Listen: Brett Ryan talks to Laura & Duncan about how to connect with your teenager.
It comes as a surprise to many parents that as their kids get older, it gets harder to have a say in their lives.
Children reach primary school age and start to get a little ‘cooler’; they reach the tween years and begin to push back against your advice; they become teenagers and put up invisible walls.
But Brett Ryan from Focus on the Family says there are ways to prevent this silent retreat, and still have a say in their world.
The Three ‘i’s of Connecting With your Child
In a chat with Hope 103.2’s Laura and Duncan, he suggested three ways (all beginning with the letter “i”) to maintain a strong connection with your child: being informed, involved, and intentional.
“Being involved means being interested in the little things when they are little, and that earns you the right to speak about the big things later on in life,” he said. “That sounds very basic but it’s amazing how many parents miss out on forming those healthy bonds and relationships. Be interested when they’re painting something, when they’re playing blocks. Because if you just keep on saying ‘I’ll look at it later’, when they get to 16, they’re not going to come and ask you about the big issues. Because you weren’t there for them during those little things.”
Being informed means educating yourself about how to parent – with books, seminars, articles and podcasts, and talking to those who have already walked the path well. And being intentional means actively looking for opportunities to build your relationship with your child or teenager.
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The sooner you start, the better, says Brett.
“Allow yourself the opportunities to listen to them,” he said. “It’s amazing, I speak in student groups and I ask the kids, ‘What would you like me to tell your parents about how to parent you more effectively?’ They say two things very commonly. One is to ‘get off their phone’, and the other is ‘to listen to me’. And then I speak to parents, and ask them the same question about their kids, and they say the same thing!
“I think if we both do those things, and be really engaged and listen, that would be a very good place to start.”
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Have Family Meal Times
As a father of three boys who are now young adults, Brett speaks from years of experience when he urges parents to have a family meal time together. He says it’s one of the best ways to encourage conversation.
“Having regular family meal times, technology-free, would be the best thing you could do for your family,” he said. “Kids do better academically, socially and psychologically as a result. And you’ll know when to say something or not, because you have actually had a journey with them. They hear your stories, you hear their stories.
“You earn the right to speak into young peoples’ lives by starting early, and the dinner table’s a really good place to start.”
Look for moments throughout the day to grab short conversations, too—for example, when driving to sport, music practice, swimming lessons, and school. Conversations can flow more freely when you’re not looking each other in the eye.
“Ask them, ‘What did you think about that TV show last night?’” suggests Brett. “I don’t think parents are aware that there’s so many opportunities around.”
Allow Them to Have a Voice and a Different Viewpoint
Asking your child or teenager’s opinion, and respecting their answer, is another key to building connection, says Brett.
“If your kid is curious about something, ask them, ‘What are your thoughts’? And don’t just say ‘No, that’s wrong’. We need to allow our kids the opportunity to actually own some of their decisions, beliefs and value systems, and it may be contrary to yours.
“They’re trying to find out who they are. And then at the end of it, they’ll come to a conclusion, and you may be surprised.”
While some parents of faith may struggle to let their teenagers form different views, it’s best to allow space for them to reject your beliefs or values if they choose—especially as they are reaching into their adult years.
“If you make every decision for them, and dictate what they do and say, they’re not going to come to their own conclusions.”
“Young people are coming to their own identity about their faith and things like that,” Brett said. “If you keep on just making every decision for them, and dictate what they do and say, they’re not going to actually come to their own conclusions. We need to allow our kids to grapple with these things.”
In his own family, Brett has resisted the temptation to restrict his sons around alcohol, even though he doesn’t drink himself. It’s enabled his sons to own their choices.
“My son has been involved in high level sport, especially in football, which has a big drinking culture, and he’s come to his own conclusion that he doesn’t want to drink. “I’ve said to him, ‘You’ve got to make your own decision’. As a result of that, he’s standing up for his own values. If I had thrust it on him and said ‘We don’t drink in our household and you’re not going to either’, he wouldn’t own it. But he’s come to his own conclusion.”
Your Teenager Still Needs You
When your teenager seems to be pushing you away at every turn, don’t be discouraged. They still need you, says Brett.
“Teenagers are in a time of pushing back. They’re going through a process called individuation. They’re trying to find out who they are, where they fit in the world. And although they may be pushing you back, in their brains they’re actually saying ‘I’m pushing you away, but don’t go too far, I still need you.”