Engaging with your teen may seem like a challenge right now, especially if you don’t feel like you are on stable ground as an adult. There are many changes happening and increasing emotional agility to navigate the unknown can feel overwhelming.
However, adjusting to include the teens in your life can be the first step in supporting them through the unsteadiness in their lives. Modeling behavior is just as important as guiding with words, so helping your teens can actually improve your life and theirs in more ways than one.
If you are feeling lost, uncertain, or exhausted; you are not alone. Most people are experiencing grief in one form or another whether it is because of living in a pandemic, racism and racial injustice, recurring mass shootings, familial loss from COVID, or any other trauma that has been difficult for you or loved ones. Your reasons for grief are valid, and you don’t have to justify why you feel the way you do.
Though it’s not healthy to be dependent on teens for your emotional support, you can engage with them by starting conversations about your experiences as well without placating or minimizing your feelings or theirs.
Here are some tips you might find helpful for increasing engagement with your teen:
1. Start a conversation while doing an activity.
Engaging teens can be as simple as starting a conversation. Overcomplicating avenues to connect can be more harmful than helpful. Teens want the same things you do as an adult; to be heard, seen, and loved. Figuring out ways to show that you get their basic needs can start with a conversation about what is going on for them.
This doesn’t have to be a sit-down, formal talk. In fact, casual is key when it comes to conversing with teens. Invite them into the kitchen while you are making dinner. You can give them a job to do like; chopping, gathering ingredients, or measuring out what you need for a recipe. When you are practicing side-by-side activities together, teens will be more willing to share.
Be patient if your teen says no the first time or the first several times. Let them know that the invite is always open. You are creating a safe space, not putting more pressure on your teens to connect. Be gentle with yourself if your offer is rejected; Taking the first step forges an initial connection.
2. Take nightly walks.
Adults and teens both need a consistent routine, so sharing the accountability for activities can be beneficial for everyone. A nightly walk on the schedule allows for follow through with an expectation. You can show up by making time for your teens.
Once the routine and structure are established, you can be flexible within it. Setting up a time and sticking to it models accountable behavior for you as much as it does for your teen.
If your teen doesn’t join the first time, go anyway. Let them know that the door is open for them, and you take care of yourself regardless. It is important to do more listening than talking initially, even if that means uncomfortable silences for you. You are opening up yourself as a safe space for your teen. Let that happen organically. (Be prepared to practice being patient).
3. Learn a new craft together.
By both being learners, you are demonstrating vulnerability and showing that you don’t have every answer either. This creates a space to ask for help. It is one thing to say that you can help; it is another to show how to ask for help in a healthy way. The more comfortable you get with not having all the answers, the more your teen will feel like you understand how it feels to be courageous.
This is also a segue into asking for professional help if needed. Parents can be limited with resources, so it can be useful to seek out counseling or therapy to help build a toolbox while opening up a space for an objective opinion. Sometimes, you may be clouded by your own perception so it can be helpful to weigh other ideas. This is a way to model for your teen that it’s okay not to have every resource and there are ways to gather needed supports.
4. Journal together.
Maybe you aren’t quite in a place where you want to share openly with your teen or vice versa. Invest time and energy while writing out or drawing ideas in a safe place like a journal. You can journal while you eat breakfast, after dinner, or sometime in between.
By developing a journal practice, you are initiating a way to safely record thoughts and feelings. Establish trust with a balance of privacy and willingness to learn more.
Be okay with your teen’s unwillingness to share what they have written or drawn. You can also build trust by showing up differently than you have in the past. Get clear about your expectations and clearly communicate them with your teen. That can sound like a number of things:
Let’s free write the first 2 times privately and then be ready to share on the 3rd time.
Before we start writing or drawing this time, let’s plan to share out our thoughts and feelings.
Next time we journal, will you come up with a writing prompt for us?
Next time we journal, I will come up with a writing prompt for us. Let’s plan for a private journaling session this time.
Chances are your teen wants to connect with you in a way that works for them. This may mean it doesn’t look exactly how you planned, but knowing they have a parent who loves and cares for them is important.
5. Be ready to compromise.
Leave room for compromise with your teen. Things may not always go the way you plan, and there may be some joy in the moments that you least expect it. By honoring who they are instead of who you want them to be can be a meaningful way to connect with the person they are becoming.
This can get messy. It’s okay to ask for space, professional help, or a different way of doing things. Modeling this behavior can help them to become a successful adult. They may seem like they have it all together or not together at all, and the truth probably lives somewhere in the middle. Allow for discomfort and don’t be afraid to use humor to diffuse a situation. It’s okay to show vulnerability with your teen. And, you might learn something from your teen.
By taking care of yourself, you can take care of the teens in your life too.
Focus on how you are showing up to relationships so that you begin to see shifts. Let go of things that don’t matter so that you can pay attention to things that do. If you aren’t sure what that looks like, normalize getting professional help to solve problems. By admitting and accepting that you don’t have all the answers, you can open up the possibility for a greater connection with your teen.
Written by: Randi Thackeray, MA
Clinically Reviewed and Edited by: Julie Reichenberger, MA, LPC, ACS, ACC
Denver Metro Counseling is a group of clinicians who provide therapeutic support for teens, adults, parents, and families. We provide supportive therapy for people struggling with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, ADHD, and more.