7 Ways to Get (and Stay) Closer to Your Teen

As your children grow older and start to push away from you in an effort to assert their independence, you may be wondering: How do I ensure I have a good relationship with my teen? New York area experts share tips to help you get and stay close to your teens to improve the parent-teen relationship.

Here’s what it felt like to me.

There was a time when I couldn’t do a thing wrong in my child’s eyes, and I often found myself thinking, “I don’t deserve this sweet, forgiving kid.”

Then, in a twinkling, I couldn’t do a thing right in my child’s eyes, and I often found myself thinking, “I don’t deserve this…kid.”

And I’m far from alone. As Nanci Kenny, a mom of three in Suffolk County, puts it about her 15-year-old, “the teen years are truly a tough time for both of us. I feel so distant from my daughter, even though I know she needs me.” 

There is a reason why the teen years are notorious for being tricky for parents to navigate, but you’ll be happy to hear it’s got nothing to do with terrible parenting. “The task of adolescence is to be more independent, to develop satisfying relationships outside of your family unit, and to develop one’s identity and personal moral code,” says Kashmira Rustomji, M.D., M.P.H., a psychiatrist at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center in Manhattan. And that completely natural and beneficial struggle for independence causes the friction. “Teens alternate between a wish to be autonomous and their wish to be taken care of,” Dr. Rustomji explains. So, the way most teens act defiant, or at least indifferent, is them trying to fight off their feeling of being dependent on you, which they, on some level, know will keep them from having a successful life.

While it can be all too easy for teens and parents to drift apart, the good news is it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s what to do to stay close to your aspiring adult.

Pick your battles.

Decide what is and isn’t worth fighting over and stick to those lines in the sand. You might start by identifying which behaviors your teen is exhibiting are annoying, as opposed to those that are in opposition to your family’s most important values or, of course, a safety concern. Wanting to dye his hair blue? That would be the former. “To thwart fatigue and feelings of anger, pick your battles and combine warmth and responsiveness with firmness—especially on your core values,” Dr. Rustomji says. “Adolescents still need rules but set your limits and be clear about your ‘no’s.” Kenny has found that allowing her daughter slack, when it’s reasonable, has helped their bond. “I stay close to her by giving her some freedom to make her own decisions and become her own person,” she shares. “And when she does need me, I give her my full attention, listen to her, and guide her with a gentle hand.”

Resist judging your teen and his friends.

This may be a bit harder than you think. As you may have noticed, teens are super-sensitive to your conveying disapproval—even non-verbally. “You have to learn how to have a poker face when talking to a teen about their life,” urges Justine Carino, a licensed mental health counselor at the Family Institute of Westchester in White Plains. That goes double for anything having to do with her friend group. A teen’s biggest priority is fitting in with friends, Carino explains. That ties back to the healthy adolescent urge to develop strong relationships beyond family. “If they start to tell you something about their friend that you have a negative reaction to, try your best to put your feelings aside,” Carino suggests. Instead, “ask your teen how they feel about their friend’s decision, instead of right away telling them why you think it’s wrong.”

Dr. Rustomji agrees: “Ask their opinion on things rather than lecturing. It comes down to being respectful of them, as you expect them to be of you.”

Let your teen's personality be your guide.

Think of your teen first and foremost as a unique individual. Siblings may share DNA and have been raised in the same home, but an approach that elicits a positive reaction from one may not have the same effect on the other. What you should be looking at most are how your child communicates, tolerates stress, and shows emotion, Dr. Rustomji notes. How should your teen’s gender affect your approach? It probably shouldn’t influence it too much, our experts agree. Personality should be your touchstone. That said, “there is some limited evidence that girls tend to express more internalized emotions, such as anxiety and sadness, and that boys express more externalizing emotions, like anger,” Dr. Rustomji says. The most prominent difference between genders is girls mature faster than boys, says John E. Mayer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in treating families with adolescents and the author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance. “Parents need to be mindful of that and adjust their expectations accordingly,” he adds.

Quietly observe your teen and her friends.

“If we observe our kids, we can intervene when they need us and learn who they are,” Dr. Mayer says. The only way to truly do that is through participation in his life. Aside from attending his sports games, performances, award ceremonies, and the like, and staying in close contact with their teachers and guidance counselors, resolve to make your home the hang-out place. “Try inviting their friends over for dinner, and on weekends,” Dr. Rustomji suggests. “This is a way for you to keep your eyes and ears open to their inner world, without seeming nosey.”

Leveraging car rides accomplishes the same thing. Offer to pick up and drop off friends when you’re driving your own kid to a party, the mall, or a school event. You might be surprised how much you learn about your teen’s life by silently listening on a 15-minute ride. A car ride with only the two of you is still an opportunity to build your bond. “Face-to-face conversations can be uncomfortable and intimidating for a teen,” Carino says. “In the car, you are sitting side by side. Having the music on low and not looking at each other may create an environment in which a teen feels more comfortable opening up.”

Work on yourself.

Who says your teen will grow out of idolizing you? True, eventually we all realize our parents are flawed, just like everyone else. Nevertheless, your lease on being a role model never has to expire. “Be someone they want to admire,” Dr. Mayer insists. “Be healthy. Keep yourself fit. Be socially engaged. Be dynamic. Don’t let yourself go. Too many parents of teens I work with have given up on themselves.” If you have a cheerful, positive attitude and are continually trying to improve yourself in whatever ways resonate with you, others will want to be around you. And that includes your kid and her friends. “If you do all that, their friends will say, ‘You have a cool mom or dad’ or ‘I wish my mom or dad was like yours’.” And once that happens, it may not be a stretch to say you’re golden.

Never give up on having a good relationship with your teen. Ever.

The senior year of high school can be a difficult time to try to forge a better relationship because of the focus on college and the future. Plus, “seniors tend to zone in even more on their friendships because they know many changes will be happening socially once they graduate,” Carino notes. If your son is in his later teens, and you’ve had a rough ride of a relationship, you may think it’s too late to close the gap between you. Don’t. “It’s never too late,” Carino insists. “It’s usually after high school that young adults connect with their parents in ways they didn’t before. Especially if they’re away at college, relationships often improve because of the space and distance.” Try to remember that you’re aiming for the long haul. “The teenage years are developmental. Teens are not a finished product,” Dr. Mayer agrees. “Think about it. We have many more years of a close, meaningful relationship with our children in adulthood than the short span of adolescence.”

Whether we like it or not, our relationship will our children will change. “This is inevitable. Being prepared for this change will help you overcome the loss and grief of going from the always-needed parent to one who is supportive from a distance,” Dr. Rustomji says. Your child—even when she hasn’t technically been a child in a long time—will always benefit from your comfort and guidance. “I like the analogy of a tethered rope, with more slack in the bond between you and your child,” Dr. Rustomji says.

Parenting a teen is rarely easy. Getting and staying close to your daughter or son won’t happen in a weekend. Consider it a work in progress. “It’s a slow, day-by-day process,” Kenny says, “but in the end, I feel it will bring years of closeness.”