As children grow up and enter new stages of learning, development and independence, it can be tough to know how to maintain a strong bond.
The strategies and ideas you used before might not work as well now. This is especially true when a once-chatty child is moody, withdrawn, reactive or just looking for more space.
While this can be a challenging time, there are ways to bridge those communication gaps, build trust and keep your connection going strong.
Here are some everyday tips to keep in mind.
Understanding teenage thoughts and feelings
“My teen is so dramatic!”
The pre-teen and teen years are a time of huge transition for children, second only to the toddler years. Their bodies are changing, their need for autonomy is increasing, and they might struggle with friendship issues and academic pressures. Add the impacts of social media and the lingering effects of the pandemic, and it’s no wonder this can be a confusing time – for them, and you.
Moreover, their brains are far more active than we might imagine. It used to be thought the brain matured by adolescence. But more recent research shows the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls things like emotional regulation, planning, problem solving, learning and self-awareness) continues developing into their 20s1.
Remember, they're not mini adults - their brains are still a work in progress. This is a time of significant change, emotionally, cognitively and physically, so try to keep your expectations realistic.
What to do when your teenager shuts you out?
It can be difficult to watch your pre-teen or teen go through tough times and not confide in you as much as you would like or hope. However, if we always try to intervene, solve their problems or have a rational conversation about the cause of their emotions, it can cause them to clam up.
The key can be to listen so they will talk.
Instead of trying to fix everything immediately, try stepping back and simply listening to what they have to say. By validating their feelings without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing, it can help them feel more comfortable opening up to you in the future.
Often, pre-teens and teens may not always feel like talking. That doesn't mean they have nothing to say.
By approaching the conversation as something to be solved together, rather than an accusation, you may find they're more willing to share. For example, "I've noticed we're not talking as much as we used to. Is there anything we could do to change that?"
How I do get my teenager to talk about their feelings?
Pre-teens and teens are geared up to react to questioning, so try to approach conversations in a way that doesn't make them feel defensive. They might shut down if you interrupt, overtalk or ask too many questions too quickly. These are conversational skills you can role-model, too.
Choosing the right time to approach them is also important. If they’re tired, grumpy or glued to their screen, it might be better to wait until they're feeling more ready for a chat. And sometimes, these moments happen when we least expect it (think: car-rides) so keep an open mind.
When you want to talk about bigger issues, and are worried about intimidating them with "big" talks, you could also bring up a related news story or ask something more general. This way, you're not singling them out, but rather having a relaxed, open conversation about how the world works.
Going beyond assumptions
A simple "I'm fine" response may mask deeper emotions they might hesitate to share straight away. This can be confusing, especially when you’ve spotted the signs that something might be wrong.
Try not to back off too quickly, or be put off by initial dismissive responses. These can often be a sign they want to know if you're seriously interested. They'll likely tell you if you're pushing too hard. And even if they don't feel like sharing much now, let them know that you care, and you're there for them whenever they're ready.
Sometimes you'll misread or miss the signals. That’s okay – this is a learning process for you, too.
Creating a calm and predictable home environment
The world can be an unpredictable, exciting and challenging place for children and a lot of what they’re going through is outside of your control. What you can do, however, is make your home a calm, predictable haven for them to return to.
Try to check in with yourself and pay attention to your own emotions. How do you handle stress and frustration, and what cues and signals are they picking up from you? Think about the tone you’re setting at home, and try to aim for a predictable atmosphere, with plenty of affection, positive communication and support.
Spending time together
Even if your pre-teen or teen is becoming more interested in their friends, spending quality time with them still matters. And when you get involved in a hobby or activity together, it creates a bond you can build on over time.
In fact, research2 shows parents who stay involved and share in activities with their teens find they are more likely to keep in touch as adults. If you're not sure what to do together, try following their interests, or let them teach you something new. You might be surprised by what you learn!
Involving them and negotiating
As kids grow up, they become more capable of handling challenges and solving problems on their own. During this time, involving them in family decision-making becomes even more important and can help them to feel like their ideas matter.
Even though it might not seem like it, pre-teens and teens can thrive when they know what's expected of them, and when rules are consistent, with a little flexibility.
Try to have open and honest discussions about what is expected of them, and why rules are in place. Set realistic boundaries and talk together to create family expectations that everyone can feel part of. Make sure consequences are reasonable and fair, and allow them to make some mistakes along the way.
A final note…
It can be tricky to figure out how to handle the transition from childhood to adolescence. And when it comes to connection, it can be even harder to know when to adjust your grip and when to hold on tight.
As you navigate this new phase of parenting, they need a strong connection with you as much as ever – it's just a little different now.
With some new parenting strategies and lots of patience, you can build a strong bond, now and for the years ahead.
1 Sawyer, et al. (2012). Adolescence: a foundation for future health. The lancet, 379(9826), 1630-1640.
2 Fang, et al. (2022). Multivariate growth trajectories of parenting practices in adolescence predicting young adult relationships with parents. Developmental Psychology, 58(12), 2388–2400.