I think most of us are aware that teenagers are challenging, angst-ridden and downright surly, but have you ever wondered why? It was once believed that teens were impulsive and emotional due to their raging hormones, and that the brain had reached its full growth by the time a child reached puberty, but advances in brain imaging tell a different story.
Science now knows that a teenager's brain is nowhere near fully baked and that the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain involved in decision-making, planning, and self-control) is the last part to mature. Teenagers also undergo major changes in their limbic system—the area of the brain that controls emotions—at the onset of puberty, which is typically around the ages of 10 to 12 (or older). In other words, teens might be a handful, but at least their moods and bad choices can be explained by science (and not blamed on our parenting skills)!
Now that we know a little bit more about the science behind the crazy, all is not lost! Teens can still enjoy bonding and connecting with their parents (believe it or not), with or without a fully developed brain. Here are 20 ways a parent can bond with their ever-changing, surly beast of a teen. You're welcome.
20 Cook Together
This might not be the most original and creative way to bond with your teen, but it's easy and it works. Not only is it nice to have a willing and captive audience (for once), but the opportunity to chat while simultaneously passing on some of your knowledge and experience (and family recipes) is priceless. Cooking fosters responsibility and independence, boosts self-esteem, and can liven up a typically monotonous task. When you start to list them out, the benefits of cooking with teenagers are practically endless!
19 Try An Escape Room
With teens, it can be hard to find experiences that are enjoyable for the entire family, but an escape room is the perfect solution. For those who aren't aware, an "escape room experience" involves placing participants in a room (you can choose between several themes) with a series of riddles, puzzles, and clues. The goal is to work together to find a way out of the room, usually within an hour. Escape rooms provide the perfect opportunity to communicate with your teenager and actually collaborate with them. Everyone on the team has a chance to play their part and use their particular skill set. Does your teen work great under pressure? Are they great problem-solvers? Try an escape room and find out.
Volunteering alongside your teen is honestly one of the best things you can do for him/her. According to the Cooperative Extension at the University of Nevada, youth who volunteer are more likely to do well in school, graduate, and vote. Additionally, youth who volunteer for just one hour or more a week are "50% less likely to abuse alcohol, cigarettes, become pregnant or engage in other destructive behavior." Sounds pretty good, right? Teenagers can often exist in their own little world, but volunteer work teaches them to put others before themselves. Joining them also gives you an opportunity to model selflessness, social responsibility, and compassion.
17 Road Trip
Hear me out on this one- some of my best memories with my family happened during road trips. I remember we took a road trip to Nova Scotia (from Atlanta, Georgia) when I was 15-years-old, and I still have a photo album filled with hilarious memories, like the time my dad lost his keys in The Bay of Fundy. It wasn't funny at the time, but I'll never forget the time we spent looking for his keys before the world's (highest tide) came in. Family road trips also provide the perfect opportunity to chow down on snacks, sing in the car, have long conversations and discover new places together. Embrace it.
16 Find Some Common Ground
Sometimes it can feel like you have nothing in common with your teen, especially due to the generation gap, but it's important to find something you both love and do a lot of it. Being a teen today is inherently different than our experience a few decades ago, but certain interests can span the decades. Do you both like basketball? Take them to a game or shoot some hoops in the driveway. Do you both like music? Share your favorite albums with one another. Dork-out with your teen at Comic-Con if that's what you're both into! The sky's the limit.
15 Read Their Books
Even if you're not a big reader, creating a mini "book club" with your teenager is a great way to bond with them. Not only does reading the same book foster interesting conversation, it also gives you a glimpse into their likes/dislikes. I recently discovered my tween's love for John Green books by doing this exact same thing, and now I've joined the fandom myself. Honestly, my daughter's young adult books are much better than anything I've picked up in the adult section recently. Give it a try.
14 Give Them Space
I know giving your teen space in order to bond with them might seem counterintuitive, but hear me out. By giving your teen space, whether it's in their room or by allowing them to make their own decisions, you help to foster the sense of identity and independence your teen will eventually need in adulthood. "Helicopter parents" can destroy their teen's confidence in their ability to make good decisions by hovering and overseeing every decision in their lives. In the end, your teen will appreciate your trust and your willingness to give them their privacy, making them much more likely to open up to you in the future.
13 Welcome Their Friends
Many parents want their house to be the "teen hangout" so they'll know what their teen is up to, but there's so much more to it than that. Welcoming your teenager's friends into your home is a great way to get to know their friends personally and create a fun and safe environment. Sure, they might leave plates of half-eaten Tostino's pizza rolls all over your kitchen counter and destroy the downstairs bathroom, but at least your teen is choosing to be at home when they could easily be hanging out elsewhere. Believe it or not, your teen wants you to like their friends and they want their friends to like you.
12 Have Family Dinners
Don't start stressing out, your family dinner does NOT need to look like the one pictured above! "Family dinners" can be a bucket of KFC for all your teen cares (they might even prefer it). Regardless of what you eat or how "formal" it is, there's something to be said for sitting around the table together and sharing a meal. According to Dr. Anne Fishel, a family and couples therapist, the benefits of family dinner include increased communication, protection from high-risk behaviors (such as depression, school problems, substance abuse, etc) and improved cardiovascular health.
11 Verbal Affirmations
This is not the same as lavishing praise on your teen all the time (which can actually be harmful in the long run). Verbal affirmation can be anything from a simple "I love you" to a much-needed word of encouragement. Unlike praise, which focuses on results, encouragement focuses on effort and growth. Words of affirmation and encouragement are about acknowledging "the effort, growth, character, co-operation or feelings of your teenager." Express your gratitude and appreciation to them. Let them know you believe in them and love them.
10 Shut Up And Listen
When your teen comes to you and wants to talk (and communicate in something other than grunts), it's important that you stop what you're doing and don't mess it up. Parents are often so preoccupied with their own point of view that they don't really listen to what their teen is trying to say. Often when they do listen, they're only listening to respond. This can be easy to do, especially if your teen is saying something that's difficult to hear. According to Psychology Today, "listening affirms that the speaker has something worthwhile to say. Not listening denies or dismisses that value."
9 Let Them Choose
I'm not suggesting that you ask your child to make big, scary decisions, but it's important that your teen knows they have a voice. Allowing your child to make their own decisions is an incremental process based on their age and maturity. As they near adulthood you can expand the number of choices you give them (and the level of importance). According to Psychology Today, decision making is one of the most important skills your children need to develop to become healthy and mature adults. As a teen, I desperately wanted to show my parents I could make the right choices, but I rarely had the opportunity. Trust me, your teen will appreciate it.
8 Listen To Their Music
Have you ever shown an interest in your child's musical tastes? I'm not asking for you to love it, I'm just asking for you to give it a try. Let them pick the radio station in your car for once. If you have Spotify, ask them to share their playlist with you. You might hate their music with every fiber in your being, but they will certainly respect the fact that you're trying (just be careful not to voice your negative opinion). You never know, you might even love some of it and end up going to a concert with them.
7 Keep A Shared Journal
A "shared journal" is nothing more than a journal that you send back and forth to your teen with a new page filled out each time. This can be done in a blank journal, where you just let out all your random thoughts and feelings, or in a more structured one (with built-in questions specifically geared for parents and teens). This can be particularly handy for teens who feel more comfortable communicating with the written word rather than verbally.
6 Game Night
Family game nights sound pretty cheesy, but there are ways to make game night a weekly (or monthly) tradition without ruining your teenager's life. Put away the monopoly board and bust out some "teen-approved" games, like Wink Assassin, Taboo, Risk, or Loaded Questions (the game). If you're feeling really creative you can come up with some hilarious "minute-to-win-it" games on your own (those are always a hit with my teen). My suggestion? Whatever you choose to do, make sure it involves laughter.
5 Exercise Together
I think we can all agree that exercising is more tolerable with a buddy, so why not ask your teenager to join you? If they're not super excited about it, try setting a goal and signing up for something fun, like a color run. Mud runs (muddy obstacle courses) are a fun option as well, especially as they involve teamwork. Exercise benefits teenagers socially, physically and emotionally (as well as adults). Whether it's mountain biking, running, kayaking, or just hitting the gym, there's nothing better than setting a goal with your child and accomplishing it.
4 Binge-Watch Netflix With Them
Sure, it's sad that you can no longer hold your child in your arms, but now they can binge-watch a TV series with you (and is there anything better than that?!) This is like a rite of passage! My preteen daughter and I threw ourselves a "Stranger Things 2" party (complete with Eggo waffles and vintage Pepsi cans) and stayed up all night to watch it together. Long gone are the days when you're forced to watch hours of Nick Jr. against your will! Find a show, grab some popcorn, and start watching. You'll laugh, cry or scream together (depending on the show). It's the ultimate in bonding.
3 Travel With Them
You might not be able to afford to take your teen to Machu Picchu, but the location isn't important! Consider allowing them to pick the vacation destination (within your budget parameters, obvs) or let them have a hand in planning it. Would you like to go on a vacation if you had no say in what you did there? Of course not! Teenagers are old enough to have preferences and likes and dislikes, so make them a part of the conversation. Planning trips and traveling to new places is not just fun, it's also an important step toward independence. Make those memories while you still can!
2 Try Something New Together
My family recently took a trip to the Philippines and we were often doing things that were way out of our comfort zone. My teenager gleefully recounts the time I got attacked by a sandfish while snorkeling in the Philippine Sea, or the time her dad almost threw up while zip-lining on the longest zip line in the world. It was crazy and fun and all of us did things that I never thought we'd do. Trying something new with your kids is exhilarating and memorable (and so much fun to talk about afterward).
1 Ask For Their Opinion
Dismissing your teenager's opinion is one of the worst things you can do as a parent. Even if their half-baked philosophies and ideas seem crazy to you, give them the space to share them and show them respect by listening in a nonjudgmental way. Warning, this may involve accepting the fact that they have different views, beliefs, and opinions than yours. Teenagers are trying to figure things out on their own, so while they may end up having similar beliefs to yours, they may continue to disagree with you even into adulthood. I'm sure you have friends with different beliefs than yours, who you still like and respect. It should be no different with your child.
References: laweekly.com, livestrong.com, thefamilydinnerproject.org, newyorkfamily.com, understandingteenagers.com.au, psychologytoday.com, kaikaibrai.com, momjunction.com, playpartyplan.com