(Re) connecting with your teen

Many adults obsess about wanting to keep the romance with their partners alive, giving flowers and organising special date nights. But what about the bond we parents have with our teens? Why are we so willing to take this for granted?

It is true that adolescence is a time of pulling away – our teens need to withdraw in order to form their own unique adult identities, and to gain the independence they need to leave the nest.

But this is also a time when our young people need to know they have a safe place to land.  They need to be reassured that we will still love them, even when they may not be easy to love, or even love themselves.

Too often we assume that our teens know how we feel about them; that our love for them is instinctive and so needs no explanation.

Yet, rather than receiving messages of tenderness from adults, teenagers often get the message that the rest of the world sees them as hard to handle: as either trouble, or troubled. In popular culture and in adults’ conversations, the teen years are often referred to with a roll of the eyes, as a time that must simply be endured.

In an attempt to make time just for her (with no work emails for me, or uni assignments for her), I recently took my 20 year old daughter off for a night at a city hotel.

We had dinner, giggled, talked, watched movies in our beds, debated air conditioning settings and compared fluffy pillow configurations. We woke up to a delicious breakfast, shopped, then had yum cha. Bliss.

But it wasn’t the food or the new shoes we purchased that made this time so special. The power was in the proximity.

I always loved my kids sneaking into my bed for a snuggle when they were small. I adored the smell of them, the sound of their breathing. It is primal.

Once our children get older, however, sharing a hotel room is the closest you can get to recapturing that connection (especially as teens so often retreat to their own rooms as soon as they walk in the door at home, and are less likely to let you sniff their heads – trust me, I’ve tried).

So if a staycation in your local city isn’t possible ( after all, being able to afford to do this is a privileged position to be in) how else can you keep the bond with your teen strong?

1. Keep the lines of communication flexible, and open. There’s something about the fact he doesn’t need to make eye contact with me that tends to make my 17-year-old son open up more via text. Rather than rush to tell him to talk to me in person, I engage with the banter, and click on the funny links he shares with me. As a teen girl I remember writing my parents long letters when I was upset in an attempt to explain to them how I was feeling. I’d slip these under their bedroom door, and retreat back to my fortress. Face to face chats, notes, texts, emails – carrier pigeons. As long as they are conversing, it’s a win.

2. Find their spark. Parenting guru Maggie Dent says that honouring your teen’s passions is a great way to keep the love alive, “My four sons were all mad surfers. Did I want to get up at the crack of dawn and drive them around looking for waves to catch? No.” But, Dent explains, “I did want to see their faces light up when they talked about the surf. Now, as grown men with their own kids, they still call me to share what makes them light up.”

3. Betsy McWhinney retells how she fought to stay connected with her 14-year-old when her daughter was filled with despair and self-harming. In Bringing a Daughter Back From the Brink With Poems McWhinney explains how she would leave poems for her to read, “…all I had to offer her at that point were the thoughts of others who struggled to make a meaningful life and had put those thoughts into the best, sparest words they could.”

If you feel you don’t have the right words, seek out the beauty others have produced and share this instead. A trail of books, art and music that lead them back, through the wilds, to you.

Proximity can occur in a myriad of ways – and not all of them are about sharing the same physical space.

This post was originally published in The Daily Telegraph