together. We all had a lot of fun learning new dishes and techniques and experimenting with a new way of eating. We stayed close by doing something new and fun that had meaning to our teen.
Susan Sachs Lipman (Suz) is the author of Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which contains 300+ activities for family fun and grew out of her blog, Slow Family Online. Slow Parenting and the book were named a 2012 Top 10 Parenting Trend by TIME Magazine. Suz has written for the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, the Christian Science Monitor’s Modern Parenthood blog, and many other outlets.