“How was the sleepover?”
“Are you hungry?”
“What do you want to do today?”
“I don’t know.”
My oldest child and I have a secret language. You know, I ask him questions to find out what’s going on with him and he answers them vaguely so I ask another question which he, in turn, answers vaguely. Good times. Good times.
I was the breastfeeding, cosleeping, sling wearing type when my kids were younger. Even as they get older, I’m still a consensual living, talk-it-all-out, kids-are-people-too kind of gal. I put in a lot of effort to stay connected with my kids but, I’ll be honest, I’m not always feeling it back. Their increased desire for privacy and their multiple other outlets sometimes leave me in the dark.
Oddly enough, I’ve found that the tips that keep my marriage healthy (see Daniél’s list here) are similar to the ones that keep my relationship with my older kids healthy. But beyond being connected to them, I want to feel connected with them. I don’t want the “thanks for meeting my needs, Mom! Now go away” to be what I’m left feeling even if that’s exactly what happens. And it happens.
So here are my tips for staying connected and feeling it at the same time.
1. Ask the questions even when the answer is “fine.” And the answer will be vague sometimes. It’s not that they don’t want you to know the answer. It’s because they are uninterested in the question.
Yes, you ask boring questions. That’s basically what I’m saying.
Ask specific questions about an incident, a topic, or something of interest to them. Instead of asking how the sleepover went, ask if they kicked their friend’s butt playing insert-name-of-video-game-here. You are much more likely to get an answer that doesn’t make you feel pushed out.
2. Do what they want to do. Sounds easy, right? But what if what they want to do is talk about Pokémon and every evolution they disagree with? Or play Minecraft? Or go to the mall in the middle of a Saturday afternoon? Or talk about Pokémon while playing Minecraft at the mall on a Saturday?!
Do it. Sometimes. I mean, there really only is so much Pokémon information I can allow into my life and stay sane. But if I want to feel connected to them, I need to connect with what they like.
3. Don’t be an jerk. Nothing will separate you more quickly than treating them like less than a person. They’re people. They’re not perfect. They make mistakes. They even make the same mistake over and over again. And they make really illogical mistakes. They don’t need everything pointed out and criticized anymore than you do.
POP QUIZ! Let’s say your 13 year old son left a wet towel on the bathroom floor. Do you:
A) Tell him that you can’t understand why he can’t remember a simple task such as hanging up a wet towel. Point out the flaws in logic of leaving said towel on the floor and wonder aloud how he can’t seem to learn a “simple” concept
B) Decide that he isn’t learning his lesson and enforce a punishment such as being grounded, having to do extra chores, etc
C) Say, “hey, the towel is on the floor again. Go hang it up.”
For staying and feeling connected, the answer is C. Save the dramatic lectures and, if it fits into your family’s flow, external consequences for something that will actually reduce their quality of life in the future. Like drug use or excessive Pokémon chatter.
Also, as a side note, reminding him to go back and do something he forgot isn’t only courteous, it’s teaching him how to deal with similar issues in his life. When you forget to move his laundry into the dryer like you said you would,* how has he been taught to react? *This may or may not have happened this week. And last week. And every week he asks me to move his laundry over.
4. Accept their increased need for independence. That may mean different things for different families but it includes things like not knowing where they are at every second of their day, allowing them privacy in communication, and allowing room for them to hold an opinion – political, moral, ethical, or religious – different from the family norm. Your job is to facilitate them finding their adult selves rather than telling them who it is they should be finding.
Accepting their independence helps change your view from being disconnected in disagreements to being connected in a new way.
And you should even respect their independence in real times of trial and tribulation. For example: when he decides to “dress down” for his uncle’s formal attire wedding.
In all seriousness, though, I do have a child who tends towards the angsty side of things. He is a private person. When he utters his deep thoughts, they generally sound like, “what’s the point of being strong if we’re all just going to grow week and die anyway?” I’m not coming from the place of having the super easy, happy-go-lucky personality in my home. Not wearing the tie isn’t our greatest conflict (where that it could be!). But our struggles and conflicts are why I know that it’s important for us, as the parents, to work as hard on our relationships with our teens as we do on any other intimate relationships in our life.
5. Accept their need for dependence. They’re not out of the nest. Beyond just needing a ride to McDonald’s, they also need to be held. They need you to cook their grilled cheese sandwich the way they like it. Do nice things for them every so often like picking up the freaking wet towel (on the floor! Again!) and hang it up.
You’re not clipping their wings. You’re meeting a need they still have but are pretty damn remiss to voice. Allow for these moments of reverting back to your old means connection even as you accept your new ones.
6. Unplug and listen. Not just from distractions such as smart phones, computers, and TV. I mean unplug yourself. If you want your older child and teen to talk to you, you have to be a sounding board. A sounding board with wisdom and guidance but without harsh judgment and punishment. Truth is: Her life? It’s not about you. Connect to the life your teen has and not the one you wish she had.
I tried to find a do-and-don’t examples but the odds are, if you’re even reading this, you’re already on the respectful parenting road and you aren’t likely doing things like berating or criticizing your child every time they open their mouths. But what you likely do (I know, because I am you) is give advice in the hopes of altering your child’s choices. Our motives are to save them from the pain, upset, hardships, and disappointments that we went through and if only they would learn from our mistakes, things would be so much better for them!!!!!!111!!!eleventy!!
Before giving advice or offering solutions, first ask yourself if that’s what your teen is asking for. You won’t know that if you don’t let them finish their entire story. And sometimes their stories are long and include unnecessary details. Listen. If your teen is asking advice, go for it. If not but you still feel the need to give it, stop and consider if that advice is even needed. Are you protecting them from serious harm or just a pushy teacher? Can your teen handle it without your advice? Will your teen stumble and perhaps get mildly bruised if she makes the wrong choice? In other words, gain life experience? Let her. It’s part of letting go.
As teens, and even during the preteen years, you’ll find your kids turning to their friends more and more for input. When they want to talk to you, try to be available to them. Instead of throwing a tantrum if you aren’t meeting his needs like he did as a toddler, your teen will just find a way to meet his needs elsewhere. Or, depending on the kid, he’ll throw a tantrum AND meet his needs elsewhere.
We all hope it’s a caring teacher or other adult he turns to, but let’s be honest. It’s likely a friend of dubious background. Or maybe I read too many books. Let’s try that again. It’s likely a friend who is a decent human being but lacks the frontal lobe development and life experience to help your teen through the trickier emotional ups and downs.
In short: let go, hold on, talk, listen, and always remember your teen is, above all, a human being… regardless of his behaviors that may indicate otherwise.