Last updated on December 28th, 2021
As teens age, they naturally want more independence, but that doesn’t mean our relationships with them are over. Here are 5 ways to connect with your teen (even if they don’t want to).
“Did you eat some breakfast?” I ask.
My fifteen-year-old gives me The Look. The same look he inherited from his mother. “I don’t need breakfast, Mom. I’m sustained by sugar, loud music, and rage.”
“And breakfast,” I add before pushing a bowl of cereal into his hands. My son literally hisses like an angry cat and mimics swatting the offered sustenance away. Yes, he added this feline-inspired snarl to his repertoire for when I try to hug him but enjoys using it for a wide variety of reasons.
“Just eat it,” my seventeen-year-old grumps from his desk. “You know she won’t give up.”
“Sugar and rage,” my thirteen-year-old begins to chant as he dances around the living room. “Sugar and rage, sugar and rage, sugar and rage, sugar and rage!”
Alarmed, the dog begins to bark.
Sound familiar? You must have teenagers too.
Yes, I am the proud mom of three teenage boys. They are lovably grumpy, and ever contrary, and they fill our home with an unending supply of opinions and sarcasm. I adore them.
But Teens can be incredibly difficult to connect with, though. When they were babies, I cuddled them. When they were toddlers, I answered 50,000 questions a day. When they were school age, I built homemade catapults and chased bugs.
Sadly, their interest in bugs and cuddling has drastically waned. Now how does one connect? Fear not, through over twenty years of working at a Bible camp and a never-ending cycle of trial and error with my own teenage sons, I have come up with five fabulous ways for you to connect with your own grumpy teen.
1. Ridiculous Traditions
Even though they grumble about them, teens still love traditions. Here are a few of our favorites:
Whenever their grandmother visits, we hide a creepy reindeer decoration (yes, I constructed this alarming reindeer mitten when I was a grumpy teen myself) in her car before she leaves. If we go to Grandma’s house, the reindeer comes along and we hide it carefully before we leave.
Mom Movie Nights
When the boys were younger, they had very strict bedtimes. Except during their Mom Movie Night! Once a year, I let them pick any homemade dessert they wanted. Then I would purchase a movie I thought they would like. After making their dessert, I would wake up a single son at 3:00 am and we watched the new movie and ate our snack at a ridiculous time of night, just us. All three of my teens still love doing this!
We also try to preserve some of the sweet traditions from their youth. My sons still like to make gingerbread houses with their grandmother. The houses are a bit different now–they sometimes look as though they’ve just been hit by a tornado or are under siege by bears crafted from candy. Teens need to remind you that they are growing up, even as they enjoy an activity from their childhood.
2. Forced Learning
Teaching your teens useful life skills is another great way to connect.
Now, I didn’t hear any cheers when I told my sons that they had to learn to cook. But one thing you have to remember with teens: you must force them to do stuff. They are learning how to be their own person. In just a few short years, they will be in charge of themselves.
Putting up a fight to parental suggestions is a time-honored tradition of the teenage years and an important stage of their development.
Doing stuff with their family is good for them, so you make them. Yes, it is a struggle, but an important one.
I have one of my sons choose a recipe that interests them (or one that they will tolerate if interest is lacking). Then we go shopping for ingredients. Finally, with a little or even more than a little help from me, that son makes dinner for the family.
Finishing hard tasks together builds relationships, and cooking can be difficult. However, knowing how to cook is important and despite being forced, the boys are always proud of the meal they’ve made.
Transfer Your Skills
Do you always do your own taxes, know how to write a persuasive essay, or can you fix a broken-down lawnmower or old bicycle? This is another chance for forced learning! Pass down your knowledge to your reluctant teen and watch their competence (and grumbling) grow!
Caring for a Car
Teach your teen how to change the oil or a tire on a car. Learning how to care for a vehicle teaches skills they need to know. This will provide a shared moment together as they learn, and it will help them to stand just a little bit taller when they realize they have what it takes to get the job done.
3. Special Events and/or Food
As with anyone else, teens are easier to connect with when good food is involved. Here are some options for planning special days or incorporating meals into your bonding.
Dad Day and Mom Day
Each year, I schedule a Dad Day and a Mom Day with each son. For Mom Day, I might take my oldest downhill skiing, go out to a movie and dinner with my middle son, and then drive my youngest to that Go-Kart track he’s been longing to visit. For Dad Day, my husband might take one boy fishing, another rafting, or visit the reptile zoo with the third.
The key is that once a year, each son gets a one-on-one activity with each parent. They will grumble about this–they are teens after all–but if you can keep yourself from becoming discouraged and just make it happen, they will still enjoy this special time together even if they won’t admit it.
Favorite Meals or Desserts
While they might say that they could easily survive on sugar cereal and don’t need your cooking at all, teens still love it when you cook their favorite meal. On birthdays I make sure to let them pick the menu for dinner. This has resulted in some very strange meals, but it sure makes them happy.
Is your teen looking down? Has he or she been especially contrary of late? Ask them what they feel like eating before you head to the grocery store. Just knowing that someone is thinking of them and cooking something special with them in mind can warm a teen’s heart … even if they still insist on hissing when you try to hug them.
Have you noticed that your teen is running out of places to put their books, has no privacy since they must room with two brothers, or saved up money for their own computer but has nowhere to put it?
My husband built floating bookshelves by the bunk beds for our two oldest so that they could organize their mountains of books. We made and hung curtains around our youngest son’s bunk so that he could have a bit of space for himself even though all three boys share a room.
When our middle son worked all winter and saved up enough money to buy a desktop computer, we purchased a giant used desk and office chair then transformed a corner of our living room into his own personal lair/office space. A project that gives them space or a way to organize their things how they like can make your teen feel loved.
4. Forced Labor
Doing paid or unpaid work together is another way to bond over shared experiences, even ones that our teens may not find enjoyable.
People bond when they work together. But fret not, your teen doesn’t have to actually be employed to work hard. There are many places where you can volunteer as a family. Go to your local humane society and play with lonely dogs. Pick up trash along the highway. Shovel the driveways of elderly folks in the winter.
We have work retreats at the camp where we live and the boys join groups of volunteers as they get the grounds ready for the campers’ arrival. Yes, there is much grumbling, but once the hard work is done, the look of satisfaction on their faces is priceless. It feels good to work hard for the sake of others.
We actually hire our sons for a variety of odd jobs that need doing around the camp. Our two oldest are of an age where they can be on the camp payroll and they do everything from washing dishes in the camp kitchen to hauling firewood. Our youngest works for us and he keeps track of his hours as he helps his brothers and dad. Seeing their confidence grow as they accomplish difficult tasks and learn new skills is wonderful.
The boys also have unpaid chores around the house. As I have pointed out on many occasions, they all live in our home, eat and leave crumbs, use dishes, and occasionally smash random items while wrestling.
This means that they help out.
Cleaning the bathroom, loading the dishwasher, vacuuming, folding laundry. Working together to keep up the house is a pain, but it also builds comradery and teaches important life skills. Plus, it is a joy to see your teen chastise other members of the family for splashing water on the mirror he just washed or leaving a dirty sock in the living room he just tidied up. Working together toward a common goal is important!
5. Forced Fun
Though you may have to drag them along, it’s always a good time to organize a fun activity to do with your teenager.
Walking, Hiking, and Nature
It can be discouraging to realize that you must now force your teen to go on a walk with you. Don’t succumb! Just because they used to beg for outside adventures and now claim that they will melt if exposed to sunshine, doesn’t mean that the outdoors is any less important.
Going on a walk with the family is still good for your teen, so make them do it. Drag them outside for a shuffle around the block. Visit a park together. Walk along the waterfront.
Don’t forget more advanced nature experiences, either. Hiking can be difficult, but the sense of accomplishment your teen will feel when they finally crest the rise and gaze out at the valley far below can fuel a passion for the outdoors for years to come.
Not everyone wants to join a team sport, but that doesn’t mean you can’t force your teen to move around a bit. Play a game of pick-up basketball on the driveway. Kick a soccer ball around the yard. Enjoy a game of mini-golf or croquet.
We have a Gaga ball pit and a basketball hoop at the camp where we live and have been known to force our sons to get outside and play there. In fact, our family rule is that if they don’t play a family board game on a given day, they have to play three games of “lightning” with the family at the camp’s basketball court.
Family Board Games
Speaking of board games, playing a game around the table is a great way to learn more about each other, produce shared memories/inside jokes, and grow closer as a family. Is Dad always a Cylon when you play Battlestar Galactica? Will your youngest do anything to sabotage his brother’s train when you play Ticket To Ride? What about that time your oldest only produced sheep in Settlers of Catan? Now if you happen to make sheep noises, everyone in the family laughs as they recall that epic game.
Bonus: Forced Reading for Mom and Dad
Did you suddenly realize your teen has read the entirety of that wildly violent space trilogy from the school library? Instead of just clutching your heart in horror, remember that this is a fabulous opportunity for you to force yourself into your teen’s world!
Finish cringing and then read the books yourself. Yes, of course you will automatically notice the objectionable material, strive to notice more than that! What is it about the story or characters that drew your teen into the book? Does it address any important social issues like oppression, political corruption, or how bad a robot apocalypse would actually be for the environment?
Now, chat with your teen about the books. Start with what you liked, the parts that made you think, and the writing devices that the author used skillfully. Yes, mention that your heart lurched in your chest during the violent passages or that you are now fighting a deep fear that your teen will begin trapping wild dolphins to use as war machines against innocent villagers and/or fishing vessels. But make it a dialogue inviting your teen to say what they loved or didn’t like about the tale as well.
This also works for music. Did you catch them enjoying an unsavory tune? Yes, of course you will make parental rules about what they ingest, but don’t let this opportunity go to waste. Listen to the song yourself and seriously try to find why it is appealing to your teen and discuss that as well as your concerns.
Shared memories bond people together, even if they were forced. Do things with your teen. Yes, they will grumble. Yes, eyes will roll and sighs will fill the room. And yes, the forced fun will still help you form a closer bond and give your teens something to complain about for years to come! Do not underestimate the power of shared experiences, trials, and jokes. Even if those teens are joking about you or are masking fond moments together in complaints, those memories are vital. Bond with those grumpy teens, they are absolutely worth it!
Kristen Joy Wilks is an author, camp photographer, and the mom of three teenage boys. She writes about what she loves: the quiet of the forest, the ill-considered schemes of un-stoppable children, and the love of loyal pets who will never leave your side … as long as you pack meal worms! Try one of her chicken-themed books for free by signing up for her newsletter.