When it comes to fostering a nurturing relationship with our babies, nature gives us some amazing biologically-ordained attachment machines. From our boobs to our arms, we can foster our babies’ attachment by feeding them or by carrying them around. So much ink has been, ahem, spilled (there I said it) to help parent figure out how to feed their babies less often, have them sleep longer unattended or be carried less when really, we should be embracing these opportunities to build a strong relationship of trust between our babies and ourselves.
When it comes to teenagers, nature is no longer so generous. We struggle to find ways to connect with our teenagers when in fact they are still very similar to toddlers. We often stay home during our children’s preschool years to provide a safe and stable environment while the babies grow-up. Teenagers have the same need for regular healthy meals, rest, routine, affection and affirmation. Here are tips for maintaining a strong bond with your teenagers during those tumultuous years. I will give examples based on my own experience. What matters is the principle, not the specific example. Every family will need to tweak relationship-building to fit their needs and limitations. I should also add that this is very much a work in progress. I know all the theory and I still struggle with the practice.
(1) Never rant, never lecture, never use personal attacks (“you’re so…”). Don’t issue threats or sanctions in the middle of an argument. Preserve your dignity, control your emotional displays, and maintain your role as the adult in charge. I used to descend right down to my teenagers’ level in the midst of an argument. This helps nothing and can damage your relationship. Every rant and over-the-top reaction chips away at your respectability. Take your time to cool-off before addressing a problem. It’s ok to say something like: “This is not good. We’ll talk about this later” and think through your intervention or approach.
(2) Don’t try so hard to teach lessons. Sometimes, we focus so much on teaching a lesson that we don’t notice that the circumstances have done our work for us. Teenagers are proud and reluctant to admit faults but they can connect dots. You don’t need to compromise your principles to be empathetic instead of preachy. It’s ok to say “I’m so sorry this is not working the way you were expecting. I know you were expecting a different answer.” Don’t be too wordy, enforce your rules calmly and be sympathetic to their effect on their life “I know that it’s important for your friends to be able to reach you at any time and I know that you’re afraid of being left out, but you cannot have your iPhone in bed. This is not healthy and I can’t let you do that.”
(3) Positive reinforcement. I don’t know about your household but in my house, there is so much going on that I am like an air traffic controller. This means that I don’t have time to give a pat on the back of those who don’t crash their planes, it’s always the potential crashes that get the attention. As a result, I can go a whole day without saying something positive to my older kids. Go out of your way to notice the little things and always make sure that you balance the criticism (even if it is deserved) with positive or at least neutral speech. How many times have you woken-up in the morning to a mess of dirty dishes left behind by your late-evening-snacking teens? Have you ever returned home from work or an evening out to find out that nothing had been done (chore-wise) while you were gone? Was the first thing you said to your teen that morning or that evening positive or was your greeting more along the lines of “How many times will I have to ask you to put your dirty dishes away before you go to bed?” Teens don’t enjoy waking-up to a grouchy face more than you do. Make sure you say good morning every day.
(4) Take interest in their interests. It seems like a no-brainer but your age is getting the best of you. Know what music they listen to, which TV shows they are watching. Let them listen to their music in the car or while doing chores. Asks questions. Welcome their friends into your home. Try to keep abreast of the latest in social media: you may think yourself hip because you’re on Facebook but your teens are light years ahead. Do you know Vine? Snapchat? What are they watching on YouTube? My husband cultivates a TV series habit with our teens. Together, they watched “The Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad”, two series that are absolutely and completely inappropriate for the younger children and teens (and mom). They have their own inside jokes and cult-ish memorabilia (like the four Walking Dead bobble heads that adorn the front dash of our 15-passenger van… yes. Heavy Sigh.) They love everything post-apocalyptic. Share stuff with your teens. Come-on, you’re not *that* old!
(5) If like me you have little children, make sure that your entire life doesn’t revolve around the little ones (I know, it does…) My husband takes our older children to the movie theater all the time. They have coffee dates. It doesn’t have to be expensive or require a lot of organization. Your teenagers need just as much care and attention as your younger children, they just ask for it differently: whereas your younger gang will get louder and more “in your face”, your teens will withdraw, isolate themselves and seek the care and attention of their friends. In a large family like ours, the “grown-up” activities are the realm of my husband. He takes the teenagers on hikes, the occasional road trip and other little-kids-unfriendly activities, like dirt biking and target shooting. Don’t wait for friends to take your teenagers away from the chaos of the little kids: be proactive and recognize their need for “quiet adult time” before they seek it out.
(6) Once a week, we have a grown-up super at home with our four older children. We feed the four younger kids early, put them to bed and have a quiet late supper with the big kids. I wanted this supper to be a “serious” supper to discuss “serious topics” (like sex, drugs and rock n’ roll). So far, the suppers have been a lot of fun but nothing serious: just a lot of teenage silliness. Still, they build tradition and family bonds, and they show our teens that we know they are getting older.
(7) Feed them and send them for a nap instead of arguing. Most teens suffer from chronic sleep deprivation. Whether they stay up late because they are studying, reading, watching TV or chatting with friends (or all four at the same time), teenagers rarely get the 10 hours of shut-eye they really need. Our family doctor was recently telling one of my sleep deprived teens that teenagers who regularly got less than 10h of sleep daily were suffering the same kind of impairments that would result from consuming alcohol. They become moody and perform poorly in school and in sports. They can become aggressive and impatient… Oh look! All things we often associate with “normal teen behavior”! When my teens start to become aggressive or fall apart at the seams, I feed them and nap them instead of arguing with them. They don’t generally look favorably on being sent for a nap but Lo! They usually have one. Next time, instead of getting sucked-in a shouting match with your teens, make them a sandwich and send them for a nap. We are also known for shutting down the Internet early and sending everybody to their room for a 9:00pm bedtime. Some read in bed until 11:00 but it calms everybody right down.
(8) Physical touch is still so important for your teens! Hug them, kiss them and roughhouse with them. Have you thought of taking a martial arts class with your teens? It would be such a great way to connect with them, stay active and beat them up a little. I’m not a “hugger” and I am usually touched-out by the little ones. At first, I had to “think” about giving my teens a hug or a kiss or even just a pat on the back. But now it comes naturally.
(9) Don’t let your teens remove themselves from the life of the family. Insist on family meals and family holidays. Don’t turn their rooms into a hole of self-sufficiency. Make them come out for essentials such as TV, Internet and food. We limit wi-fi availability and the only Internet cable is in my office. I often work with a teenager “jacking-up the Internet bottle” as they call it. We have friends who don’t have wi-fi at all. The only Internet cables available are in the family room. Try it. Don’t allow network-connected devices in bedrooms: not only are they bad for sleep (see point 7), they foster a “home outside the home” mentality.
(10) In the same vein of point 9 above – and this may sound counter-intuitive – don’t run your home like a hotel. Involve your teenagers in the running of the house, yes that includes chores. Don’t let your teens live like bad roommates. It makes nurturing a strong relationship and being nice to your kids so much harder! Plus, it does nothing for their long term well-being. Involve them in the daily life of the family. Don’t merely expect them to look after their own stuff, make them responsible for their share of family work. Work alongside your teens.
(11) Cherish your teens. Show appreciation. Let them know how much they matter to you. Don’t reserve praise to their academic, artistic or athletic achievements. Be happy to have them in your life. After all, you don’t like it when they are nice to you just because they want the car keys.
(12) Forgive easily and apologize often. You’re not perfect either.
In a nutshell, be nice to your teens. They are still your children.