Being a parent is hard. Being a parent to a teenager is even harder. In this week's 'Teen Talk' column, a young adult shares how parents can connect better with their teenagers who seek a balance between disciplinarian and friend.

By Cassidy Littleton
February 06, 2020
illustration of mother and daughter going for ice cream
Credit: Illustration by Yeji Kim

All connections are personal choices that require trust. No connections can be forced—it's often a slow process that requires patience and persistence. For a parent trying to strengthen a connection with a teen, you have to prove that you're willing to stick it out, try new things, and be open-minded. Whether you're a parent raising your own biological child, or you're trying to build a better relationship with a foster or adopted teen, relationship building may often feel like you're trying to understand someone with a completely different lifestyle or background.

Even if you think you know everything about your children, when they grow older you may need to get to know them again without assumptions, judgment, or superficiality. At this point, your teen is looking to you for support and guidance as well as structure and discipline. There are three basic things you need to connect with a teen: an open mind, a sense of equality, and a supportive attitude. Remember those three things, and you'll have a closer relationship in no time.

1. Learn to Listen

Start by getting to know your teen's interests and their social and school life. If you find yourself completely clueless about any of those things, just ask. This is especially true for those of you who are building a brand-new relationship with a teen, like foster parents or relatives. A big key to getting your teen to open up is to find common ground. Talk about your own life and what your social and work life are like. You do not need to pretend you are also experiencing everything your teen is going through, but a sense of relatability can do wonders for your relationship. If you don't seem to relate with them about anything, don't panic. This is a good opportunity to be quiet and just listen.

If you want to get to know them and why they are the way they are, you have to really listen to what they're saying without making it about you. Engage with them, ask questions about what they've said, and don't shut them down if they say things you dislike or disagree with. Open-mindedness is crucial if you want to build that trust and prove that you're not going to reject them for who they are.

2. Respect Our Growth

In our teen years, we still need plenty of parenting, but we are hoping to develop a balance between discipline, guidance, and support. When we hear our parents say "When I was your age things were so much harder than they are for kids today," it invalidates the experiences and struggles we do have. We want you to treat us more like adults than kids and show us respect for the young adults we are becoming.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.,'s 'Ask Your Mom' advice columnist, says that teens are in a delicate state between childhood and adulthood—they are gaining independence and their own identity. "Parents best support this development by 'scaffolding,' which is decreasing their level of guidance and directing as their teen gains more skills and mastery," she says. "As eager as teens are to be adults, though, they are not yet. In fact, parents maintaining the position of authority in the family is considered part of fostering healthy adolescent development."

Dr. Edlynn suggests that as parents, you show appreciation for your teen's growing skills and maturity so they feel you respect them and their increasing abilities to navigate their worlds.

3. Be Sincerely Supportive

This requires a combination of physical and emotional support, as well as financial when it's appropriate. Basically, you've got to be present with your teen if you want them to open up to you. This doesn't just mean being physically present, like showing up to their games or recitals. It also definitely doesn't mean that you can give your teen money and expect that they're going to pour their heart out to you.

Supporting your teen means that while you're going to show up for them in the good moments and highlights, you're also paying attention to when they're struggling and showing that you want to be there for them through the hard times as well. It can be really difficult for a teen to open up when they're struggling, so this is when you have to be patient. Prove that you're not going anywhere and that you won't reject them for their situation. Show love and encouragement to them while they navigate life at this age.

4. Make Time

It may feel like your teen is pushing you away, but they are actually craving one-on-one time with you—just on their terms. Once you learn about their interests and hobbies, suggest trying one of them out together and let your teen decide what to do. When teens feel overcrowded or micromanaged, they can get resentful and distance themselves. But if they feel like you are interested in spending time with them doing something they like, they are more likely to take you up on the chance to do something together. Learn about your teen's love languages and how they show and receive love. This can be a great tool for bonding and building shared boundaries.

Connections take time, just like everything else in life. Be patient, open, and real, and you'll find that parenting a teenager isn't so scary after all.

Cassidy Littleton is a 21-year-old college student whose major passion is mentoring teens and fighting for child welfare legislative reform. A junior at Boise State University, she studies public relations with a minor in political science and is an active voice in the Idaho community. 

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