Tips for reconnecting with your distant tween or teen

Tips for reconnecting with your distant tween or teen
  • PublishedJune 5, 2024

Pat always felt close to her son. An only child, he didn’t go to childcare, so they spent his first three years together.

Later, Pat (not her real name) would drive him an hour each way to primary school and they’d talk about everything.

They lived rurally and, on holidays, Pat and her son would go on trips together to different cities. At art galleries, the duo would have long, in-depth, chats about the artwork in front of them.

But Pat’s son is now 12 and he’s become fiercely independent. A gallery visit on a recent trip to Melbourne was a fizzer.

“He just didn’t have any interest in what he was looking at,” she told ABC podcast Parental As Anything: Teens.

“It wasn’t something that we could do together anymore.”

It left Pat feeling dejected and that their connection had completely disappeared.

“[All I felt] was distance, as if I was being a nuisance more than anything else.”

Pat’s story, and the grief associated with it, would be a familiar one to many parents of tweens and teens.

“Kids, as they grow up, start to develop their own sense of identity,” parenting expert Dr Justin Coulson says.

“The easiest way to prove that you are your own person is … to simply stop engaging with your parents.”

Connection, rather than correction

Pressuring your child to spend more time with you and return to those previously enjoyable activities might make matters worse.

“Force creates resistance; the harder you push for something, the more your teenager will discover that they have some power over you,” Dr Coulson explains.

He says one common mistake parents make in trying to foster closeness is attempting to befriend their children.

“It’s wonderful to have a great relationship with your children, but you’re not supposed to be their best friend.

“Kids need limits. They need boundaries, frameworks, structures, and systems. But to become a good human requires making a lot of mistakes.”

And when they make those mistakes, Dr Coulson says, if parents focus too much on “correction and direction”, it can also push our teens away.

“When teenagers are constantly being told what to do, they look at us and they think, ‘You don’t get me, you don’t see me or hear me or value me, you don’t understand me. Therefore, I can’t trust you … I don’t think you’ve got my back.’

“What we need instead is connection … This isn’t about sucking up to the kids, it’s about doing the things that create the relationship.”

So how can parents connect with their tweens and teens?

Connecting, or reconnecting, will take time.

“You’re not going to sit down and have one conversation with the kid, and everything will come back to normal,” says Dr Coulson.

“And it won’t ever be what it was. It will be something different because your child is developing.”

Pat is trying to find a way back to her son.

“I want to keep showing interest in his life. He’s just started year 7 and I’ve asked him all these questions about his new friends. It’s like 20 questions at dinner time and he gets annoyed with it,” says Pat.

“I don’t know whether I’m pushing him away by doing that or [if] letting him to know that his mum’s still interested [is a good thing].”

Dr Coulson says that peppering your child with questions at school pick-up or the dinner table often doesn’t work, as they need time to decompress and can find meal-time conversations confrontational.

Parenting expert Justin Coulson surrounded by his 6 daughters
“The more we hassle them [teens], the more we correct them and direct them, the more the relationship falls apart,” says Dr Coulson.(Supplied: Justin Coulson)

He suggests having a weekly date with your child at their favourite cafe.

“Food is wonderful for kids. They’re much more likely to talk to you in public places where there’s food.”

But he adds, it’s best to go in with no agenda.

“If they don’t feel like talking, that’s fine. Just sit in silence with them.”

There are other more casual opportunities for connection too, even if they seem insignificant. Ask your child to pop down to the shops with you, listen to their music together, or just sit on the couch and watch their favourite show.

It may take many of these moments before your teen opens up.

“Our job is to sit down with our kids and just be present.

“Play games, do the things that are important to them, and have conversations that don’t necessarily matter because you’re building up stock in that account and one day, you’ll be able to cash it in and have the important conversations you need to.”

Dr Coulson also suggests that families establish “rituals of connection”. His family has a weekly screen-free night. But it could be regular camping trips, time with grandparents, or extended family dinners.

Grief and growing up

Dr Coulson says it’s normal to feel grief as your child grows up and inevitably grows apart from you and their behaviour becomes challenging.

“What I would recommend is go for a walk with them or sit on the end of the bed when they’ve hopped into bed and just chill. Share with them how you’re feeling. Keep it short. Maybe 10 seconds,” he says.

“Look at your child and say, ‘Kiddo, I love you, no matter what.’ 

“No matter how many doors are slammed, no matter how many disrespectful conversations are had, no matter what you found on their computer screen, your love is bigger than any of those things.”

Dr Coulson observes that while we may lose closeness with our children through the tumultuous teen years, they usually return to us. Whether that’s by the end of their teens or further along.

“There’ll be something that happens when they grow up that will bring them home. They’re biologically designed to do that. It’s up to us to be the best version of ourselves that we can be so that when they are ready, we’ve been what they needed us to be, and we can continue to be that.”


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