As someone who was a teenager not too many years ago, I feel like I have the green light to say they really are…something. Teens can be simultaneously sweet and sassy, charming but challenging, and lovable yet frustrating all within the same hour (maybe not actually, but you know what I’m going for). As a parent, your relationship with your teenager can be oh-so joyous and fulfilling one moment, and a stubborn battle of wills the next. But, not to worry—this experience is pretty much universal. With a little bit of guidance and a lot of patience and understanding it’s 100% possible to maintain a close, meaningful bond with your teen. You just have to know where to start.
To help you navigate this fun yet daunting time in parenthood (remember—this time is exciting, not just hard and scary!), we chatted with a licensed mental health counselor and co-founder of a teen counseling center on how to best approach and nurture your relationship with your teen. From communicating effectively to setting boundaries to finding common ground, our expert’s advice is sure to help set the groundwork for whatever lies ahead in your relationship with your teen:
How to Keep a Close Bond With Your Teenager
Would you say it’s common for parents to feel it’s a challenge to keep a close bond with their teen?
It is extremely common for parents of teens to feel like keeping a close connection with their child is challenging. One of the developmental goals of adolescence is forming a separate identity, independent from adult caregivers, so some of the distancing that happens between parents and teens is natural and expected. However, this doesn’t mean that there cannot be a meaningful connection between parents and teens—quite the opposite! It will just take a different form than it does in the early and middle childhood years.
How can a parent tell if they’re being too overbearing?
As teens get older, it becomes increasingly important for them to have privacy and independence. Researching developmentally appropriate privileges and limits can help you determine what is generally recommended for youth of any particular age/grade level. And, if you are finding that you are doing any secretive monitoring—for example, searching your child’s room when they’re away or using a tracking app like Bark without the teen knowing—this might be a sign that you have gone too far.
It is common for parental anxiety to show up as overbearing behavior—you care about your child’s safety and want to do what you can to protect them! However, in the long run, you’ll find that maintaining an open and honest relationship goes a lot further in the relationship.
How can a parent differentiate normal distancing behavior vs. something to be concerned about?
Some level of distancing between teenagers and their parents is absolutely expected and typical. In fact, I would be concerned if a teen only wanted to spend time with their parents! The warning signs to watch out for are when a teen is isolating themself from many people in their life. Not just their parents. If you notice a big shift in behavior, such as a teen who previously loved playing soccer and now suddenly doesn’t want to play anymore. Or a youth who used to spend hours on calls with friends playing video games and now never seems to be talking to them. These could be symptoms of depression or another mental health concern.
Some level of distancing between teenagers and their parents is absolutely expected…I would be concerned if a teen only wanted to spend time with their parents!
While it will look different for everyone, it is vital for teens to have social connections and a support network. So if you notice that they are isolating themselves and not seeking connection with you, their siblings, or their peers, it may be a sign that they need more mental health support.
If any, what are regular actions a parent can take to maintain/improve their relationship with their teenager?
You may have heard of the “magic ratio” of 5:1 positive to negative interactions as the key to a happy relationship or marriage. The same goes for the parent-teen relationship. We want a minimum of five positive interactions for every negative one in order to maintain a positive connection. Ideally, the ratio will be more like 8-10:1, especially for highly sensitive youth. This means that if you are frequently having less pleasant interactions with your child—reminding them to complete their homework, for example (which may be very necessary to do!)—you want to buffer this with 5-10 positive interactions.
It’s also important to try to find something that your teen might enjoy doing with you, ideally about once a week. There is a huge range in what these activities might look like. For some teens, it might be playing video games together, for some it might be going out shopping together. And for others, it might be silently sitting and watching a movie, for others it might be cooking together.
There are no rules for what type of activity it needs to be or how much talking needs to happen. The goal is for the teen to be enjoying time while sharing space with their parents. And for the parents to be actively present with their child. Importantly, during this “special time” together, the parent should refrain from bringing up any to-do’s or areas of conflict. And stay away from any distractions such as their phone in order to provide full attention to the time with their teen.
What are some not-so-obvious behaviors from a parent that can push their teen away?
One of the most common mistakes I see from parents is giving consequences unpredictably. For example, a parent finds out their teen is failing a class and takes away their phone indefinitely. It is okay, and even encouraged, to have consequences for actions that violate the house rules or family values. But these consequences should be pre-determined (if possible), clear, and time-bound.
It’s also best to have rewards for when goals are met. Research shows that positive reinforcement is generally more effective than punishment. Ideally, expectations and their corresponding consequences should be developed collaboratively between teens and parents to give the youth more self-efficacy. It will also make them far more likely to stick to the rules! Especially for anxious and/or neurodivergent youth, predictability and stability are incredibly important for maintaining positive attachment. So having clearly communicated rules and consequences will go a long way!
Another common behavior from parents that can drive a wedge in the parent-teen relationship is not accepting or trying to understand their child’s identity. I work a lot with both gender-diverse and neurodiverse youth who frequently express that their parents don’t believe that their identities are “real,” or don’t make an effort to learn about what their child is experiencing. You don’t have to understand every term youth use. Or relate to everything they share in order to show acceptance and do your best to support them. No matter their age, every one is the expert of their own experience. And it can go a long way to just listen and be open to learning more. Your relationship with your teen will thank you for it!
How does a parent effectively let their teen know that they’re there for them?
It’s very important for parents to learn how to validate their teen’s experience. There are multiple levels of validation. The most basic being simply communicating that you are present and listening by doing things. Like putting your phone down, nodding your head, matching their affect, and giving short verbal responses like “Uh-huh”, “Wow!,” etc. to show that you are paying attention. Higher levels of validation include summarizing back what you’re hearing from your teen, naming the emotion you’re seeing them express. And showing that you are trying to understand where they’re coming from.
It is important to note that you can simultaneously disagree with your teen and still validate their experience. For example, “It makes sense that you’re upset that I’m not letting you go to your girlfriend’s house tonight. I know spending time with her is really important to you. And, we had an agreement that you needed to be done with your homework first. So I’m going to need to set this limit”. If teens feel like their voice is heard, even if they don’t get their way, they can walk away from the interaction feeling more calm and understood.