During the adolescent years, your relationship with your child can start to change. Teens and pre-teens begin to experience a new understanding of the world and become more independent. That means your role in their life changes, too, which can be uncomfortable for many parents.
"Parenting as an act doesn't come with an instruction manual," says Brett Cooper, M.D., Adolescent Medicine Specialist at Children's Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern. "Adolescents build meaningful relationships with other people, whether they are friendships or romantic relationships. Some parents struggle with that knowing they are not their child's world anymore."
In his practice, Dr. Cooper sees hundreds of adolescents and their parents each year. He offers this advice for parents to stay connected to their teen.
1. Just listen
You may have been helping your child fix problems their whole life, but once they are in adolescence, they might want to do it themselves instead. If your child comes to you because something is wrong at school or with a friend, it is a great time to build your relationship – by just listening.
"Sometimes parents try to say what they would do in that situation," says Dr. Cooper. "But teens often just want someone to listen to them. Don't tell them what to do; ask how you can help."
By being available to listen without judgment or advice, you help your teen become more comfortable coming to you with problems. They are also more likely to turn to you in the future.
If you notice your child is having a bad day and seems angry or sad, don't demand to know what is wrong. Instead, Dr. Cooper suggests just letting them know you are available.
"You can say, ‘You look like you are down today, I am here if there is something you want to talk about,'" says Dr. Cooper. "Be open to the response that they don't want to talk about it at that moment and hope they will come to you later when they are ready."
2. Respect their boundaries
While small children might tell you every detail of their day, teens have a right to privacy – and they will use it. Your teen will set boundaries on what they want to talk to you about and what they don't want to talk to you about. Respecting those boundaries helps your child feel respected and less like you want to control them.
If you do feel your child needs to talk to someone about how they are feeling or the pressures they are under, you can always connect them to a therapist. Teens may be uncomfortable talking to their parents about friends, parties, sex or other topics, but can get trusted advice and support from a licensed therapist instead.
3. Avoid being dismissive
Teenagers feel a wide range of very intense emotions. Because you've been an adolescent, you can look back and know that some of those feelings you had as a teen were silly. But that doesn't mean that what your teen is feeling now isn't very real.
Dr. Cooper recommends that no matter what the situation is, never be dismissive of your child's emotions.
"Don't say, ‘You don't have a reason to be feeling depressed or anxious,'" says Dr. Cooper. "Being dismissive is a quick way to turn them off."
Accepting and acknowledging your child's emotions will make it more likely they will share them with you in the future.
4. Show genuine curiosity
Another way to encourage your teen to share with you is to show genuine interest in their activities and hobbies – even if you don't understand them. Ask them about their interests and what they like about the activity, whether it is geocaching or watching anime or taking pictures of their food.
"Teens want to be around people who build them up and those who are interested in things they are interested in," says Dr. Cooper. "They want validation that they are doing well or making good decisions. Talk to your teen about their interests."
Once you know what they like to do, support them. You might even ask your teen how you can support them or participate in some of the activities they enjoy. Maybe you can dress up together and go to Comic-Con. Create a TikTok video together. If your teen is reading a good book, you can read the same one and discuss it. Always ask your child what they want to do – and they are more likely to include you.
"Be genuinely curious about their lives and respect their boundaries," says Dr. Cooper. "That is where I see the most fruitful relationships between parents and teens."
Parenting a teenager is hard and staying connected with teens can feel even harder. Read this advice about how parents can stay connected to their teen from Children's Health.
As the largest group of board-certified, fellowship-trained adolescent medicine specialists in North Texas, the Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine (AYA) team at Children's Health focuses specifically on the unique needs of adolescents. Learn more about the AYA program and services.