Connected, But Not Too Connected

An unsuspecting 8th grader arrived in my office a few minutes early for his high school counseling conference just as I finished reading the recent New York Times article “Why Your Grumpy Teenager Doesn’t Want to Talk to You.” I tested the four points of Damour’s hypothesis with this young man, and he agreed. While his response was rather brief – a typical 8th grade boy “yeah” – his eyes said, “Yeah!  You nailed it.” This article, and his response, confirms what I said in my recent “That Sounds Hard: A Middle School Survival Guide for Parents” talk. A major challenge for parents of middle school students is to stay connected without being too connected.

During early adolescence, in the quest for autonomy and self-definition, children give their parents the Heisman. Implicit in their behavior and, at times, explicit in their words, is the statement, “I can do it.”  Middle schoolers (and yes, it continues in the early years of high school) need to prove to themselves that they are capable of managing the world without you. As we know, though, they are not entirely ready. It is for this reason that we have to stay connected. Here are tips for staying connected:

  • Be observant without spying or prying. Observant says “I am watching you do it.” Spying and prying says, “I don’t think you can do it, so I am going to look into it on my own.”
  • Feign indifference. A colleague of mine talks about the “Flat Oh.” When your child tells you something, respond with an interested, but not over interested – hence flat– “Oh.”  Follow that up with silence. This suggests that I am interested, but assume you have this under control. Your tween or teen might very well fill the empty silence with their own thoughts on the topic.

  • Understand before you judge. Rather than deciding that Snap Streaks are ridiculous, understand who your daughter keeps this digital tag alive with and why. Rather than writing off video games, ask your son what makes him good at a particular game. Your interest and understanding will help them open up...eventually.

  • Be present. I know this is going to be toughest for me when my boys hit their teen years. It is not my work schedule that I fear will keep me from being present, it is my bed time.  As body clocks naturally shift later and later, you are more likely to get some tidbits of information if you are awake later and later. While your child may not share the latest in their life when they pass you in the living room, they are far more likely to do so if they don’t have to go into your bedroom and wake you up.

While it is important to be connected, the reason “Why Your Grumpy Teenager Doesn’t Want to Talk to You” is they fear you will be too connected. As a parent, I appreciate the natural inclination to do anything to help our child when they are sad or hurt. We want to fix it. The middle schooler wants to fix it herself – remember, I can do it. To help remain not too connected consider the following:

  • Say “That sounds hard.” That is it. Say those three words and then wait. As soon as we say more than that, we move into solutions and we implicitly question the developing autonomy.

  • WAIT. Wendy Mogul, an expert on all things tween and teen, reminds parents to ask themselves “Why Am I Talking – WAIT?” If you find yourself doing the talking, your child will not solve the issue and you are more likely to get the, “Ugh, you just don’t get it!”

  • Zoom out. Middle school students look through the world through a zoom lens. They only see a small fraction of the situation. It is important for us, the adults, to zoom out and see the larger picture. With a good night’s sleep or a few months of maturation, your child will also see the bigger picture.

Damour echoes this advice in compelling terms at the end of her article. “There’s more value in providing tender, generic support than we might imagine. It is difficult for teenagers to maintain perspective all the time. The speed of adolescent development sometimes makes teenagers lose their emotional footing and worry that they will never feel right again. We send our teenagers a powerful, reassuring message when we accept and are not alarmed by their inscrutable unease: I can bear your distress, and you can, too.”

Right now my two year old's 7:30 pm bedtime is our battle. I will soon long for days of such simple parenting challenges!

-Andrew Davis