Listen: Collett Smart chats to Emma Mullings about tips on connecting with teens
Some teens may give the impression they’d like to disown their families, but research shows that they actually really need them.
The latest Mission Australia Youth Survey, which surveyed almost 19,000 teens aged 15 to 19, showed that relationships with family and friends were the top two issues on their radar—even more important than health, finances, school and jobs.
Yet the same study showed that one in five youths didn’t experience great family dynamics, rating their family’s ability to get along as either ‘poor’ (7.0%) or simply ‘fair’ (12.5%).
Relationships Are High On Teenagers’ Agendas
Adolescent psychologist Collett Smart spoke to Hope 103.2 about the Mission Australia research, saying that it proved relationships were far more important to young people than some parents believed.
“They actually said that they would go to friends and family for advice above the internet,” she said. “It actually flies in the face of [the thinking] that our young people go to the internet first.
“They actually want us to talk to them. They want to be able to come to us for advice. Our 15-year-olds are feeling lonely and less resilient when they don’t have an adult who they feel can listen to them, and when they feel like they don’t have someone to talk to when they’re upset.”
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Tips For Improving Parent-Teenager Relationships
If relationships with adults are so important in teenagers’ lives, how, then, can parents make them better? It comes down to making them a priority, says Collett.
“We’re all busy in life so it’s about prioritising our special people,” she said. “Obviously our kids and our family come first.”
Spending an hour of focussed time with your teens each day is a good first step to take.
“Parents groan when I say the research indicates that our teens need about six hours a week of parent engagement,” Collett said. “Parents go, ‘What? How am I going to fit that in!’ But that’s less than an hour a day.”
10 Tips For Connecting With Your Teenagers
Collett pointed out that “eyeball to eyeball engagement” with your teenagers isn’t always necessary, and offered a number of tips on how to connect with them.
1 – Ask Questions
This may seem like a no-brainer, but a lot of parents – particularly those whose teenagers are very withdrawn – assume their teen doesn’t want to talk, and give up asking anything at all. Don’t stop trying, is Collett’s advice.
“If they say, ‘I don’t know’, find a way to ask that same question in a different way, [but] so that they don’t feel interrogated.”
Even a small exchange of words is better than none.
2 – Find Out Their Opinion
Getting your teen talking about their opinions is a great step that can bring them out of their shell. Instead of closed-ended questions, ask them things that will get them thinking and talking, says Collett, such as:
- ‘Was there a bad teacher decision at school today?’
- ‘Have you heard anything on the news lately that’s worried you?’
- ‘What did you think of that movie you saw last night?’
- ‘Where would you like to go for our next family holiday?’
- ‘What do you think about family rules?’
And remember: avoid judging their answers—so they aren’t afraid to talk again later.
3 – Learn From Them
While parents may want their teens to learn from them, there are things they can learn from their teenagers, too. Asking them questions will show them your interest and empower them to share the things they love.
For example, ask them to show you their favourite apps and how they work, what music or games they’re into lately, what movies and Youtube channels are popular with their friends; ask them to explain the rules of their sport, or what trends have been doing the rounds on social media or in the playground. You may be surprised what you learn!
4 – Everyday Conversations Are Good Too
Chats about everyday things are just as important as deep and meaningful conversations, says Collett. While a teenager’s not likely to engage in a discussion about the garden or the weather, they might get talking about food, music, their friends, or news from sport or school. Often it’s not the topic that matters, as much as simply connecting.
Use open-ended questions. Instead of ‘Was soccer good tonight?’, try ‘What was the best part of the game?’, or ‘How did you feel about scoring that goal?’, or ‘How do you think the team will go next weekend?’
5 – Talk During The Ads
To encourage a withdrawn teen to come out of their shell, one good tip courtesy of Focus on the Family that may be worth a try is the “commercial conversation”. Watch a favorite TV show with them, and chat talk during the commercials, or take them to a game of sport and talk at halftime. “These short bursts of communication, conducted without having to sit face-to-face, may be just the thing for the really reluctant talker,” says FOTF.
6 – No Phones At The Table
If you’re having a designated lazy night where everyone is eating their takeaway on the couch in front of the TV and scrolling through social media on their smartphones at the same time, that’s fine—but don’t expect any real connection to happen!
As a general rule, no phones during meal times is best, says Collett Smart. It’s a rule she has in her own home and one she recommends for all families.
7 – Have Some Tech-Free Time
It can be easy for a teenager to come home from school, head straight to their bedroom with earbuds firmly implanted, and only emerge when food is on offer. But for Collett, it’s a habit she won’t allow. With her own teenagers, she has a ban on technology and earphones when they first come home in the afternoon.
“I say, ‘No technology at the kitchen bench, I want you to talk to me, talk to each other, engage with each other.’ ”
While it may seem a tough ask for some parents, setting limits on technology goes a long way towards building better relationships.
8 – Phone-Free Driving Time
Similar to the tech-free dinner table, a boundary around earphones and technology in the car also helps build relationship. How? It stops people from ignoring each other.
“We have a no earbuds in ears and where possible no phones while we’re in the car,” said Collett. “Because it’s a great time to connect with our young people while we’re on our way to sport or school.”
9 – Find a Shared Interest
Often the things kids enjoy doing with their parents when they’re young lose appeal in the teenage years. If that’s the case in your family, see if you can find a new activity or interest in common with your teenager. Whether it’s a sport you do together, or one you simply watch on TV; a food you like to cook together; a genre of movies you love to watch; or something as simple as shopping – find a way to engage with your teenager in an activity.
Conversations may open up more easily if you’re doing something side by side rather than looking each other in the eye.
10 -Talk To Them At Bed Time
While many parents may think their teens are too grown-up, independent or aloof to want to chat at bedtime, Collett says often the reverse is true. In her role as an adolescent psychologist, she has discovered that many teens actually crave those intimate chat-times before going to sleep.
It’s a practice she has continued with her own teenagers.
“I have so many teenagers say to me, ‘My parents don’t sit on my bed any more like when I was little’,” she told Hope 103.2. “They want us to! Use that time before they go to sleep to connect with them. That’s my favourite time of day.”