7 Ways to nurture your relationship with your teenager

How can I build a better relationship with my teenager?

I’m a mother of four. Our oldest three are ages 20, 18 (graduating high school this spring!), and 16. Our youngest is about to turn 3.

When the older three were still in elementary school I rejected the concept of a traditional American teenager being the unchangeable default.

The idea of moving from childhood into maturing young adulthood seems more consistent with (my admittedly limited knowledge of) history. The idea of adult children maintaining relationships and community with their parents (and extended family) seems to be increasingly strange in our culture.

At the same time, I’ve lost count of the articles I’ve read that lament how young mothers lack support systems when raising their new children, and how increasing numbers of young adults are taking longer and longer to move on from the fun and freedom of the stereotypical American teen years.

Are these real problems? I don’t have the data to make that call. It sure sounds as if they’re real problems for some.

What I do know is that I want to nurture my relationships with my children, all the way through to adulthood. I want to see them thriving in maturity, and I want them to know that Mom and Dad are always only a phone call away. I want them to feel comfortable making that call.

Lasting relationships don’t just appear in a vacuum, though. They’re sown, cultivated, and tended.

Reflecting on our relationships with our teens and adult children, I thought of seven things we (strive to) do that cultivate and tend those relationships. I’ll share the first three in this post, and the rest in upcoming posts.

So what can you do to nurture your relationship with your teenage child?

1 Realize your teen is a person

Some of you may object out the gate that parents aren’t supposed to be their child’s friend, they’re supposed to be the parent.

Stick with me. I’m not going to tell you not to parent.

Step into your imagination, though, for a minute, and picture how you interact with your friends. Coworkers? Spouse or significant other? Aquaintances?

Now, how do those interactions differ from your interactions with your child? How are those interactions similar? In good ways? Bad ways?

You see, there is this beautiful, cozy spot of respect and love in which we listen well, use kind and gentle words, and, if we have authority over the other person, we exercise it calmly and firmly without being controlling, critical, or angry.

Many people, if they strive to act as I’ve described in their relationships, tend to do those things more easily in some relationships than in others. Often the ones we find the most difficult to do this with are our children.

We’ve got to remember that our children are people, too. They have bad days. They have hormones. They have reasons behind their outbursts. They have dreams and struggles, hopes and heartaches.

Just like you.

Blending warmth and firmness, listening and advice, opportunities and boundaries is more likely to nourish your relationship with your teenager than warmth and licentiousness or cold, punitive criticism. And, let’s be honest, a lot of us tend toward the prickly side as our sweeties start to navigate their increasing freedoms.

Again, plain old warmth without firmness and guidance is the other ditch, so don’t hear me say to just “let it go” when your child flips an attitude. I’m not saying that.

I’m saying that if you want a relationship with your teenagers, you’ll get the most mileage by framing that relationship as one with a unique person over whom you just happen to have some authority and responsibility.

Let that awareness temper your interactions and you’ll be on your way to nurturing a potentially lifelong bond and maintaining a healthy influence long after your time in authority has passed.

7 Ways Parents Can Nurture Their Relationship With Their Teenager - Mama Rhythm Blog - Happy teen girls sit on sofa

2 Prioritize time together (even when it’s awkward)

I’m talking quantity time here. Brainstorm with your spouse, if you’re married, and then bring those ideas to the table and brainstorm with your teenager. Find routine chunks of time you can prioritize to spend as a family and one-on-one.

Sometimes it’ll feel weird. Sometimes you’ll have a ton of fun. Sometimes you’ll have amazing conversations. Sometimes one or both of you will feel annoyed.

Keep prioritizing time together.

This isn’t a box to check. It’s prioritizing the relationship.

What you do during that time together will vary wildly depending on your and your child’s personalities, preferences, and interests. Try to find something neither of you hates, that doesn’t greatly disrupt other household routines or family members’ needs (if at all). It might also help to pick something that doesn’t take an enormous about of preparation and effort, however, there are exceptions to this, such as camping trips, hunting, or taking a class together.

In our home, we:
  • Eat dinner together as a family almost every night. All family members who are home at that time are expected to come to the table. If someone has eaten or will leave shortly after dinner, s/he comes to the table to reconnect and chat a few minutes even if s/he doesn’t eat.
  • Have family devotions together most evenings. All family members who are home at that time are expected to be present. If you’re not religious, you can still gather or do some thoughtful activities while still at the dinner table, such as add to a thankfulness journal. I’m pretty sure we have all had our “eyeroll” moments during this time, in which we really didn’t want to be there (myself included). It’s been amazing to me, though, to hear in snippets ways that this time continues to impact our children, even as teenagers.
  • Have a weekly family night. Until last year, this was a very big part of our lives. Friday night was family night for many, many years. It was something our adult son (who lives nearby) could even come home to enjoy with us. We had to cross it off during a family emergency and haven’t yet restarted. This reminds me we need to get it going again! Family night, for us, meant pizza or hot dogs, dessert, and usually either time around our fire pit, games, or a movie. Occasionally we’d all go out somewhere. Most often, we were simply outside by the fire pit.
  • Plan something one-on-one with each father-child and mother-child pairing at least once a month. This has morphed over the years… Taking turns going to the dump with Dad and getting ice cream afterward. Joining a local camera club together and attending weekly meetings. Walks and hikes. Lots of walks and hikes! Saturday breakfast out. Reading a book together and discussing it weekly (or, in reality, 2-3 times a month). Antiquing. Exploring used book stores. Attending concerts. (In our community free concerts are a regular thing.)

3 Capitalize on unplanned opportunities

For whatever reason, teens don’t always get chatty during planned one-on-one time. No, they open up about stuff we wouldn’t care less about if it weren’t coming from our child, or about really important, deep stuff, at the most inconvenient or unexpected times.

I can kind of relate. When my husband and I go on a “real date” we end up not talking much, but when we get a few minutes alone in the living room and relax we can end up talking for hours. Those unplanned conversations about whatever is on our heart or mind are like miracle grow on our marriage.

One day I realized I was totally missing those opportunities with my kids. I realized I need to respond to them the way my husband responds to me. Stop what I’m doing (without bristling!), listen, and engage.

Those unplanned opportunities are too precious to lose. And I can tell you example after example of how powerfully they’ve nurtured our relationships with our teenaged and young adult children.

So the next time your teen approaches you right after you just sat down to have a cup of coffee alone, or after everyone else is in bed and you’re just trying to do a couple more things so you can fall into bed yourself, put down the phone or work or whatever and listen up. Whenever your teen unexpectedly opens up, roll with it. In the car. In the waiting room. Turn down the music. Put down what you’re reading. Listen. Engage.

Don’t miss those moments.

The rest of the series will follow in the next two weeks.

7 Ways Parents Can Nurture Their Relationship With Their Teenager - Mama Rhythm Blog - Teen boy laughs

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