Written by Dr. Shannon Odell, clinical psychologist in Lake Oswego, Oregon.
We’re excited to welcome you to a new series from child psychologist Shannon Odell. Doctor Odell is here to help us debunk, navigate, and normalize the challenges of those teenage years that many of our kids are facing. This month we're excited to share "Connecting With Your Tween: how to keep your relationship strong when your child begins to push away".
Remember the days when you were the one your child wanted to spend all their time with, when all you had to do was sit together and play? Or read a story, or have a tea party, or build a Lego castle… you get the idea. I’m sorry to say, now that your child is a tween or teen, those days are over. But you probably already knew that. The ease with which we used to connect with our children changes as they grow—for some of us it becomes easier, but for many of us it becomes much more challenging.
As a general rule, tweens and teens don’t love to spend time with their parents. There’s a really good reason for their gradual distancing. It’s the start of what’s called the “separation-individuation” phase of development, meaning this is the time when kids start to figure out who they are separate from their families. Seemingly overnight, the child who couldn’t wait to play with us now wants to spend most of her free time alone in her room, or outside of the house somewhere with friends. The good news is these behaviors are both normal and expected. BUT, and this is a very important but, the relationship between parent and child doesn’t become any less important. In fact, I would argue the opposite is true. It becomes perhaps even more important to make attempts to connect with our teens and tweens even when it feels impossible.
This technological world we’re living in is becoming increasingly complex, with kids escaping into their phones and online platforms sometimes more than they engage with their peers in the “real world,” and the pandemic has accelerated this truth quite significantly. There is a lot in this online realm that our children are exposed to, things they aren’t always ready for, and things that would be best explained and contextualized through multiple conversations over time. In order to keep these lines of communication open, establishing connection and maintaining connection is necessary. But…how? How do we connect with a person who seems to want nothing to do with us?
First of all, contrary to what their behaviors suggest, they actually do want to connect with us. What they DON’T want is to answer a bunch of questions about their personal life, or be given a list of chores, or be nagged about their grades. We as parents tend to come into a situation with an agenda, which automatically shuts down the chance for connection. One of the best ways to connect with your tween and teen is through your silent presence. Ask if you can join her for an episode of her favorite TV show or movie, or go into the kitchen when you know she’s in there…and don’t say anything. Acknowledge her, and just be there. She may start a conversation of her own volition, or the more likely scenario is that she may take comfort in knowing you’re there but not having to inform you about her plan for tackling their homework that night. Our silent presence is often enough to start building a connection where maybe it felt like there wasn’t much of one before.
To build off of your silent presence, another way to connect is to show interest in what she is interested in. This can be incredibly painful not only as a parent but as an adult who may have no interest in Minecraft or Roblox, or what’s happening on her most recent Netflix obsession. It can even be as simple as talking about her favorite item she’s using from her Love and XO Julia box. But showing interest in her interests (and try to make it as genuine as possible) opens up the door for other conversations, but also lets her know that you are interested in her inner world and in the person she is becoming. That can mean a lot when it’s time for the bigger, harder conversations.
The third and final suggestion I have for connecting with your tween or teen is taking advantage of the car rides you have together (while you still have them). The car tends to be very neutral ground, it probably has to do with the lack of eye contact and the ability to split attention between what’s passing outside and whatever is being talked about in the car. For whatever reason, it’s much less threatening for kids. There is a caveat to this… you have to get her off of her screen. I often recommend to parents making the car a device free zone. You’re not supposed to be using your device because you’re driving, so having the other people in the car shut theirs off too opens up the possibility for a more meaningful connection. This might be another place where your silent presence is required, but it at least opens the door for the possibility of connection. The car is also a great place for those challenging conversations if you need to have them. They’re trapped with you for however long the ride is, and there’s also going to be a clear breaking point when you arrive at your destination. The knowledge of the time-limited nature of the conversation can make it much more bearable for both you and your child.
If you take nothing else away from this, please just remember that TRYING is what’s most important. Never stop trying to connect with her, no matter how much she rolls her eyes or says mean things to you. She won’t connect with you if she doesn’t want to, but seeing that you’re still interested in her and knowing you will stay interested even when she’s nasty can mean the difference between coming to you when life gets hard and messy and complicated and she’s in over her head, or…not.
Shannon Odell, PsyD is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lake Oswego, Oregon