By Roy Eiermann, LCPC
What I’ve discovered is many parents, foster or not, adoptive or not, struggle to connect with their teenagers. Because it’s hard. They don’t run to the door to greet you. They hardly acknowledge you when you greet them! They have developed interests and habits that don’t always match my own. They stay up late, and love to nap during the day. They often speak a language I don’t even understand!
But, they so desperately want to connect with us. They are insecure and anxious and want to know they are loved and liked.
So how do we connect?
Matching Their Behavior
Behavior matching is choosing to mirror your teen’s physical position while talking so that it builds/supports attachment. When I used this, I watched how they sat at the table or lay on the couch and slowly adjusted myself to let them know we are connected. I tried my best not to stand over them, but made myself physically smaller than they were, so that they felt comfortable and relaxed. Not threatened but loved.
Playful engagement is exactly as it sounds: being playful with your kids. I tried to learn about what my kids found fun (in our house it’s a lot of basketball and video games) and then chose to engage in that activity (no matter how bad I am at it!) When playing together, just like with a small child, I let them know I am interested in them and want to have fun with them. Does your child like video games? Can you endure an hour of gaming with them this weekend? Does your child like YouTube? Can you find a funny video to text them? How does your child play and how can you join them every now and then?
Our oldest son loved walks. Usually it would begin by either one of us suggesting tonight might be a good night for a walk. This almost always involved some type of food, whether from the gas station, local fast food place, or ordering a whole pizza which was consumed by the side of the road at midnight. We had a hot and cold relationship while he was in high school, but one of the things that kept us connected was these walks.
Car rides were a great opportunity to talk. In the case of our younger son, late night car rides were a great opportunity for me to listen! On Friday and Saturday nights after picking him up from being with his friends, I would often get an ear full. Sometimes they were serious topics. Sometimes they were his latest favorite rapper. Although it was never which girl he was into, as that was kept very private!
Be Ready When They are Ready
I learned that with our daughters, I just needed to be ready when they were ready. Countless times I’d be looking at my phone and one of them would plop down next to me and begin talking. I made my best effort to put my phone down and tune in to her. I wanted her to know she had my undivided attention. There was nothing on my phone more important than her. Even if it means we were talking about a new skincare technique or hairdo.
When our budget was tight and I knew we needed to connect, I began taking them out individually to McDonald’s and ordering a drink. It didn’t cost more than $2. We could sit there awhile. I didn’t think it offered much hope of being successful, but what the heck? What I didn’t realize was how much the kids were going to value that one-on-one time. We have had a lot of good conversations in those McDonald’s booths, getting our free refills!
Sit at the Kitchen Table
Our kids often migrated to the kitchen at various hours in the day and night. Typically their eyes were glued to their phones. I started to place myself at the kitchen table and played solitaire with a deck of cards. Suddenly their eyes became unglued and they started talking as they ate their food. I kept my eyes on the Aces but made sure my ears were open. I responded to the conversation but continued to play the game. It was easier for them to open up knowing I was slightly distracted by a deck of cards, but totally able to engage with them because we were at the table together. My solitaire playing grandmother would be proud.
I challenge you to try something to connect with your teens this week. It might work, it might not. But you will never know until you try, again and again.
Roy Eiermann is a licensed clinical professional counselor in the state of Illinois and clinical director at OMNI Youth Services. He specializes in child and adolescent therapy, trauma-informed treatment, and substance abuse services. He can be reached through his website: https://meetmonarch.com/