As a mother of four teenagers, it would be plausible for me to hail myself as all knowledgeable on the topic of connecting with teenagers. Unfortunately, connecting with your child is not a science – it requires continuous enthusiasm and effort. The same enthusiasm and effort that was shown to them when they were infants, toddlers and tweenies. Unlike other stages of your child’s development, the daunting part of connecting with a teenager is respecting that they have opinions and ideologies of their own, which are occasionally in conflict with your own.
I asked my children about their views on the way we connect. For the first time in recent history they agreed with one another.
We connect through mutual respect and compromise, two principles that can only be attained by communication.
As a family we have established a variety of rituals that began in their early childhood. These have aided communication throughout their teenage years. Like many other mothers in the world, I juggle a career and the responsibilities of single parenting. The reality of life is that there is not much time for individual, sit-down, deep and meaningful conversations with my children. We all, however, have to eat and mealtime is communication time. I insist upon us eating together at a specified time every day – it is a non-negotiable rule in our home that is observed in the morning and in the evening.
Gathering in the morning allows us to communicate our plans for the upcoming day. This is the time when I focus on the events for that day which are important to my teenagers; we are able to remind each other about what we have to do in the day; and it is often the opportunity to appreciate how much each individual family member has to cope with on that particular day.
Between work, school and sport, all our days are busy and there is little time for each other between sunrise and sunset. During these hours there is a lot to be positively said for the power of social media. We have a family Whattsapp group and at some point throughout the day, one of us will send a message or an emoji or a meme. It takes all of a second, yet it can communicate love, encouragement or most often just share a little bit of family humour. Should I receive an email during the day that is pertinent to one of my teenagers, I forward it to them directly. This gives them the opportunity to be accountable for their own commitments and ensures that I don’t forget to pass on important information.
Dinner time is when it all comes together. This is the time when I get the “scoop” of the day, with each teenager adding their little bit of “spice”. We are by no means the “Brady Bunch”, as dinner time often ends with more than one person disgruntled. Respect and compromise get their time to shine at this point. It is the moment when opportunities are taken by the teens to ask for permission (which often requires compromise on both our parts) or to let me know about altercations and celebrations that have happened in the day. It gives us the chance to debate current topics and to respectfully disagree with each other.
I cannot help but dismiss the theory that it is not quantity, but quality that counts when spending time with your children. It is the daily quantitative communication that affords you the opportunity to discuss and advise teenagers on small issues before they become big challenges.
Of course, connectivity is a relative concept. I would venture to suggest that finding the connectivity balance is the most challenging part of being a parent to teenagers. When my husband died seven years ago, I vividly remember one of my first thoughts being along the lines of not wanting my children to feel too connected to me as they became teenagers and thus feeling the need to be responsible for me. At that point in time I decided that all my children would leave home when going to university. This year, my first baby left to study in a different province. It has been the second most difficult time in both our lives and we count the days until we see each other. As difficult as it is for us both, it is an integral part of cementing our connectivity as adults. We talk every day, albeit that the time we spend chatting has become shorter as the year has progressed.
The stronger the connection, the more difficult it is to disconnect. Just as we, as parents, are responsible for making the connection, so we are responsible for encouraging a certain amount of disconnection to take place at the right time.
Throughout my teenagers’ latter years, I have noticed a few of their peers’ parents struggle with levels of connectivity. When our children become teenagers, we also tend to get a second lease on life. We have increased freedom and time – it is tempting to use our connectivity with them as a channel to re-live our own teenage years. A point of danger. Whilst the concept of being a “cool” parent is tempting and, I must confess, I have experienced a little “cool” parent envy myself – it is a point of caution. Their friends are not your friends. The goal is to keep the connectivity alive through adulthood and not to short circuit it in teenage years.
Like all stages of parenting, there is no blueprint for how to connect with your teenagers. You need to establish which gatherings work for your family in your circumstances. Family traditions that are established in early childhood are the power for communication that is the wire for connectivity throughout the teenage years, with the ultimate objective being its transformation throughout adulthood.
By Natalie Lee, Teacher at Pecanwood College