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Connecting with Your Teen

I read recently more 200,000 cell phone text messages are sent every minute–mostly by teenagers–which adds up to more than 6 trillion per year. That’s a staggering amount of “connecting” but it isn’t producing much in the way of real connection between parents and teens.

Like a new coat of paint slapped on to the surface of a sagging barn without making repairs to the structure, it may look impressive to see teens making so many text communications, but it’s not a real improvement. Kids are lonelier than ever.    That’s why parents today have a wonderful opportunity to reach their teens by making real and meaningful connections with them. They’re looking for it, frantically tapping keys with their thumbs, but they’re not finding it.  Let me share some tips with you.

Watch for signs of disengagement.

Many teens are struggling today—depression, addiction, even suicide are common problems for them.  They withdraw, even from their friends.  It’s hard for them to pretend that everything is OK in person; it’s much easier to do that through text messages.  Many teens tell me they would prefer to text instead of talk.  Tragically when teens start to disengage, their friends often let them.  They are fighting their own battles, and so teens can quickly become very isolated.  If they are spending more time in their room than before, turning down invitations to go out with their friends, dropping out of sports or clubs, or not wanting to go to church or youth group activities, you are probably witnessing the symptoms of disengagement.

If you see these signs, I encourage you to start doing more things together as a family.  Your kids will probably roll their eyes and call it lame, but they’ll also benefit from the time you spend with them and enjoy it more than they’ll admit.  One of the biggest helps you’re providing is modeling for them how to build meaningful relationships and make deep connections.  Their generation won’t teach them this—they can’t, because they don’t know how.  It’s up to you as a parent to provide them the training they desperately need in this area.

Do Ask, Don’t Tell.

I spend my life asking teens questions.  When a teen comes to Heartlight, I ask questions.  I have them over to the house for a cookout or take them out riding horses, and they open up.  Someone asked me not long ago why kids open up to me and I said, “I ask questions.”  Asking questions provides a teen with a sense of value—someone cares about what I think and how I feel.  What they don’t realize is that in addition to finding out more about them, I’m also teaching them to be interested in others and how to go about building a connection with them.

I know we’re making progress when we get to the point where they say, “Hey, Mark, can I ask you a question?”  When you reach the point of two-way communication, you’re a long way down the road to establishing a real connection.  Much of teen communication today is simply self-expression without any real interest in feedback or input from others.  I want to get them to the point where they are truly interested and engaged with more than just their own thoughts and feelings.  Questions are perhaps the single most powerful tool in the arsenal to do that.

Listen to their answer and don’t shut them down.

It’s a pretty regular occurrence for me.  I ask a teen a question and I get an answer that is 180 degrees from right.  If that happens, your response is crucial.  Now please understand, I’m not saying you should allow them to think, believe or say just anything.  But if they give an answer that indicates wrong thinking, you can shut them down by saying, “I don’t believe that” or “That’s wrong.”  If you do that, you’re cutting off the process and damaging your connection.  Always display respect in your tone, words and posture and don’t be judgmental.

Instead of shutting them down, I suggest you ask further questions to encourage them to think through the basis and implication of what they have said.  Follow up questions like, “Why do you think that?” or “What happens if?” encourage them to continue the conversation.  Questions are much more powerful than statements.  It may take time and lots of questioning, (all of which is strengthening your connection to them) but I’ve found that if you work through the process with a teen rather than giving them the “right” answer immediately, when they find it, it becomes their own conviction rather than just one of yours that they are tolerating because they live in your home.

Be present when you’re present.

Simply being at home physically while your brain is still at the office or you are busy with your own Blackberry or iPod doesn’t build connections.  I encourage you to be actively involved and engaged when you are with your children, especially teens.  Keep up with what’s going on in their lives so that you’re able to interact with them on the things they care about.  For a long time I’ve been suggesting families have at least one completely media free night each week.  Turn off everything electronic (including and especially yours) and talk.

Remember that they are desperately seeking a meaningful connection.  You can’t build that while you’re buried in your own world—you need to set the example and demonstrate genuine interest in someone besides yourself.  I’ve found that so many of the teens who come to us are longing for a listening ear.  If you’re a distracted or detached parent, they’ll know it.  You may be able to fool a boss, your friends or even a spouse, but your teen will see right through you.  Your teen is worth the investment of your time and attention.

Finally, let me urge you to guard against unhealthy connections.  Because connection is such a deep and abiding need—it’s part of God’s design for us—teens will go to almost any links to find it.  Many times this leads them to totally abandon what their parents have taught them regarding music, appearance and conduct in order to fit in.  Young people today are making “connections” in dangerous and even life-threatening ways.  By providing a genuine connection for your child, you are guarding them far more effectively than any rules or boundaries you could establish ever will.

We talked about this issue in-depth on our radio program last weekend called “Connection with Teens.”  To listen online look for the program dated July 2, 2011 at http://www.parentingtodaysteens.org.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.

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