Connecting With Your Teens

By Josh McDowell

What is causing our teenagers to lash out at their parents, teachers and peers, sometimes with lethal violence? What has happened in our culture to allow mere children to become so callous and cold? 

Many causes and “cures” have been suggested, but most are like trying to stop a volcanic eruption by paving over it; they don’t address the source of danger. My own personal research and my interaction with thousands of young people point to a common cause. Consider the statistics (Josh McDowell, The Disconnected Generation, Word, 2000):

  • Almost half of today’s young people have lived through their parents’ divorce.
  • High percent live in households where both parents work outside the home.
  • Teenagers spend an average of three and a half hours alone every day.

Too many kids today are succumbing to loneliness and rage, and I believe it is largely because they feel disconnected and alienated from their parents, from adults in general and from society as a whole. 

Crying for a connection

A bright and talented youth named Danny said something to me some time ago that represents how many of them feel. He said, “Sometimes I feel so alone, like no one cares. My folks live in their own world, and I live in mine. I know it sounds crazy, but I want them to leave me alone, and yet I want to be a part of their lives.” 

If we hope to connect relationally with our kids, we must do it up close and personal. I’m not talking about trying to live like a teenager — dressing like them, talking like them, listening to their music. I mean being aware of what is happening in their lives and how they are dealing with it. I see four distinct characteristics of our kids’ world: 

It’s a world of emotional ups and downs. You find teens on top of the world one day and struggling under its weight the next. We all experience highs and lows, but an adolescent’s rises and falls are more frequent and intense. Many adults tend to minimize these spiking emotional responses because they are often provoked by circumstances that seem trivial to us. But they are not trivial to kids. We must learn to be sensitive to their emotional changes and help them deal with both the pleasure and the pain. 

It is a world of conflicts as kids struggle for individual identity and independence. Kids are eager to test their wings and see how far they can fly. They want a unique identity, but they also want to identify with a group. This is why many students join a club, youth group, team, clique or gang, even if they must sacrifice personal identity to conform in some way to the group’s expectations.

These early experimental flights of independence and identity can create tension and conflict between parents and teenagers. We need to learn how to defuse the tension and remain relationally connected as our kids seek greater freedom and independence. 

It’s a world of mixed signals about love and sex. The No. 1 question kids ask me is, “How can I know if I’m really in love?” We live in a culture of mixed signals, which often distort the concept of love. Many kids grow up mistaking the intensity of sex for the intimacy of love, and this confusion can leave kids emotionally disconnected. If ever they need to feel relationally connected with parents, it is during this time when they are learning the difference between true love and what the world often calls love. 

It’s a world of sexual pressures. Rapid, drastic hormonal changes during adolescence have a profound effect on kids physically, socially and emotionally. High emotional and hormonal pressure coupled with low self-control is a disastrous combination. Young people who feel relationally connected to one or more of their parents and caring “gatekeepers” are substantially less likely to succumb to sexual pressure.

Discovering relational connecting points

But even if we enter a young person’s world to provide the needed guidance and instruction, if we do so without first connecting relationally with them we will most likely arouse resistance. If, on the other hand, we pursue a series of relational goals, we will most often establish a connecting point that will cultivate the heart of a young person. 

Connecting Point No. 1: Affirmation. A frequent sentiment young people express about their parents is, “They don’t understand me.” When kids think that you don’t identify with them, they are less likely to feel connected to you emotionally. And one of the most effective ways to identify with them, even when you don’t fully understand them, is to affirm their feelings. 

Sit down with your kids often and say, “How are you doing today? What’s going on?” — then really listen with interest. 

Connecting Point No. 2: Acceptance. Acceptance is embracing people for who they are rather than for what they do. When we accept our kids, we give them a sense of security. 

Connecting Point No. 3: Appreciation. While acceptance is the foundation for a secure relationship, appreciation can be considered a cornerstone. Acceptance tells our children their being matters; expressing our appreciation to them says that their doing matters, too.

Applaud performance, yes, but also applaud effort and persistence.

Experience the connection

These three connecting points — affirmation, acceptance and appreciation — are not the only ways to establish the kinds of relational and emotional connections our kids crave — and need — so deeply. But they are a start. And, together with affection, availability and accountability, we will not only prevent the disconnectedness and alienation that produce so much harm and hurt in kids’ lives; we will also impart to them a strong sense of authenticity, security, significance, importance, lovability and responsibility that will equip them to live in this world.

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