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Understanding the Teenage Brain, Part II

Understanding the Teenage Brain, Part II: Tips for Connecting with Your Teenager

The first part of our “Understanding the Teenage Brain” series emphasized the importance of connecting with your teenage child. When a family is connected, a teenager can safely experiment with autonomy and try new things. That experimentation is an important part of teenagers becoming successful, independent adults.

As all parents and guardians know, building and maintaining a relationship with a teenager can be easier said than done. We talked about ways adults can reach teens with Valley High School counselor Karla Hardy; district teacher-leader Carrie Jacobs; and two representatives from the Youth Justice Initiative’s Resiliency Project, Ashlee Swinton and Clarice Wireman.

Ten Tips for Connecting with Your Teenager

1. Believe in your family.

Our sources encouraged parents and guardians to be confident in their own skills. Hardy reminds parents and guardians that they are not defined by their children, and children are not defined by their actions. No one parents perfectly, and no one does it the exact same way. You have to find the right style for you and your family.

2. Foster the connection.

Make it a priority to keep the connection with your child healthy and open. Ways to do that include:

— Volunteering as a family. Service works gives families a common goal and a tie to the community.
— Family game night. Some research suggests playing rule-based games helps kids learn about boundaries, societal norms, and self-regulation. When the whole family plays, it is a great chance to bond and make positive memories.
— Have family dinner. This one can be hard to accomplish consistently. Do your best to make time for it, even just once a week. Try brunch or lunch on the weekends if that works better for your family’s schedule.

It is a great idea to build this connection early in your child’s life. Routines like cuddling at bedtime and reading are a good place to start. If you feel your family has lost its connection, there is always time to rebuild. Use these ideas, or look into family classes through the Youth Justice Initiative or Employee and Family Resources.

3. Hold on to your humanity.

As a parent, it is easy to start thinking you have to do it all and know it all without making mistakes. This is impossible, and teens will often see through the facade of perfection.

“This generation has amazing soft skills,” Hardy said. “They have such an intuitive side, and they figure things out. We don’t need to hide from them.”

When appropriate, ask your kids what they would do in your shoes. Do not be afraid to tell them you feel unsure.

“Especially when you get to the teen years, it’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know,’” Jacobs said. “It makes you more human to them.”

4. Make expectations clear.

Teenagers and adults perceive things differently. Prevent conflicts by meeting as a family to set values and expectations.

“Make expectations clear and realistic,” Swinton said. “That realistic part is so important.”

She used the example of a clean bedroom. Saying “Clean your room” creates questions: When should it be cleaned? What does “clean” really mean? Instead, say, “Your cousin is staying over this weekend, so please clean your room by Friday night. It should be clean enough that your cousin can sleep on the floor.” You can also set clear lists of tasks, like picking up, making the bed, and doing the laundry.

Also make your expectations clear to other parents and guardians. Talk about your rules, their rules, and what your kids are doing at each house.

5. Tackle the tough topics.

Not all topics are easy to talk about. Conversations about sex, substances, and the future are all important, and all notorious for shutting kids down. The best way to get past their embarrassment is modeling nonchalance.

”If you act like you’re nervous, they’re going to be nervous,” Jacobs said. “They read you more than you think they do.”

After a good conversation, remind your child they can talk to you. Establish yourself as a judgment-free resource for them from the beginning. If you want, have the conversation while driving. Your kids will not be able to leave the conversation, but they also will not have to hold direct eye contact, which can be intimidating.

“Don’t underestimate the value of time in the car with your kids,” Wireman said. “Those are moments of connection if you don’t get caught up with being on the run.”

6. Listen.

There is a lot of guidance for parents on how to talk to their teens. Do not forget the importance of listening.

“What’s helped the most is acknowledging, ‘Yes, I see the struggle. I understand,’” Jacobs said. “Offer the logical here-and-now pieces when they start questioning the big concepts.”

Remember, heightened emotions make everything seem like life or death to your child. Something important to them, should be important to you. You may need to offer some perspective, but teens might reach the same conclusion on their own if you listen.

“When they feel that space clear, they’ll start to talk,” Hardy said. “They’ll want to fill that space.”

7. Balance responsibilities and boundaries.

Find a happy medium between total control and out of control. Teens are testing boundaries, and to some extent, that helps them.

“The whole purpose of this age is to start developing their own autonomy,” Jacobs explained. “It’s this constant push and pull between parent and child.”

Parents know that back and forth is exhausting, and it can be tempting to give in. However, having no structure and few rules can make it harder for teens to grow and learn about adult life safely.

“As they get older, it’s okay to give more and more responsibilities,” Wireman said. “There’s also a time when we have to set some boundaries and be consistent with them.”

8. Keep your cool.

It can be hard not to react in the moment, but it might save you an argument in the end. Don’t hesitate to “cool off” before talking.

“Kids read emotions a huge percent higher than what adults do,” Swinton said. “As an adult, I can filter through the emotion and read the message. Kids can’t do that.”

This means that, instead of hearing what an adult says, teens will hear anger or frustration. Do not deny your emotions, but set aside time to process them, then come back and discuss with your child.

Plan a simple catch-all response like, “I want to talk about this, but I can’t right now. Let’s talk about it in two hours.” You can also use some standard responses for frequently revisited topics. If you do take time to cool off, set a time frame for returning to the discussion. That way, the issue will not get lost in the shuffle.

9. Let your family move on.

If you do run into an issue, do not let it take over your family. Deal with it, then move forward. “Remind them: ‘You’re going to make mistakes and screw up, but it’s going to be okay,’” Jacobs said.

This does not mean letting things go. Teens need to understand consequences to become successful adults, so correct behaviors, but do not hang on to issues. Set and keep limits, but do not let times they are broken define your family. This will also help parents and guardians stay in a non-anxious state when interacting with teens.

“Parents who parent out of fear don’t get the results they want,” Wireman said.

10. It isn’t personal.

When it feels like your child is disobeying you on purpose or trying to hurt you, remember that many of those behaviors come from changes in the brain that have nothing to do with your parenting.

“We can talk to them about it all we want to, but they can’t learn it any faster,” Swinton said. No matter how many times you talk them through it, your teen will still be impulsive, emotional, adaptable, accepting, and risk-taking, until their brain develops fully.

Helpful Teenage Children Serving Food To Parents In KitchenAt the end of the day, it is all about helping your kids become successful adults, and the most important thing you can do is love and support them.

“We all want happy, content kids,” Wireman said. “You can’t shower too much love and care on them. People worry about spoiling kids, but you can’t spoil them with love.”


For more information on talking to your teen and connecting your family, check out these resources, which will be updated periodically:

Social Media Tips for Families

Youth Justice Initiative

Employee and Family Resources

The Age of Opportunity