"Leave Them Alone and They’ll Come Home"

Written by on October 2, 2020

By: Robert Garrett

When our kids were little, people would say, ‘enjoy them now, because when they’re teenagers …’ Consequently, I had this sense of resignation that when they hit their teen years, we’d lose connection with our kids and there was nothing to do but wait in anticipation for their ‘return’.

I felt like Little Bo Peep, of the old nursery rhyme, who’d lost her sheep – being advised to “Leave them alone and they’ll come home, bringing their tails behind them.”

(To be clear, I’m not talking about when a child has intentionally chosen disconnection; connection can’t be forced on anyone. In instances such as the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son, the father had little choice but to wait for his son’s return.)

Should we just copy Bo-Peep, and resign ourselves to the inevitability of disconnection? Or can we dare to hope for something better?

Years ago, when our eldest was only six, I spent a week with a family from the U.S. who had three teenagers. Not only were their teens incredibly polite, but it was clear that they enjoyed hanging out with their parents (and vice versa).

I quizzed the dad to understand whether he and his wife just fluked it or if there were intentional habits they put in place. After our conversation, I was full of hope regarding ‘the teen years’. Here’s some of what I learned….

Closeness – same, but different

When our kids are toddlers, we stay close to them primarily for reasons of safety and protection. They’ve not yet figured out what is safe and what isn’t. Hopefully by the time they’re teenagers they’ve learned the safety basics. We still need to be intentional about staying close, but it’s less about physically hovering over them to position ourselves between them and danger and more about working on relational closeness.

The process of transitioning from adolescence to adulthood involves giving our teens increasing levels of independence. Consequently, our relationship with our teens should evolve from ‘manager/supervisor’ to ‘coach’. We maintain closeness – not for physical protection but emotional protection.

Golden mealtimes (nothing to do with Golden Arches)

Family mealtimes are an excellent opportunity to connect with what’s happening in one another’s lives. As our children get older and they have part time jobs etc. it can be harder to coordinate everyone eating together, but when we do, my challenge is to avoid making this a time of instruction and correction. This time should be more about asking questions and – most of all – listening.

Remove the distractions

Our teens live in a digitally connected world, but that doesn’t mean they need to be connected 24/7. One mother once lamented that their twenty-something-year-old daughter always brought her mobile phone to the meal table and was constantly distracted, rarely engaging with the rest of the family. With a sense of resignation, she said, ‘what can we do? she’s an adult now’.

I’m a big believer in parent-led families. Regardless of age, if our offspring choose to live under our roof, implicit in that decision is an expectation to live by our rules.

Have rules around the use of technology that creates windows of opportunity for undistracted connection and conversation.

Side-by-side

So many parenting experts speak about the value of side-by-side listening. Basically, many teens find face to face conversations uncomfortable. Engaging in conversations or activities where you’re side-by-side is a very effective way of encouraging your teen to relax and open up.

If you’re brave enough to be teaching your teens to drive, this presents a great opportunity to put side-by-side listening into practice. How cool – the government has effectively mandated one hundred and twenty hours of side-by-side time with our teens.

I’ve had some great conversations with our eldest whilst out for a few hours of driving instruction.

Just hang and be ready

I think one of the keys is to be ready to listen when they’re ready to open up. I’m not a big fan of reality shows like The Voice, but our kids are. So whenever possible I try to watch with them.

It’s interesting how often a day or so after hanging out on the couch (or shooting basketball hoops with the boys) they start to chat about something that’s going on in their world. You can’t program these spontaneous nuggets of time, but when they present themselves, will you be ready?

Show interest

Another thing that helps build connection is taking an active interest in what’s going on in their world. Most mornings at the breakfast table we’ll ask what’s happening today? Occasionally something out of the ordinary will be happening at school – a test, receiving results for an assignment, an excursion, their pottery coming out of the kiln.

I’ll make a mental note and send a text – ‘how did the maths test go?’ ‘How was the soccer game in grade sport?’ Over time our teens have come to realise that we’re genuinely interested in what’s going on in their world and we now receive unsolicited texts during the day with updates that keep the conversation going.

Don’t fluke it

For some, the Bo Peep strategy of ‘leave them alone’ may have worked out in the end.  But you don’t need to passively give in to the ‘inevitability of disconnected teen years’.

If you want something different, try some of the ideas listed above. I’m no psychologist or parenting expert, so if none of my ideas resonate with you, do what I did – find someone who’s modelling the parent/teen relationship that you want and ask them a bunch of, ‘tell me how you…’ questions.

A month or two back, our 17-year-old daughter came to help me with the grocery shopping.  As we were walking along chatting, she reached down and held my hand. It was one of my favourite dad moments; I felt so blessed that my daughter wasn’t embarrassed to be seen with her dad, and that she was comfortable with such an open display of affection. But I didn’t fluke it; it was the product of maintaining connection.

Remaining connected during the transition to adulthood is possible. It takes time, and it involves work, but be encouraged, it’s worth the effort.

Article supplied with thanks to More Like the Father.

About the Author: Robert is an Australian author of More Like the Father. Robert and his wife Cath have 3 children; his two great passions are strengthening families and equipping and encouraging fathers.

Feature image: Photo by Marina Stoichkova from Pexels


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