The monthly mystery box of international snacks arrived yesterday, and my two teen daughters are seated on the sofa next to my wife and me in our two-bedroom apartment. We’re eating our way through Italy tonight — black truffle potato chips, chocolate hazelnut bars, strawberry cream candies filled with pop rocks — and guessing at Italian food-related trivia. We’re actually laughing out loud together, not just typing LOL. It’s the closest I’ve felt to my kids in some time.
Ever since I moved out of the house they share with my now-ex wife, these nights have formed a bridge that keeps my island connected to their mainland. I cherish our monthly evenings of food and fun, but I long for more ways to stay close.
Our kids are nearly 17 and 14, and my ex and I give them complete autonomy over where and when they spend their time. In the six months since the divorce, they’ve spent almost all their days at home, in their own beds. This decision of theirs was, in part, because of their pets — nine guinea pigs, four cats, two bunnies, a dog, a turtle and a hamster — but also because it’s familiar there. This familiarity is a comfort considering all that’s disrupted their young lives recently, changes which include: the divorce, Dad falling in love and getting remarried, the pandemic, transition to online school and the sudden death of one of the pets. It’s been an eventful 18 months.
After being the stay-at-home parent for 12 years, there’s now a two-teen-sized void in my daily life. I miss them terribly — their conversations, cooking and baking for them, even doing their laundry. I also find myself pining for that unique kind of doing-nothing-together time that can often yield the most memorable moments of family life.
I’ve become more aware than ever before that kids growing up can mean us growing apart. I sometimes fear that not only will I no longer get their inside jokes or pop culture references, I’ll lose touch with them completely.
I spoke with Ken Ginsburg, M.D., M.S. Ed, the Adolescent Medicine Specialist and Founding Director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication (CPTC) at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, about my concerns. He advised me and other parents of teens to focus on the time we do spend in each other’s company. “Make the most of your time together by being present and concentrating on really listening to them,” he says.
Dr. Ginsburg says we should offer our teens more control over their choices by asking them what they want to do, since showing interest in their interests, especially as they change and evolve, can keep you tethered to your teens. Remember that they’re the experts when it comes to knowing what they like best, he adds, so we shouldn’t be afraid to ask how to play that video game or for them to show us that funny TikTok video everyone is loving.
The other side of that coin is your teens wanting only their friends, not you, to be involved in their interests and favorite TikToks. In this difficult scenario, Dr. Ginsburg urges us to back off. “Don’t hover or intrude,” he says, “and remain loving and available even if the sentiment is not returned in the moment.”
“It’s natural for children to spend more time with friends as they enter the teen years and for them to pull away from their parents,” he adds. “Peer relationships are an important part of adolescent development, because it’s how they learn to navigate the world around them, solve problems, test values and figure out who they want to become as adults.” He knows that parents will take this pulling away to heart, believing that it means our teens care less about what we think, but this isn’t the case. Dr. Ginsburg says they still need us to tell them (and show them) that we love them unconditionally and will always be there when they need us.
The same goes for asking genuine and open-ended questions and trying your best to avoid giving advice, unless they specifically ask for it. The ‘fixer’ dad in me learned that last lesson years ago, thankfully. My girls would come home from school angry about an argument with a best friend but instead of offering a soft, quiet shoulder to cry on, I’d let rip a litany of ‘helpful’ suggestions for patching things up, solving the problem and moving on quickly. All they wanted was to be upset and be held, all I did was try to fix everything. It didn’t work.
Changing this about myself immediately bettered my relationship with my girls when they were little. But that doesn’t mean I always have to hold my tongue. “Teens actually want parents to communicate with them about a variety of topics, including the tough ones, like conversations about sex and how to succeed at school, in business and in the world,” Dr. Ginsburg says. Just be wary of doling out too much unsolicited advice.
The next stop on my parenting advice tour was to hear from actual teenagers, to discover what’s going right and wrong in their relationships with their parents. Natalie Ainbinder, a 18-year-old from North Carolina, says Dr. Ginsburg is spot on. She credits the ongoing connection to her dad to him “taking an interest in my passions even if they aren’t right up his alley,” she says. “He always manages to connect with me despite my interests.”
Ainbinder goes on to say that her dad could help their relationship stay strong by understanding that her path in life won’t necessarily align with his vision for her, but that while she’s not perfect she’s always “trying to make good educated decisions.” It may seem counterintuitive for parents, but to stay connected to our teenagers, we actually have to let go.
“Teens are trying to answer the big question of adolescence, ‘Who Am I?’ And much like a bird learning to fly, they need to believe they don’t need you to gather the courage to leave your family nest,” Dr. Ginsburg says. Therefore, we must give them the latitude to grow and make their own decisions, trusting all the while in the foundation we’ve built over the past decade and a half. “If that foundation is solid,” he says, “they will come back to you.”
Emily Barr, 16, lives with her mom and dad outside of Washington D.C. is happy in the nest right now. She says that since one of her parents was often traveling pre-COVID, they're now appreciating the time they have together at home. Even when they were away, her parents made it a point to “emphasize family time,” she says, and ensured that one of them would always come to her events, extracurricular activities and award ceremonies at school. Because of their commitment to be involved at every turn, Barr knows that her parents will always be there for both her and her brother. That reliability is helping to keep the Barr teens connected to their parents.
The CPTC suggests parents adopt a similar interdependence mantra when it comes to this kind of commitment: “I’ll celebrate your successes and be there to support you to rebound from your mistakes. We all make them. That’s how we grow. I love you and always will. It’s an honor to watch you become your own person.”
Finally, having taken a fair bit of sound advice on board from others, I talked to my own two teenagers. I wanted to hear from them what I’m doing right, what makes them happy when we’re together and what I could start or keep doing to make sure we stay connected no matter what happens from here.
Honestly, I wasn’t exactly surprised by their answers. They like my fresh baked bread and when I cook vegetarian meals for us from scratch. They like when we dance around to music together — these days that means putting Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson, old One Direction albums or Taylor Swift’s Folklore on the turntable — and my pair of teens absolutely love it when I’m excited to listen to the brand new songs they’ve discovered (like Ella Jane’s banger “August Is a Fever”) and stand-up comedy they’re hysterical over (like James Acaster’s Repertoire on Netflix). But they especially appreciate when I quietly listen to them talk and talk and talk about the new stories they’re writing and describe in vivid detail all the accompanying character backstories and mood boards they’ve created on Pinterest.
My daughters and I are apart more than we’re together and frankly, that’s not going to change anytime soon. But I’m heartened to learn that they still love being around me and sharing what’s new and exciting in their lives. Just like Ainbinder’s awesome dad, I’m never going to stop being present in their world and, like Emily’s fantastic parents, when school events start up again I’ll be there, proudly cheering them on. And, as Dr. Ginsburg says, I’ll continue to take a genuine interest in their passions even if it’s not entirely my thing. (Five Seconds of Summer, I’m looking at you.) I’ll also remember to trust them, and give them space to cut their own path in life.
For now though, I’m going to stay connected to my teenagers by keeping their music spinning, reveling in the cacophony of laughter and listening intently to them as we come together to share the sweets of faraway countries.
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