Parents, Your Teenager Needs You To Get Closer: Family Therapy Can Help
As an NYC family therapist, I’ve seen firsthand how hard it can be for teens to help their parents learn how to get closer and be there for them. For parents of teens, the New Year can be a good opportunity to check in with your relationship with your adolescent child. Does your relationship with your teen need more closeness? Do you feel like you know what is going on in their life and how to get at what is going on with them?
This is, in a sense, a life-or-death moment in the relational development with you and your teen. Adolescence is a pivotal moment not only in the parental relationship, but also in teen’s relationships with themselves, friends and family. Parents are the navigators and leaders in this relationship, even though the teen wants to be the authority. Even though teens need you, they often do not know how to verbalize it. This is where family therapy comes in. We help teens and parents navigate this very tricky and incredibly important relational moment.
Teens are hard to get close to (and they don’t often admit they want to)
What once was a easy hang with your kid can suddenly be weird and awkward. You can say and do all the right things, but still not break the silence. We often say that teens can be prickly–they can be hard to get close to. They are struggling and also struggle with naming the struggle. This puts parents in a tough position to navigate by themselves, which is why family therapy provides an opportunity for parents and teens get closer.
Because teens are more fully-grown–not only in size, but also relationally, neurologically and emotionally, we often forget that they are still in the early stages of development. Teens are still learning so much about the world and they need their parents a lot, particularly parents who can give them enough autonomy to feel separate, but also open up conversation from time to time to show that they are cared for.
Teens need steady adults to teach them how to be close, as well as deal with feelings of anger, sadness, confusion, angst and melancholy in their daily lives and the world at large. This is especially important because teens don’t know how to do this yet. They are still learning what relationships have to offer, let alone how to create scenarios in which their parents can hear them, be more helpful or calm the situation.
What Does It Mean To Be Close To Your Teen?
Teens are constantly developing as individuals and learning who they are in the world, as well as what they think about the world and the ways they are both into and struggling with it. This development isn’t simple. Therefore, getting close means being curious about both the exciting stuff in their lives–what they are good at, and what they are discovering and building–and the hard stuff such as their pain.
Essentially, closeness in your relationship means you feel for your teen and your teen knows they can talk to you. They can both spill to you (not like a friend, but as an adult/parent) and take a risk by opening up, just like they did when they were younger. For parents, sometimes this means just shutting up and listening, asking questions or holding firm when they need you instead of trying to solve or plan. Or at times, it means providing opportunities to be protective in ways they didn’t think you saw like, for example, saying, “I’m worried about this. I don’t want to solve or scold, but I want to talk.”
Talk To Your Teen About Wanting To Get Closer
Maybe an event happened at school or at home that made you think, “You know, I’ve always been traveling for work and I actually don’t feel as close to my kid as I once did” or “Hey, something’s not right–my kid and I need to talk.” Sometimes it’s necessary to admit to your teen that closeness hasn’t been happening–that you’ve been busy, distant or distracted. Admitting fault and talking about it can help open up opportunities for you and your teen to get closer.
It’s important for parents to address this lack of closeness honestly. Make sure your teen knows they didn’t do anything wrong, but that you both need some time to get closer. For example, offer, “How about I stop doing that late meeting every week and instead, we can use the time together to talk or plan an activity. I just want us to have more attention and time on you.”
By setting the stage that closeness is needed, you acknowledge that you want to be someone that your teen goes to when they are worried, in trouble, have a bad day or experience something good. You, in a sense, are re-establishing your status in this period of their life–not as an authoritarian organizer, but as someone with a diverse skill set that can support them, be the authority as parents need to be, and help them process. You also establish how you will be growing as a parent whose curiosity can be utilized in a new way.
Creating Conditions Of Closeness: Be Curious With Your Teen
One way to create closeness with your teen is to be curious about how they are doing. Ask them how their day was. How was it different than last month or week? What do they think about x, y or z at their school or in the political world? What is it like for them to walk to school every day? Who do they feel they are in the world? What makes them happy, worried, or sad?
Pick their brain and listen without reacting. Just let your teen talk rather than using what they said to state your point. Ask your teen if they want to know what you think before giving your opinion or advice. This allows them to come to you, just as you came to them.
By being curious, listening and asking questions, you are creating the conditions of closeness and letting your teen know they are safe to share with you. It is essential that teens feel safe in these conversations and that the information and vulnerability they share won’t be used as ammunition in your relationship or with others. They need to feel like this information is protected and in the same way, they are protected by your closeness.
Skip The Checklist: Get Out Of Everyday Logistics To Find Closeness
When working on closeness with your teen, skip the to-do lists. Avoid the talk about grades, tests, chores that haven’t been done, after-school activities like drama or basketball, college prep or homework. Instead, it often helps to get out of these day-to-day logistics to find closeness.
One way to do this is to take your teen on a “date” of sorts. Set aside time for just the two of you like you used to do when they were a young child discovering the world. This can mean making dinner for just the two of you, taking a walk together or going on a long train ride or drive, just allowing the scenery to guide you in conversation. The way we get to know others is by making space for them. By giving over this time for your teen, you’re letting them know that they are unique and deserve your attention.
Family Therapy Can Offer A New Platform For Closeness With Your Teen
Family therapy is a good resource for parents and teens that need closeness. In family therapy, both parties can acknowledge they, as a family, are struggling with their relationship. Both the teen and parent can utilize therapy as a means to start having harder, more intimate conversations. They can even learn how to disagree in a safe, respectful way in which everyone knows they are loved. This can be a big step for both parents and teens.
Usually in my family therapy practice, I start by meeting the parent and teen one-on-one, finding out their experiences and getting to know them. Most of all, I like to learn what has worked before, what is currently working and what is not working, assessing the relationship to see why or how closeness has broken down, gotten lost in the shuffle, or needs to be grown.
Then, we collaborate together on how closeness can be recreated or built. This might look like formal techniques: reflective listening, play/replay, or check-in/re-do. It might also be more informal with just the three of us talking about life, the teen and the parent, teaching them how to really listen, ask more curious questions or extend offers to talk without pressure or shame. By bringing teens and parents together, family therapy helps deconstruct and reconstruct how these conversations are going so they can have a safer, fuller and more connected relationship.