Why is it getting harder to connect with my teen?
Published on 20 April 2023
As a parent, it hurts when your teen seems to be pulling away from you, and conversations with them turn into conflicts. Here’s how you can better connect with them.
If you’re a parent of a teenager, you may already be familiar with – or even borne the brunt of – their moodiness, irritability, and anxiety.
Teens may display undesirable behaviour like hiding in their rooms and refusing to communicate with their parents, asserting their independence, and rebelling against boundaries. They may also spend most of their time with their friends, and appear distant with their families.
This can be an incredibly frustrating time for both parents and teens alike. Parents, however, should not despair or think that the future is bleak for their teens.
Instead, they should view this admittedly challenging period as one in which teens are living and making decisions while their brain is still “under construction”.
As a result, “the choices that teens make are mostly driven by emotions and their desire for reward and gratification, rather than rationality or logical reasoning,” explained Ms Eunice Lim, a Psychologist at the Ng Teng Fong General Hospital (NTFGH).
Big changes in every way
The ages between 10 to 21 are a time of tremendous development, where the adolescence undergoes significant biological, psychological, and cognitive changes as they gradually transit to adulthood.
Their behaviours may come across as unreasonable and attention-seeking, but understanding the big changes our teens go through will help parents navigate this challenging phase together as a family.
Onset of puberty and rapid changes in the body
Ongoing changes in puberty
Acne concerns which may affect the adolescent’s self-esteem
Concrete all-or-nothing thinking
Egocentrism and may come off as oblivious towards others’ feelings
Development of the prefrontal cortex but not yet fully matured; able to use logic but decisions are still primarily driven by emotions
Increased impulse control and decision-making skills
Increased self-consciousness due to physical changes in the body
Interest in romantic and sexual relationships within peer groups
Identity, values and beliefs start to solidify
It is a normal rite of passage that teens will pull away from parents at some point as they focus on relationships with their peers, while searching for their personal identity.
In times like this, parents can adopt the approach of being a friend and mentor when communicating with their child, so that they feel more comfortable in opening up.
Laying the path for open communication
With parenting, there are no rule books to follow. Every parent-child relationship is unique.
However, the adoption of general boundaries can be helpful. “Adolescents are at a developmental stage filled with curiosity and are highly susceptible to engaging in risky behaviours. Thus, setting boundaries is important. It is also crucial that adolescents can get relevant help from adult figures to navigate such decision-making processes,” said Ms Lim.
Open communication and trust should lay the foundation of relationships between parents and their teens.
Explain to your child why certain boundaries are in place, and more importantly, help them understand that these boundaries are coming from a place of care, rather than your desire to control the child.
When discussing boundary settings, allowing for negotiation is also key.
This way, the child learns that they have some autonomy to make their own choices within the boundaries parents have set for them, and would thus likely be more willing to comply.
“Be flexible to adjust boundaries in the household, taking into consideration the developmental needs of your child. Having trust in the child that they can make reasonably responsible decisions independently after parental guidance can also help to foster stronger parent-child relationships,” added Ms Lim.
Using the setting of curfew timing as an example, Ms Lim shared that it is more effective for parents to provide guidance rather than relay instructions.
“Instead of insisting on a fixed timing, allow a range for negotiation and then come to an agreement with your child. It helps to also discuss the consequences of their choices (e.g. safety concerns of returning late) as such conversations guide them to make responsible decisions.”
However, conflicts could arise when parents feel that their child is not behaving up to their expectations and the child feels that his or her parents are not listening.
When addressing differing viewpoints, try adopting an open mind in understanding your child’s perspective and motivations for their behaviour instead of dismissing them.
It may be related to your child’s peer relationships, personal goals, and aspirations – it is crucial that parents acknowledge these are important to their child.
Knowing when to ring the alarm
Should attempts to establish a relationship with your child fall through, and parents notice their child displaying atypical behaviours that significantly affect their daily functioning in the areas of school, social, or family life, seeking professional interventions could be life-saving.
Some signs to look out for include:
Low moods for a prolonged period of time (more than two weeks)
Disinterest in things that were once exciting
Loss of motivation in doing things, which often coincides with a drop in grades
Poor sleep and appetite
Thoughts or acts of self-harm and suicide
Teens who exhibit symptoms of mental health concerns can often feel every alone in their struggles, and this is where parents can be the first line of support. “Be warm and gentle to listen and validate their experiences. Refrain from pressing the child to share their emotions; instead, reassure your child that he or she can always turn to you for support if they are struggling,” said Ms Lim.
She added that if symptoms persist, parents should encourage their child to seek professional help. Share resources that a child can access to for support – for instance, a school counsellor, or an online chat support for youths.
Remember, even during times when your teen doesn’t make it easy for you, the best you can do as parents is to always stay connected and be there when your child needs you.
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In consultation with Ms Eunice Lim, Psychologist, NTFGH.