Hunsaker Ryan: Here’s why your relationship with your teen matters so much
It’s the small stuff that experts say really works
When teens have supportive relationships in their life, they are more likely to be healthy, happy and successful — in the short term and long term. Some of the data we’re watching at the state health department emphasize the crucial need to help our teens form those relationships.
Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that a third of high school students report experiencing mental health challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, and even more students (44%) report feeling persistent sadness or hopelessness during the past year. The data also indicate that something can be done to help; according to the CDC’s survey, youth who feel connected — with adults and peers — are significantly less likely to experience mental health challenges.
This new data from the CDC is consistent with our own research here in Colorado. According to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, the state’s comprehensive survey on the health of middle- and high-school-aged youth, young people who have a parent or other trusted adult in their lives they can talk with about challenges are less likely to experience mental health challenges and engage in behaviors like substance misuse or violence.
In short, building a connected relationship with our teens is an important part of protecting them and setting them up for a healthier life. So how do we do that?
Fortunately, youth development experts say the how-tos of supporting youth aren’t new or complicated. Many of them back up the good instincts we already have as parents. They’ve shared tips with the state’s Forward Together campaign which helps parents and trusted adults build better relationships with teens.
Here are some of those suggestions you can start putting into practice today.
Encourage new connections
Connection for young people can look many different ways — so this includes relationships with parents, friends, extended family members and trusted adults, like coaches and teachers.
Try this: Encourage your teen to connect with you as well as with other adults. If they like to hang out at your sister’s house, or with the parents of their friends, that can be a good sign they have a wide network of support.
Connection doesn’t have to be perfect
Even if your teen shuts you down or you feel discouraged, show your teen you care by the way you keep trying to connect and continue to be there for them. Exactly what you say or how you say it isn’t as important as just trying. It can also help to ask open-ended questions, like “What happened today?” — and listen for the answer, whatever it is.
Try this: Watch a show together or have them play you a song from their phone. Sit down for a meal together. It’s OK even if there’s not a lot of talking. They may not act like it, but kids want to know that you’re around for them.
Provide a safe base of support, but set clear rules and boundaries
Being a teen can be scary and hard, and they need to know you’re looking out for them. So be encouraging and understanding while also setting clear boundaries and limits. Let them know that you’re someone they can come to when they’re in trouble. Teenagers may say they don’t want rules, but most do want them — and all teens need them!
Try this: If you’re struggling to set boundaries around phone and internet use, a family agreement can be a helpful way to set expectations. A cyberbullying expert on ForwardTogetherCO.com recommends creating a “Device Use Agreement” that serves as a contract between you and your teens.
Sometimes making tighter connections with teens means loosening your grip
Sharing views and decisions with your teen can be powerful and energizing — for both of you. So listen and think about what they are saying. Try to avoid giving them an immediate “no” or putting down their ideas.
Try this: Empower your teen to make a choice or lead an activity. Have them decide what classes to take, what hikes to go on, or what to make for a family meal. You might just find that you get as much out of it as they do.
Help show them that the world is full of possibilities
We all want something to look forward to, so help your teen see what their future can look like and expand their worldview. Help them meet interesting people outside the family. Ask them where they’d like to travel someday or if there’s a job or career they’ve ever imagined doing.
Try this: Model what it looks like to learn and grow. Take a class — virtually or in person — or read a book yourself and then tell your teen about it. When you show that you’re still trying to learn too, it will be a powerful motivator for the teens in your life to try new things.
Show them that growth is more important than perfection
It’s important for teens to know that trying is just as important as succeeding. If they experience failure, let them know that it’s not forever and they shouldn’t give up. Tell them you’ll check in on their progress and that you expect them to keep trying.
Try this: Have a conversation with your teen about your own mistakes in life and how you got better at something by sticking with it. Remember to celebrate progress, not just achievement, with the teens in your life.
Connecting with teens can be hard at times, but we can all learn new skills and get a little better each day. Healthier, happier teens are worth the effort.
Jill Hunsaker Ryan, MPH, has over 25 years of experience in the field of public health. She is currently Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and a parent raising a son in Eagle County.