Your tweens used to think you were funny. And interesting. And helpful. They even sought you out for advice or help solving problems.
Now they think TikTokers who cover themselves in shaving cream are interesting and hilarious (“you wouldn’t get it”) and turn to YouTubers for all the answers to life’s hardest questions.
This is normal, and it’s happening to other parents. But what happens in early adolescence to make parents suddenly seem so unrelatable? And what can be done to bridge that gap and stay connected?
The early phase of adolescence is marked by tweens’ new desires to individuate, or figure out what they think and who they are apart from their parents, according to Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development.
Since adolescence lasts from ages 10 to 19, according to the World Health Organization, you may notice your child beginning to draw away as early as 10. (That’s also about how long you can expect this pulling away to last). Communication between the two of you is one of the first things to deteriorate.
Language is, after all, a tool used to tie groups of people together. It makes sense that as adolescents begin the process of breaking ties, they no longer talk to their parents in the same way, with the same intimacy or at the same frequency.
Pleasant chats are replaced by grunts, eye rolls and new slang meant to put distance between you.
Does this mean we should clam up and wait for our kids to come back around and talk once they’re ready? No.
It means adults need to change the way we talk to adolescents to better meet our kids where they are in their new phase of development. By learning how to better communicate with adolescents, we improve our chances to stay connected, keep them safe and enjoy each others’ company.
What works when it comes to improving communication with our tweens and teens? Here are five effective things to try:
1. Normalize your child’s feelings
In times of conflict or misunderstanding, begin by normalizing your child’s feelings, no matter how foreign – or even wrong – they seem.
This might sound like, “It seems like you’re really upset about me asking you to clean your room. I get it. I probably caught you off guard. It’s normal to feel aggravated when you don’t want to work. I’ll give you 30 minutes to relax and then come see me so we can make a plan to move forward with room stuff.”
Why does normalizing matter? Are you at risk for raising an entitled brat if you do this? Nope.
Consider that your child is undergoing what I call “the middle school construction project,” in which they are building a new body, brain and identity all at the same time. The tweens I’ve worked with for the past 15 years tell me that they just want to feel normal; that’s understandable given all the changes they’re undergoing.
When you normalize a child’s feelings as a parent, teacher, coach or mentor, it’s a great way to diffuse their defensiveness and open the door to more productive communication.
2. Keep emotions out of your face
Talk without any expression on your face. Yes, that sounds crazy, maybe even impossible. But it can be achieved with practice, and it offers a big payoff.
Maintaining a neutral expression is key to better conversations, because adolescents and adults use different parts of the brain to read facial expressions. Tweens and teens tend to call on the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, more than adults when figuring out how another person feels. They may misread your expression as anger when you don’t feel angry at all. Imagine asking your child,
“Hey how did your math test go?” and they storm off with, “Ugh, why are you so upset? We haven’t even gotten our grades yet!” Sound familiar? Kids misinterpreting your feelings can be a quick end to a conversation.
Instead, adopt what I call a Botox brow.
Simply put, pretend you’re a celebrity on a late-night talk show who has been so overly Botoxed you can’t possibly move your forehead. You’ll be surprised how appearing neutral – regardless of how you really feel – opens the door to more frequent and deeper conversations with your tween or teen.
3. Skip direct talking
It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes the best way to stay close is to experiment with new ways of communicating together: texting, Snapchats, a shared journal, voice recordings and even hiding doodles around the house can be an invitation to stay connected that your child may accept.
Remember there are lots of ways to “talk” these days – so take advantage of technology or other mediums and get creative.
4. Become your child’s ‘assistant manager’
Your adolescent needs to develop the skills to make sound judgments and solve problems independently. They can’t do this without the opportunity for lots of practice.
If you micromanage your tween or teen, they will pull away so they can create opportunities to practice without you watching or weighing in.
Instead of being a micromanager, enforcing how and when homework is done, overseeing playdates or running interference with teachers, it’s time to make the shift to assistant manager.
To do this, think back to the worst manager you’ve ever had. What made them so awful? Were they overly emotional, too controlling, never around or passive-aggressive?
Make a list of the worst qualities you could encounter in a manager and reverse that list – now you’ve got a good job description for your assistant manager position.
5. Don’t forget to have fun!
Keep it light. When your child starts to pull away, it can be tempting to resort to making demands or entering into emotional debates to try to move things back to where they used to be. Remind yourself, from time to time, to pull back from being the taskmaster and enjoy each other.
That can mean leaning into the stuff they love. Yes, even messy blue hair dye. The mind-numbing anime plots. The economy of Roblox. The learning of elaborate new TikTok dances.
You won’t actually die of boredom (just maybe feel like it sometimes). But when you play with your kid again with what they enjoy now and not the way you remember or expect them to play, you’ll re-establish their trust.
That is always a gateway to better conversations.