Connecting with Your Teen

Even though your children might be pulling away, itching for more independence, deep down they want to be involved in the family and know that you still love and care for them. A strong bond with your child, especially during the teen years, helps reduce the chances of engaging in risky behavior. It helps set the stage for preventing drug and alcohol use.

Strong Family Relationships Reduce Risky Behavior

Even though your children might be pulling away, itching for more independence, deep down they want to be involved in the family and know that you still love and care for them. A strong bond with your child, especially during the teen years, helps reduce the chances of engaging in risky behavior. It helps set the stage for preventing drug and alcohol use.

“Bonding is important throughout the life course and particularly important during adolescence,” says Richard Catalano, Ph.D., Professor and Director of the Social Development Research Group at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work. “We know that kids who are bonded to parents who hold healthy beliefs and clear standards — particularly about drug use or alcohol use — are much less likely to get involved in any kind of problem behavior.” Bonding helps reduce the chance that your kid will engage in a range of risky behaviors, including risky sexual activity, crime, trying drugs or alcohol, or dropping out of school.

According to Catalano, there are three main building blocks to encouraging a strong relationship:

PROVIDE TEENS WITH OPPORTUNITIES
Household chores work great with younger kids, but teens require a higher level of family involvement and responsibility. They need the chance to help with family decision-making. It can be as simple as involving them in planning an upcoming family vacation, or asking them to help you research any upcoming purchasing decisions for the family, like a new TV or changes to a cable subscription.

TEACH THEM SKILLS
If you’re giving your teen new opportunities and responsibilities, give them the skills to succeed. If he or she is making a decision about a new purchase or family event, explain the criteria needed to make an informed opinion. Is he or she pushing for the chance to buy their own clothes? Teach them how to budget for what they need. You have to give them some support and structure from which to build new skills.

RECOGNIZE THEIR EFFORTS
After your child finishes a task, or at least shows that they really tried, make sure you recognize the effort in a way that fits their needs. For example, don’t try to push hugs on a teen who resists physical affection. Try a high five or verbal recognition instead. Recognition provides the motivation for kids to continue making positive efforts.

Stay Involved

As annoying as it can sometimes be to teens, keeping tabs on their activities – both online and off – is one of the most important things we can do as parents. It’s another way of demonstrating that we care, and of developing a stronger parent-teen relationship.

But it can be a balancing act. With teens, we’re between a rock and a hard place. We need to respect their growing independence, but they still need boundaries. We want to keep them safe, but they want us to mind our own business. Finding the right balance requires always adjusting and staying in touch with what’s going on in their life.

The goal is to regularly know where your teen is (especially after school), who his or her friends are (by their names, faces and voices), and what they’re doing. Here’s how to make keeping tabs a seamless part of the routine:

  • Share some quality in-person time — without the distraction of electronic devices — whenever you can: during meals, during a snack, while you’re in the car, or simply hanging around.
  • Ask specific questions about his or her day. “Who’d you have lunch with today?” “Do you have play rehearsal tonight?”
  • When friends are over, pop in to meet them or say hello, and check in periodically.
  • Ask teachers, coaches and other relevant adults in your child’s life how he or she is doing in school or with other activities.
  • Talk to their friends’ parents. If you don’t know them yet, introduce yourself the next time there’s an opportunity. Or call them to say hello. Whatever works for you.
  • Be part of his or her scene. Volunteer with their school or get involved with the activities they might enjoy outside of school.
  • Familiarize yourself with the social networks and apps they use. Be clear about what is off limits when it comes to using technology, and make it clear that you will keep tabs on their activity — and make sure that you actually do.

Your teen may push back, but that’s no reason to back off. Help him understand that you’re involved because you love and care for him, not because of a lack of trust.

Catch Early Warning Signs

If your teen simply refuses to talk about his or her life or you suspect something’s wrong, don’t wait to take some action:

  • Pay more attention at home. Before bed, check in with him to look for signs of drug or alcohol use.
  • Keep an eye on sleepovers (that’s when many teens first experiment with drugs and alcohol). If you need to, search his room.
  • When he’s out, make sure he is where he said he’d be. Have him call to check in with you, call to check in with him, or take a drive and look for his car.
  • Set strict rules about parties. Find out where it is and whether there will be adults there (if not, don’t let him go). Have him call to check-in periodically (this can be a real deterrent to using any drugs or drinking if he’s worried you’ll hear a change in his voice).
  • Tell his friends’ parents about your worries and ask them to call if they see any unusual behavior.
  • Keep him busy after school. Sign him up for an activity — a youth group, music program, sports team, whatever — that’s led by adults. Then follow up to make sure he goes.