Connecting with your tweens and teens is tough, but rewarding

November 6, 2018 | Posted in: High School, Middle Years

I never thought it would happen, but it did—I signed up for a SnapChat account just so I could stay connected with my kids. I’m not proud of the fact that I sometimes use a bunny-eared filter to start a conversation with my son and daughter. But if that’s what I need to do in order to stay connected, so be it. This is not to say that is the ONLY way I communicate with my children, but it certainly opens the door and often times brings a bit of levity into the mix.

Once the door is open, however, the key is keeping it open. And that can happen with a few simple steps that parents and caregivers can implement daily.

Encourage Conversation

One of the best ways to keep the lines of communication open is to have conversations with your children about everyday things—not just when there’s a problem.

“If every conversation parents have with their kids is about troublesome topics it could result in kids trying to avoid talking to their parents,” explains Dr. Laura Paquette, a family therapist in Saratoga Springs. “They could even begin to hide things from their parents or lie to them to avoid uncomfortable situations or dodge a lecture.”

Additionally, nearly all parents can probably recall a time when they had a one-way conversation with their kids. It’s frustrating, for sure, but don’t give up. Instead help your children participate in conversations with you by choosing open-ended questions or phrases that require your kids to respond with more than one-word answers. Try: “What did you learn at school today?” or “Let’s talk about some things we could do this weekend.”

You can also use open-ended questions to explore topics you may have never discussed before. For example, “How would you spend a day off from school?” or “What are three things you don’t think you could live without?” or “What is your favorite activity to do as a family?”

Building your kids’ trust with fun questions may help them feel safe enough to open up about bigger topics in the future. In our house we use family dinners as a time for opening the floor for basic conversation. We all take turns sharing the best part of our day and the least favorite part of our day. The statements often lead to bigger conversations, story sharing, and even fits of laughter (usually when my son says “the end of the school day” was his favorite part of the day).

Keep in mind, however, that while it’s important to encourage conversations if the dialogue is forced it could result in children disengaging and even becoming frustrated with you. It’s best to assess your child’s mood and determine if it’s the right time to strike up a conversation. Let’s face it, tweens and teens can be irritable and easily annoyed, so it’s best to catch them at a time when they seem more willing to respond to your questions. That doesn’t mean ignore them, but it may be better to simply reassure your children that you are there for them when they are ready to talk, adds Paquette. Sometimes kids, like adults, have bad days and they need time to process situations or figure out the best way for them to talk to you. Being present with your child in silence, especially if they are struggling, can send a powerful message of love and support.

Pay Attention & Listen

When your kids are ready to talk about what’s bothering them or if they happen to be in the mood to chit-chat, be sure to be present and focused. This is your time to shine by demonstrating what good listening and engagement looks like. Plus, chit-chat can often times lead to deeper conversations. So, put your phone or tablet down, turn the TV off, and really listen to what is being said.

Paying attention, though, doesn’t mean you can’t be doing something constructive while your child is talking to you. Many people find doing an activity actually encourages chatting. And, some parents feel that conversations with their children are easier when they are not having a heart-to-heart at the dining room table.

“A setting that fosters a non-threatening atmosphere where children can connect with their parents through an activity often times helps children feel calmer resulting in them being more receptive to sharing and talking,” she adds. Try getting your children to accompany you when you walk the dog, or do a craft or hobby together, toss the ball around, or garden together.

I’ve noticed that my kids are in the mood to chat when I need to prepare dinner. Instead of putting them on pause (I’d rather not lose the opportunity!) I ask them to join me in the kitchen to either help or keep me company. My daughter has become a pro at cutting carrots and tearing lettuce while dishing about her day or talking to me about some of her worries. For my son, staring into a pot of sauce he’s stirring makes it a bit easier for him to talk to me.

Listen to what your kids are saying. Give them your full attention when they are talking to you and let them finish what they have to say without interrupting. Treat their questions, concerns, or complaints seriously. Adolescent situations might seem simple to an adult, but they can be very complicated for your tween or teen. Let your children know that you hear what they are saying and empathize with whatever it is they are thinking or feeling. You could say things in response such as, “That does sound difficult,” or “I can see how you might interpret the situation like that.”

“Everyone wants to feel understood,” explains Pauquette. “As parents, we fall into a trap of feeling like we have to have all the answers or we have to fix things for our children, when in reality they just want to be heard and validated.”

When you show your kids that you are there for them and interested in what they have to say, they’ll likely be more willing to open up to you and more receptive when you have to talk to them about something that maybe be sensitive or serious.

So, when my son talks my ear off about the latest Fortnite battle (and I’m biting my tongue to keep from saying “Can you relate this to anything you are learning in school?”) I’m really making sure that I’m listening, asking appropriate and related questions, and smiling. I do this because I know the effort will be reciprocated when he gets a SnapChat of me as a sparkly unicorn asking him to come talk to me because he seems upset and I got an email from his math teacher about something that happened in class.

Whether you text, SnapChat, or use other digital communication apps to stay connected to your kids the important thing is to keep the lines of communication open and let your kids know you are there for them.

Tara Mitchell is a public information specialist for the Capital Region BOCES Communications service in Albany, NY. She lives in Malta, NY with her husband and two children. She’s an avid collector of vintage, fine and fashion jewelry and enjoys throwing themed parties.

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