20 ways to connect with your teen

Hint: It's the little moments, not the big occasions, that really count

I confess — it’s way harder than I thought it was going to be to find things my teenagers and I can do together. Part of it is that Sam, 16, and Annie, 13, are busier than they used to be. On some days, it feels more like I’m running a bed and breakfast than a family. They come, they eat, they leave. Home is a pit stop and, some weeks, conversations with my kids are as rare as snowflakes in July. The other reason is that they’d rather be with their friends. But while this predilection to hang out with their peers is normal, I also know that strong family relationships are still important and much needed. “It’s not easy because kids this age are pushing you away. They want to be independent,” says Toronto psychological associate Janet Morrison. So we turned to the other experts — parents with teenaged kids — for 20 ways to stay connected.

1 Eat together. “Family dinner hour is sacred in our house,” says Peterborough, Ont., mother of four Catherine Shedden. “If the kids are home, they must eat with us.” Suppertime at the Shedden household is fun — even boisterous. Conversation covers the gamut from the latest events at school and the antics of friends and neighbours, to politics and world events.

2 Cook together. Got a hungry kid rumbling around the kitchen? Suggest the two of you throw together a plate of nachos or a pizza. “Even my son will do it if I say, ‘Hey, check the cookbook and pick out some cookies to make!’” says Ruth Swyers of Ottawa.

3 Work together. Sometimes it’s easier to have a conversation with a teenager if you’re not sitting and forced to make eye contact, observes Kanata, Ont., mom Cathie Kryczka, whose youngest, Claire, headed off to university this fall. “If you’re raking leaves, shovelling snow, doing dishes together, your hands are busy, but your brain is available for connecting.”

4 Share a family interest. Lisa Miller-Pond says that while her young teens do more things with their friends, they still enjoy family activities. The trick, she says, is to make room in their busy schedules. “Ingrid goes horseback riding a lot, most often by herself since there is only one horse. But it is a passion I share with her, so even if our time together is just in the car ride back, we talk about the ride,” says the Peterborough, Ont., mom. “If it isn’t horses we try to ice skate together; my husband, Bruce, builds a rink in the backyard.”

5 Go shopping. If you leave your own tastes at home and be clear about how much money you’re willing to spend, you can really learn a lot about your teenager at the mall. Ask about her favourite bands while browsing the aisles of the music store or get her to help you choose new towels for the bathroom.

6 Follow their lead. “My son wanted to learn golf, so I took it up with him,” explains Swyers. “Although he’s way better than me already, it’s something we can do together.” Swyers says she searches out opportunities to pursue new interests with her kids. “I’ve followed them through everything from tap dancing to whitewater rafting.”

7 Do some good. Both the Pond kids occasionally volunteer with their parents at a community lunch program that’s organized by their church. There are lots of ways to help out that might inspire a teen. Whether it’s shovelling an elderly neighbour’s driveway or doing a marathon for cancer research — let your child pick one and then do it together.
8 Tell their stories. When you share your memories of the funny, sweet and infuriating things they did when they were young, teens gain a sense of being connected to your unique family history — of knowing they belong and that they matter to you.

9 Say good night. Knocking is required before I enter my 13-year-old’s room, but she still likes it when I tuck her in and kiss her good night. If I linger a bit, that’s often when I hear about the plans she’s making with her friends on Friday night, or a test she’s worried about.

10 Read out loud. Lisa Miller-Pond loves to read to her kids. She’s spent many winter nights and long car rides reading them all of the Harry Potter books. “It’s a good way to stay in touch because you have something concrete in common.”

11 Keep the TV in the den. “We know people whose kids have a TV, computer and phone in their rooms. It’s like they have separate apartments,” says Swyers. If her kids are watching the hockey game or Canadian Idol, Swyers says she’ll often sit down and watch with them. “It gives us more to talk about.”

12 Go to the movies. When Torontonian Martha Camp-bell’s son, Alex, was a young teen, they both loved to go to the movies. He picked the movie one time, she the next. “I learned to appreciate Arnold Schwarzenegger and he discovered Jane Austen.”

13 Talk about your day. Often the smallest detail from your busy day will spark a conversation. Did you run into an old friend? Discover a new bakery around the corner? Finish a project at work? Sharing an anecdote opens the door to hearing about theirs.

14 Go one-on-one. Teens feel that their problems, concerns or delights are the most important — that everyone else’s troubles are secondary, says Shedden, who finds that her kids want her undivided attention once in a while. “I found that a trip out to Tim Hortons was a great way to focus on just one child.”

15 Share a skill. “I’ve always tried to find some common ground with my kids,” says St. John’s native Christina Cox. She and her daughter Sabrina, 17, share a love of computer technology. Together, the pair designed PowerPoint presentations for Sabrina’s school projects.

16 Create rituals. “Twice a month, my 13-year-old daughter and I give ourselves a pedicure while we watch TV,” says Maple, Ont., mom Patty Castellano. Little rituals, whether it’s painting nails or trimming hair, are important to kids because they provide “no-pressure” time to connect with a parent.

17 Say I love you. Not as a reward, but just because you’re glad your child is in the world. Ignore the messy bedroom, and leave a small vase of flowers and a little note by her bed, or a guitar magazine on your son’s pillow. Just because.

18 Seize the moment. Don’t rely on big events, such as a family vacation or an expensive night out, to nourish your connection to your teen. “I’ve learned to look for opportunities to interact with my teenaged kids rather than trying to create them,” says mother of four Catherine Shedden. “If I am in the kitchen cooking, it’s often a magnet, especially for my always hungry boys. It’s a great time for conversation — sometimes they even pitch in and help.”

19 Keep it real. “When you’re doing activities with your teen, keep your expec-tations realistic,” says psychological associate Janet Morrison, “which means low.”

20 Welcome their friends. If you do this, says Morrison, they’ll be home more. Not only that, she says: “I’ve talked about all kinds of stuff — things that would have been a lot harder to talk about with my kids one-on-one — over breakfast with my kids’ friends. When your kids are forced to see you through their friend’s eyes, they realize that everything you say isn’t stupid.”

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