“I can’t stand my parents. I am just waiting until next year when I leave for college and don’t have to deal with them anymore.”

“My mom drove me to therapy today because I’m grounded from the car for 2 weeks. I got a speeding ticket. It sucks not to have a car, but I guess I get why they did that.”

Teenage clients often express frustration about their parents, highlighting the complexity of these relationships. But which of these quotes reflects a connected relationship with parents?

Connection with other humans is essential for everyone, but it is particularly vital for teens and emerging adults. Adolescents are on a journey of self-discovery, trying to find their place in the world beyond their family. As they strive for independence, their social relationships with peers become crucial. During this tumultuous time of trial and error, figuring themselves out and identifying “their people,” teens are in a precarious position. They critically need stable and predictable connections. Parents and other supportive adults act as anchors, grounding teens during this period of significant change, growth, and necessary risk-taking. These connections wield the greatest power to influence and impact adolescents’ emotional health and well-being.

The benefits of connectedness are both protective and reparative for teens and the adults who love and care for them. In 2021, the Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, highlighted teen mental health and suicide rates as a public health crisis in his Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health. Even before the pandemic, in 2017, the CDC released a report titled “Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policies, Programs, and Practices.” And in 2023, Gallup published a report through the Institute for Family Studies titled “Parenting is the Key to Adolescent Mental Health.” All these studies point to one critical intervention: strong and secure emotional attachment. This mechanism for connectedness can increase healthy coping and help-seeking behaviors, profoundly influencing children’s and teens’ health and wellness.

However, cultivating and nurturing connectedness with teens, as they push and pull away, can be challenging. They need their parents, but they don’t always want their support. Experiencing meaningful connectedness with adolescents and emerging adults is a balancing act. Their evolutionary need is to separate from parents and become self-sustaining (“I don’t need you. I can do it”). On the other hand, caretakers’ evolutionary urges are to nurture and protect; it often feels like parents can see a train wreck coming at them from a mile away.

Both are true.

These opposing stances create numerous dilemmas for parents and teens to navigate, potentially leading to either greater conflict or greater connection. Achieving the latter requires awareness and efforts to build and maintain a relational base that promotes a connected experience for parents and teens alike. The variables contributing to mental health challenges for adolescents today are numerous and complex. When teens face mental health struggles, parents can harness great power as a resource within a connected relationship.

Over 30 years of working with adolescents and their parents as a therapist has shown that:

– Teens desperately want to feel connected with their parents.

– Parents want to have close, connected, and meaningful relationships with their teens.

– Both parents and teens often seem unsure how to achieve this.

After decades of talking with thousands of teens and reviewing relevant studies, five key skill sets to create and maintain a connected parent-teen relationship have been identified: Respect, Authenticity, Kindness, Predictability, and Acceptance. These skills can be cultivated and deliberately practiced.

Respect is foundational. Teens need to feel respected in their individuality and autonomy. This means acknowledging their opinions, listening without immediate judgment, and valuing their input. Authenticity involves being genuine and transparent with teens. They can sense insincerity and are more likely to open up when they feel they are being treated with honesty.

Kindness goes a long way. Small acts of kindness can build a reservoir of goodwill that helps during conflicts. Predictability provides teens with a sense of stability. Consistent rules and reactions help them feel secure, even when they push against boundaries. Lastly, Acceptance is about embracing teens as they are, not as they are wished to be. This doesn’t mean accepting harmful behavior, but rather, showing unconditional love and support.

Incorporating these skill sets into daily interactions with teens can foster a deeper, more meaningful connection. It’s not always easy, and it requires patience and practice, but the benefits are profound. A connected relationship can act as a buffer against the many challenges teens face, providing them with a solid foundation to grow and thrive.

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