Good parents want to build and maintain connections with their teenagers but it can be hard. I recently had an email from a mother, who I’ll call Sarah.
“My son is 12 & puberty has definitely hit during the pandemic, poor soul! I read your brilliant Blame my Brain a few years ago when my now 15-yr-old was a similar age & it has helped my parenting enormously. A massive thank you! My son has become quite withdrawn, as is normal, but I’m wondering if you have any advice on building connections with teenage boys in particular? Any advice would be gratefully received.”
As Sarah says, it is quite normal for teenagers to become withdrawn. I often describe adolescence as a separation stage: they are breaking connections of parental protection and finding their own support networks for adulthood. But “withdrawn” can mean different things: withdrawn from friends, withdrawn from family or just parents, or withdrawn from all the things they used to enjoy. And I think it’s important for Sarah to think about which of these it is, if possible. And then if there’s any cause.
So let’s look at possible reasons before I offer advice about building connections with your teenage sons or daughters.
Withdrawn from friends
This is upsetting to witness. But it’s likely to be quite temporary. It could be that Josh (not his name) has started to feel self-conscious (which is very common amongst teenagers) perhaps as his body is changing either faster or slower than others’. It could be from underlying anxiety (general or specific) which is pre-occupying him and he just doesn’t have headspace for friends. (Anxiety takes a lot of headspace or “brain bandwidth“!) It could be that he’s feeling a bit left out – perhaps some of the friendship groups are changing or being disrupted.
Withdrawn from family and parent(s)
It’s very possible that Josh is fine at school or with his friends but is not interested in being with his parent(s) or siblings. This is very common and nothing to worry about at all. Two things are essential: that he is still in contact with his friends and that at least one parent or devoted carer is there in the background being a supportive safety-net for when he needs it. Teenagers (need to) rely on unconditional love from an adult, usually a parent. That unconditionality means that psychologically they feel able to push you away.
If you have a situation where your teenager is still connected to one parent or carer but has a difficult relationship with another, this is exceptionally hard for you (especially if you are the one being rejected.) If you possibly can, try to be very strong and patient and then there’s a good chance that this will be short-lived. Don’t close doors or create guilt if you can possibly avoid it. Your son or daughter is not fully responsible for their behaviour at the moment. Brain changes, hormones and life stresses can be overwhelming.
Withdrawn from normal pleasures and activities
This is the most worrying, though it could also be quite short-lived. The main reason it’s more worrying is that this can be a sign of depression (though not on its own – you’d also need to have symptoms such as persistent low or angry mood, lack of interest in anything, sleep and appetite changes.) It’s also worrying if it includes being withdrawn from friends, because friends are what can get someone through this type of feeling.
Building connections: suggestions for parents
There are no magic answers and the choices you make will depend on the situation and the personalities involved but I do have tips.
I would like to make the point that, although Sarah asks about building connections with teenage boys in particular, I don’t think the gender or sex matter nearly as much as the individual concerned. But if you do feel that in your case this is a boy/girl difference, go with your instinct on that. Choose what you think fits your teenager.
Messaging to build connections
Words are important. Very important. But we don’t always say the right thing and, even when we do, sometimes it’s not heard. It’s crucial to say things when they will be heard and that is usually not when your son or daughter is watching a favourite programme or hanging out with friends.
There are three ways to say what you want to say and be heard:
- Choose moments when your brain and your teenager’s are on default mode: in other words, not concentrating closely on anything.
- Say what you want to say gently, casually and often. Don’t assume that because you said it once in the heat of an argument, the message got through. Messaging should be frequent but gentle – the “gentle” ensures you avoid hassling/nagging.
- Choose moments without eye contact. Going for a walk (or run!) or while driving are the best times. Other times are while playing a board game, cooking or building something (but be careful not to affect the fun of those times with heavy talk.)
Here are the messages your teenager needs to hear from you as often as feels necessary (in your own words):
- “I know you’re going through a tough time just now. If you want to talk, I’m here.”
- “Life is really tough right now, isn’t it? What do you think is the worst thing for you?”
- “Talking to someone else really helps – but you don’t have to talk to me. It’s fine for you to talk to X, Y, Z.”
- “It can be really tough being a teenager but there’s lots of help for you if you want it.”
- “Sometimes, the best thing is to help someone else – do you have a friend in trouble who you’d like to help?”
- “I understand you sometimes need to be alone and I’ll give you that space. But I/we need you, too. We need to get the balance right.”
- “Everything passes. How you feel now will be different tomorrow or next week or next month.”
- “I’m sorry I don’t always say the right thing.”
- “I believe in you.”
- “I love you.”
Here are the messages your teenager should not hear, even if it’s what you feel:
- “I don’t trust you.”
- “I don’t know why you’re behaving like this.”
- “This is very worrying.”
- “I don’t have time.”
- “I have too much going on in my own life right now.”
- “If you would just listen to me, all your problems would be solved.” (Because it’s not true.)
- “That’s a really silly thing to think or worry about.”
Action to build connections
- Help them spend time with someone they do get on with, perhaps a sibling or a friend or grandparent. Of course, during Covid these options are more limited but “spending time” can also be online or a video call. This is about them building connections, even if not with you.
- They might prefer to say something to you via text but everyone should be aware that this can be wrongly interpreted. So quite a bit of discussion about the pros and cons of communicating digitally would be very helpful. And discourage messaging in anger/emotion…
- Don’t get too close if they don’t want that: being there in the background, always available, is all that’s necessary.
- Make sure you don’t have your phone in front of you while you’re talking to them – and if a notification comes, do not answer it.
- Find activities which you can do together – the best way to build connections:
- Board games are brilliant for this – let your teenager choose some new ones; you can borrow from other families. How about agreeing with three or four other families who live nearby that you’ll each buy a game and share it?
- Cooking or baking – careful not to be the Kitchen Controller for this! (Note to self…)
- Making a model kit.
- Doing some DIY or simple creation project.
- An exploring walk.
- Plan together-time in advance and with full discussion and agreement. If you have more than one young person, give each one the chance to choose. Everyone has to join in but with full mutual consent.
- Plan a special meal, and agree that each person has a job to do and you’ll all dress in your favourite clothes (which doesn’t have to mean dressing smartly – I discovered that my then-teenage daughters really wanted to spend Christmas Day in their pj’s so one year. And why not?)
- Help them understand the importance of eating nutritious food, making time for physical activity, having a regular sleep routine and relaxing.
- Encourage daily physical activity. For some people this is a very unappealing thought so your job is to find an activity they might enjoy: it does not have to be actual sport, competitive, exhausting or with other people.
- Discuss topics that are not personal. Note, “discuss”, not “tell them what you think”! Show that you are interested in what they think. Don’t come over all know-it-all and disapproving. Topics could be:
- A story in the news
- Climate change
- Something to do with a celebrity
- Ask their opinion on anything current
- Ask if there’s a charity they’d like to raise money for and how they might do it.
- Discuss a family challenge: walking or running a certain distance, for example, with each of you doing a certain distance. You can also involve other relatives who don’t live with you, with each household playing their part.
- I recommend they (and you) read Positively Teenage – it will put their feelings and experiences in a teenage context and validate how they feel. And that could make all the difference.
- Finally, but very importantly, I do recommend the Happy Self journal for 12+. Writing a journal is a fantastic way to process and understand one’s own thoughts and feelings and this is a lovely product, making it easy to write even if you don’t think you know what to write.
That’s a lot of advice and there’s no way I’m suggesting you do all these things! I hope there’s something in there for you. And if anyone has any other tips for building connections with your teenage sons or daughters, do add it to the comments.
One final message to you: by asking the question and by reading this post, you are already doing the right thing. You are showing that you care. And that is the best you can do.
We build connections with every small action of care and love. You do not need grand gestures.