How to Connect With a Disconnected Teen

Raising a responsible teenager is a parent’s dream. Living with an irresponsible teen is a parent’s nightmare! The task of raising teens today is challenging for some and frightening for others.   Cyber-culture youth are exposed to multiple streams of information that shape identity and influence behavior. Media devices are often used to connect with peers and disconnect from family.   Worried parents often wonder, “How do I stay connected with my disconnected teen?” To answer that question, let’s begin by looking at what’s going on during adolescence. It boils down to one word: change. Here are 3 types you can expect.
Teens undergo significant and rapid change during puberty.  Physical and hormonal change seem to happen overnight.  In addition to the physical transformation is the emergence of a sexual identity.
So, not only is the teen body in a state of flux, the identity is too! Throughout adolescence teens try on different “identity hats” to see what fits.  Watch this process unfold by observing them experiment with different clothes styles, hair styles, music tastes, peer groups, etc…   Independence is a teen mantra. Don’t be too alarmed when they question your rules or challenge your authority. You may even notice changes in your relationship. It may feel like they are pulling away from you. Actually, this is a normal process in identity formation.
Finally, another unsettling change you may notice in your teen is a shift to peer identification.  Suddenly, they want to spend all their time with their friends.  At home you may find them on their cell phones or text messaging the friends they just left minutes ago!  WARNING SIGNS INDICATING TOO MUCH CHANGE Now, let’s examine the warning signs that indicate your teen may be pulling away too much.
  • Isolating from family – If your teen spends an inordinate amount of time playing video games, watching TV, talking on the phone, or bunkered down in their bedroom, with very little interaction with family members, it signals a disconnect.
  • Preoccupation with friends – If all their free time is spent connecting with friends and minimal interest in spending time with the family it’s a sign they are drifting.
  • Academic or behavioral problems – Teens who pull away tend to show their opposition to their parents by doing poorly in school or by defying household rules.
  • Risk-taking behavior – Finally, if you notice a pattern of risk-taking behavior such as drug and/or alcohol use, staying out all night, or other signs of poor impulse control, you have a problem on your hands.  If a teen is out-of-control, it is important for parents to take control of the situation.
Now, let’s get some answers to the initial question–“How do I stay connected to my teen?”
Your job is to dismantle the wall of disconnect between the two of you. To reduce tension and increasing connection, start with simple activities.
  • Establish a regular routine of spending an hour or more together
  • Go to breakfast, etc…
  • Disconnect from devices and make it your goal to have fun
Listen to their music with them.  Go to a movie of their choice.  Play a video game with them.  A little time in their world gives you a window to observe what influences their thinking, what interests them.  It will open the door to interesting dialog.  Isn’t that a form of connection?
Your kids can quote your speeches.  They’ve heard them a thousand times.  Yet, you do not get the change you’re expecting.  Exhausted yet?  Try doing some listening.
Notice I said “curiosity” not “interrogation”.  Curiosity questions have a neutral tone of showing interest or concern.  It’s about understanding what is happening from your teen’s point of view.   Curiosity questions require you to be open, not reactive or defensive.  The key is to present yourself in a manner in which your teen will feel comfortable opening up to you.  Here are a few examples of curiosity questions.
  • “Who’s your favorite artist right now?” “What do you like about their music?”
  • “I can see you are upset right now.  Can you tell me what it’s about?”
  • “You’ve been distant lately.  Is there a problem?”
  • “It seems like nothing is going your way lately.  Care to talk about it?”
Basically, what this means is try to convey back to your teen what he/she is saying.  Here’s an example.
  • “Sounds like you’re upset because your friend was being rude to you.”
  • “So you’re saying your distant because you think mom and I treat you like a child.”
  • “What you’re saying is, nothing is going the way you planned and you feel terrible.”
You may not like, nor agree with what you hear.  That’s okay.  What happens next is very important.  Keep your cool.  If you can’t then don’t say anything.  Take a break.  Address it once you calm down. If you are calm, speak with respect. After you convey an understanding of where your teen is coming from, address the situation from your point of view. Give reasons to support your decision.  They don’t have to like or agree with them, but they also need to understand you too. One of the best ways to connect with your teen is to identify with their experience. Did you struggle in your friendships? Ever make mistakes and get into trouble? If so, it might be helpful to relate your own experiences. “I remember having similar problems when I was your age. One time I…”
Validate good behavior. Make statements that support your belief in your teen to be successful in life. Let them know you have confidence in their problem-solving skills and ability to figure things out.
An imbalance of one or the other is not good for parent-teen connection.  Nor is it good for adolescent development.  Teens don’t need parents do be a friend.  Nor do they need them to be gestapo!  Do not connect your love to their behavior.  Love them unconditionally. When you set limits, enforce them.  Try making them last one day.  Let every morning be a fresh start on improving behavior.  Avoid grounding or taking away privileges for an extended period of time, unless of course the bad behavior warrants it.
If your teens behavior is alarming.  If you see a pattern.  By all means, step in.  I tell teens, “If you don’t control your behavior, your parents will, and you probably won’t like the outcome.” Teens with behavioral problems need intervention.  This is a time for parents to step in and do whatever is necessary to get them back on track.  Intervention may require the assistance of mental health professionals who are experts in helping families.  Wise parents take advantage of the support counseling services provide.

Now it’s Your Turn

Teenagers want to connect with their parents even though they don’t show it. They’re looking to you to take the lead. Don’t react to the wall they put up. Teens want space but they don’t want to be disconnected from you either. So, what’s your next move?