Saturday, 20 April 2013

Connect, connect, connect: How to best ensure your teen gets through adolescence as safely as possible

Last week a principal got up after a Parent Information Evening that I had just presented at his school and started by saying "I think I have learnt two main things as a parent tonight - 'delay, delay, delay' and 'connect, connect, connect'!"

I've been summarised many times before but I don't think it has ever been done so succinctly and in such a positive way. The 'delay' message is of course around trying to prevent an adolescent's alcohol use for as long as possible and is one that I have written about in my blog entries a number of times. 'Connecting' with young people is something I feel very passionately about and is the final tip I give to parents in my presentation. I ask them to think about the last time they really connected with their child, not just talked to them, but really spoke and listened – no other family members, no mobile phone, television or other distractions? For some of them, particularly the parents of adolescents, it could have been quite a while ago.

The relationship you once had with your child changes during adolescence - their brains are changing and as part of an evolutionary feature to get them to 'leave the nest', they seek greater acceptance from, and as a consequence, are more influenced by their peers and are more likely to fight with you about practically anything! You're not going to be able to stop this process - it's part of growing up ...

A few weeks ago I had a woman come up to me after a talk and tell me that she had great problems with me saying this as it was not her experience at all. She had four sisters and none of them caused their parents problems at all during their teens - they were 'good girls' as she so beautifully put it! I responded by saying that maybe that was how she saw it, maybe her parents saw it in a different way? Two days later I got a wonderful email from her after apparently speaking to her mother - it was titled 'Apparently we were horrible!'

Some parents are tempted to just throw their hands in the air at this time and say that it is all just too difficult - they're close to adulthood, just let them do what they want, it's easier than fighting. But it is during this time that young adults need their parents to continue to have rules, boundaries and consequences in an effort to keep them as safe as possible and also give them something to 'push' against. At the same time parents have to find a way of keeping connected with their teens. There is the temptation to become a friend, fathers to become 'mates' and mothers to be their 'girlfriend', but that is not a positive connection and certainly not something they need at this time - they have lots of mates and many girlfriends - they need a parent!

Trying to find that 'connection' - that activity that keeps you and your child communicating during this time - can be difficult but it is certainly not impossible. Last week there was a media article that discussed research from the Parenting Research Centre that looked at children that did not live with their fathers and found that it was "the quality of the relationship that matters, not the amount of time spent together." In these increasingly busy times I keep meeting parents that beat themselves up about not spending enough time with their kids, particularly if their teens are experiencing problems. It is important to remember that you can only do the best that you can do - just make sure that the time you do have together is quality time that means something to you and to them.

Here is my favourite 'connect, connect, connect' story ...

Amber approached me after a presentation to a group of Year 10s and was keen to tell me a story about her and her father. There was no request on my part for young people to talk about their parents - she just wanted to share! Every Saturday they would have 'coffee club' - this involved one of them choosing a coffee shop (a different one each week whenever possible) and then going there and sitting and having coffee and cake. It was there that Amber told her father about what had happened at school during the week and he told her about his work. Her enthusiasm for 'coffee club' was contagious and we had a long discussion about why it was so special. That evening I gave a Parent Night at the same school, finishing off with my slide about the importance of connecting. Afterwards a father came up and wanted to tell me about the special connection activity he and his daughter shared - 'coffee club'. When I asked him if his daughter was Amber in Year 10 he looked very surprised. "You have no idea how much your daughter loves you," I told him. "You really have found a way of connecting that will enrich both your lives forever." He burst into tears!

I tell that story at most schools I go to and it gets a wonderful reaction. Many parents come up and tell me what they do on a regular basis to maintain that important connection - some of these activities include simple things like walking the dog together, having a meal at a restaurant and watching a sporting event, to the more adventurous (and expensive) - going kite-surfing and having a shopping weekend in another city!

Connectedness builds resilience - this doesn't inoculate our children from alcohol and other drugs, but it sure helps them 'bounce back' if faced with problems and the positive relationship that develops helps to ensure that they are more likely to come to you should something go amiss in the years ahead.

We live in a very fast world that is constantly changing and it can be difficult to find the time to really connect with anyone, let alone our children. The next time your child wants to show you something, stop what you are doing and pay real attention to what they are saying and how they are saying it – we get so few opportunities to talk to our child in this way that we should grab every chance we get!

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