Staying Connected With Your Teenager

Ways to connect with your teen

Although it is mostly unspoken, teenagers are typically asking two questions at all times.  “Am I loved?” and “Can I get my own way?” Parents often get drawn into focusing most of their energy in answering the second question and neglecting the first. It is natural for teenagers to either test or push the boundaries set up by their parents. When boundaries are tested, it can become hard to remember that who you are as a parent is more important than what you do as a parent. In other words, it is important that we don’t attach our self-worth to how we feel about our parenting. If we do, then we aren’t going to be able to consistently provide the answer needed to the first question.

Most teenagers consistently struggle with three main issues. The first is “am I okay with the way I look?” This is directly related to their self-worth.  The second is “am I smart enough or capable of succeeding in life?” This is directly related to their sense of competency. The third is “do I fit in and do my peers like me?” This is directly related to a sense of belonging. These are the three primary needs of adolescents.  

Parents can get distracted from helping their teens answer these questions by focusing too much on their behavior.  I have told numerous parents over the years that 10 years from now it won’t matter how many dirty dishes were left in the sink or other chores were left undone. What will matter is whether your adult child will know without a doubt that he/she is unconditionally loved and you have a relationship. We need to be reminded that there is no opportunity for ongoing influence if we don’t maintain a relationship.

Need to be heard

There are several needs we all have and having them met is never more important than during our teenage years.  The first is the need to be heard.  Being heard is not the same as agreeing with your teen. As parents, we often feel the need to correct our teens when they share things we feel to be unwise or simply wrong.  If this is done regularly, it shuts down communication.  Many teens (especially boys) become non-communicative.  It is hard not to try and pry information out of them.  It is best to continually just remind your teen that you are available.

Need for affirmation

A second need is affirmation. This is affirming what they do. Often as parents we wait to affirm until they have mastered something, made the grade we think he/she should have or done exactly what we asked. I encourage parents to give affirmation for approximation.  If a teen is successful in one part of a task, then provide affirmation for that rather than waiting for total success.  Often, the people who provide affirmation to a child or teen become people who have the greatest influence.  We hear stories all the time how a specific coach, teacher or some authority figure made a huge difference in a life through affirmation.

Need to be blessed

A third need is to be blessed. A teen doesn’t have to do anything. This is the unconditional acceptance that is unearned for “who you are.” This is the consistent message that “no matter who you become, what you do or what you look like I will love you because you are my son or daughter.” This message cannot be spoken too much.

Need for physical affection

A fourth need is for physical affection.  Numerous studies have shown that after about the age of four most parents only touch their children when necessity demands it, i.e. dressing and undressing, getting into the car, discipline.  It is still vitally important in the teen years.  It can become awkward to show physical affection during the teen years especially for a father and daughter.  It may look different but the need for physical affection does not change.

Need to be chosen

A fifth need is to be chosen.  We all desire to be chosen for relationship by another.  Most of us remember the anxiety of waiting to see in what order we would be chosen for kickball at recess.  Being chosen is particularly important for teenagers.  When a teenager is at his/her most difficult to love or enjoy is the most important time that they know you are choosing to be with them.  I encourage a parent to spend individual time with each of their children regularly.  A great example of the significance of being chosen occurs in the movie Forrest Gump.  On the first day of school Forrest was chosen by Jenny to sit by her on the bus after he had been turned away by all others.  From that day forward, Forrest was in love with Jenny.

Fulfilling these needs can keep us connected to our teens and aid them in developing self-esteem, competence and belonging.

Sean is a member of the team of counselors at New Leaf Counseling Center in Kansas City, MO. Sean has been working with couples and families for over 20 years. He received his B.S. in Administration of Justice with an emphasis on juveniles/families from Wichita State University. He has a Master’s in Guidance and Counseling from Missouri State University. In addition, Sean has been an ordained minister for 13 years and is a certified Prepare/Enrich marital facilitator. He has worked with adolescents, couples and families while serving as the Director of a Residential Treatment Program, Director of a Leadership Training Program and as the head of Pastoral Care at a large church. He has provided pre-marital counseling and married a number of couples over the last several years. His greatest passion lies in helping couples and families experience restored relationships and healing.

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