The tween and teen years can be hard on the parent-child relationship. Many parents and caregivers wonder how to hold on to the close bond they shared with their children when they were younger once their child hits adolescence.
Know that this is a very common concern—even for many tweens and teens, too. Learn how to stay connected to your tween or teen, while also giving them the space they need to grow.
The Parent-Tween/Teen Dynamic
As kids enter their tween and teen years, they often begin to shift their focus from their parents or caregivers to their friends. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean that your kids no longer love their family—they just want to explore the larger world and their relationships with their peers, too.
That said, many kids in middle and high school suddenly find their parents or caregivers “embarrassing,” “weird,” or out of touch.
While the need for independence and space is a normal, developmentally appropriate process, it also can feel distressing and confusing. Feeling that your tween or teen is “changing” or drifting away may trigger fear that you won’t be able to adequately guide and protect them.
Many parents of adolescents wonder what they did wrong and worry that they’re losing their close bond—and being replaced by their kids’ friends. But all is not lost.
While it’s very common for some distance, stress, and challenging emotions to appear as kids reach double digits, that doesn’t mean that parents or caregivers are losing their connection to their child.
You can still remain close—or get closer than ever before—as your adolescent child grows up. In fact, research indicates that the quality of your relationship with your child during this stage of life is as crucial and influential as ever.
Tips to Stay Connected
While staying connected during this stage is not always easy, a good starting place is to not take your child’s impulse to step away from you personally. Understand that their growing desires for alone time, privacy, and time with friends are normal and expected—and not a reflection of anything you did or didn’t do.
Plus, just because they may not always express it, your child likely still cares very much about your relationship. And even though it may seem like they are not listening to you, deep down they probably want to stay close to you, too.
Still, you may need to be the one to make the effort to keep the lines of communication open as the hallmarks of adolescence—big feelings, raging hormones, wanting to fit in, and unrefined impulse control—may prevent your tween or teen from reaching out.
Schedule Regular Family Time
A great way to keep closeness alive with your middle or high schoolers is to schedule family bonding time. This can be any activity that you do regularly with your tween or teen (or whole family if you have more kids).
Ideas include having a weekly pizza, spaghetti, or taco night. Other possibilities are cooking, watching movies, playing sports, exercising, hiking, playing board games or video games, shopping, doing beauty treatments, or simply walking the dog together,
The most important element may be consistency and creating a family tradition, which will build gravity over time. All it takes is a few weeks of family game night or playing catch before dinner for the activity to become a family ritual.
Listen More, Talk Less
While it can be mighty tempting to talk your tween or teen’s ear off when you get their attention, it can be more effective to listen instead. Research shows that adolescents are driven to seek autonomy and by the desire to make their own decisions.
Let them talk and work out their issues with you as a springboard may be much more well-received than simply telling your child what you think or telling them what to do without getting their input.
Don’t Shy Away From the Hard Stuff
Use a gentle touch but don’t shy away from communicating about complex or challenging topics with your tween or teen. It may feel awkward, difficult, or uncomfortable to talk about some topics, such as sex, death, money, drugs, vaping, politics, dating, grades, college plans, friends, or family issues.
Every attempt to broach these topics may not always land. However, your efforts will likely pay off with a closer relationship if you keep trying.
Plus, your child needs to know about these topics—and what better source than you? Remember, it’s OK if you fumble over your words, feel embarrassed, or don’t know how to answer every question. The key is that you are exploring these topics together and that your child knows they can come to you with their concerns and questions.
Be the Calm in Their Storm
It is not uncommon for teens to experience intense emotions or say things they do not really mean, so it’s understandable that parents and caregivers sometimes lose their cool, too.
Do your best to keep calm, even in the face of challenging tween or teen behavior. Avoid yelling and try not to mimic their reactive behaviors such as slamming doors, stalking away, and engaging in the silent treatment. Instead, try to be the calm to their storm.
Remember, teens, are prone to make mistakes and experiment, sometimes with risky behaviors. They may push their parents away due to embarrassment or because they fear their parents getting mad or being disappointed.
Make sure they know that no matter what they do, you love them unconditionally and that you are there for them. Studies show that the more parental time they get translates to better outcomes for teens.
Also, give yourself grace when you lose your temper or otherwise react in a way that you don’t feel great about. Recognize that no parent is perfect. Simply give yourself time and space to recalibrate. Then, apologize and start again.
Be Kind But Firm
While it can be tempting to let go of your rules in order to gain your tween or teen’s appreciation, it’s important to maintain boundaries and discipline for your child. That doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible from time to time.
Perhaps this means letting your teen stay out an hour after curfew or allowing your tween to ride the bus or take the subway by themselves if they show you they can be responsible enough to earn this privilege. So, say “yes,” when you can, but enforce the rules you keep with kindness.
Tweens and teens need greater freedom and autonomy. Reevaluate any rules that may be excessive—and listen to your kid’s point of view. But remember that kids need rules.
Abandoning rules or boundaries altogether can be a slippery slope. Kids without these limits may be more likely to look for new, more dangerous boundaries to cross. Also, while kids may rail against rules, they also rely on the structure that they provide.
Aim to be patient, understanding, and forgiving of your child. Yes, they will be challenging at times and their behavior may disappoint you, but for many, volatility, mistakes, and moodiness are hallmarks of the tween and teen years.
Your child is going through a period of massive physical and mental change and growth. They are also trying to fit in in the larger world while also figuring out exactly who they are outside of being your child.
Offering your child a little extra empathy and patience, especially when they’re at their worst, will do wonders for keeping your connection alive.19 As noted above, this doesn’t mean abandoning rules or consequences.
Instead, simply aim to approach them with love, an open mind, and as much patience as you can muster. Forgive them when they mess up and focus on solutions and trying again rather than blame them as you help them find their path.
Join in Their Fun
Whatever your tween or teen is into, from video games or sci-fi novels to crocheting, skateboarding, or baking, aim to show your interest. If possible, join in in some way.
Do they want to volunteer at an animal shelter, direct a movie, or learn to make bread? Figure out ways you can support their hobbies or passions, whether that means finding classes, resources, or like-minded mentors, participating in the activity with them, or simply asking them about it and being their cheerleader.
Invite them to participate in your favorite pastimes, too. But when you show genuine interest in their passions, you let them know you see them as their own person—and value their interests and the unique person they are becoming.