Building a Connection with Your Teen

Teach your teen that it's okay to have big, scary feelings.

Regulate your emotions and then engage in co-regulation with your teen from a place of curiosity and compassion.

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Please note, the information in this post is not a replacement for personal medical advice.
By Megan Smalley, MA, tLMFT

The last couple years have proven to be additionally challenging for teens. According to the CDC, the number of adolescents reporting poor mental health has been increasing. They are spending less time with their friends while social media continues to invite more and more opportunities for rejection.

As my kids get closer to their teenage years, there are a few thoughts I find myself wondering about more and more. Are they going to want to come to me with their struggles? Will I do a good job as a mom? Am I even going to know what I’m doing? If you thought/think about this stuff too, I’m here to tell you that you should worry! It is uncomfortable but it is going to be okay. If we never experience the uncomfortable stuff, then we don’t get the chance to build meaningful connections. 

How Do Humans Build Connections?

Humans are automatically wired for survival and connection. Our nervous system acts as a control center that keeps us alive. Research shows that when a person senses safety with others, their social engagement state is activated and they are able to form connections.

The bodily sensations we associate with danger can be much more difficult to sit with than sensations we get from comfort and safety. We become mobilized when we sense that something is off. Things like body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice make up a majority of the messages sent during communication. When our body feels that danger is lurking, we quite literally get ready to run.

Next time you are feeling activated, pay attention to what your body wants to do. You might be surprised to find that your body wants to move!

Getting to know uncomfortable feelings and having compassion for them is how we build stress tolerance. We need to be able to tolerate situations that make us feel worried or scared because the tough stuff is not going to stop coming for us. The more we fight our feelings, the more they fight back and then we become the threat. We end up fighting ourselves, and let me tell you, it is exhausting. The only option we have left at that point is to shut down and rest. We feel okay when we are resting because we need it. It is a natural and instinctual defense mechanism.

So, How Do I Get My Teen To Talk To Me?

Repeat after me: Notice. Name. Nurture.

Notice what is happening in your body

First, take a minute to connect with your body. Be curious about what is going on in there. Pay attention to what your emotions feel like for you. What does each one feel like? Anger? Worry? Defeat?

Name Your State

Simply being aware of your emotional state while engaging with your teen can bring both of you a sense of safety. Determine which emotional state you might be in. Don’t judge it, just notice it. Here are some of the common clues to notice:

Safe & Social State

Emotions: Hope, Curiosity, Compassion, Security

Body Sensations: Calm heart, Relaxed posture, Clear head

Behaviors: Logical, Mindful, Gentle Eye Contact, Connected to Others

Fight/Flight

Emotions: Excitement, Anger, Disgust, Anxiety, Fear, Desire to Move

Body Sensations: Fast heart rate, Fast breathing, Restlessness, Muscle Tension

Behaviors: Crying, Yelling, Running Away, Avoiding, Attempts to Control, Lying, Fighting

Shut-Down

Emotions: Shame, Confusion, Hopelessness, Numbness, Sense of Doom

Body Sensations: Slouched Posture, Lack of Movement, Downward Gaze, Slowed Heart Rate

Behaviors: Isolation, Low Motivation, Suicidal Ideation, Self-Harm, Dissociation

It is essential to be in a safe state for your teen to feel safe. If you determine that neither of you are in a safe state, you will both be more likely to fight back or shut-down on each other. This will also keep them stuck in a defensive state where they are not able to listen to anything you say.

Remember, you dont have to control the actual situation, you just have to control your awareness of the situation.

Nurture the Body

Nurture yourself and your teen. Don’t judge or evaluate. Instead, take deep breaths and remember that you are safe. Regulate your emotions and then engage in co-regulation with your teen from a place of curiosity and compassion. Use gentle eye contact with your teen, let your head tilt when you are curious, let your playfulness and wonder show through your voice, show a genuine smile with all of your eye crinkles. Your face will send a message of safety. When your teen senses safety, they won’t have to fight anymore.

So, make yourself a safe human and stop trying so hard!

The goal is to help your teen know that they can have big, scary feelings and still be okay, safe, and loved. The goal is to build resilience, not create quiet and compliant teens. A teenager who feels safe engaging with their feelings, rather than fighting or avoiding them, knows that they can handle whatever comes their way.

When we can understand that behaviors happen for a reason and this process is not a choice, we are more likely to be able to build compassion for ourselves and for our children. We will know that it is a behavior that has been adapted for protection. So, when I find myself wondering, “Am I doing everything I should be doing to make sure that my kids thrive?” I stop to notice what is showing up in my body and acknowledge my fear and try to understand it. Then I remind myself that what I am feeling is not actual danger. It is a feeling and it is not going to hurt me because it is there to protect me.

So, the thoughts continue to find their way to my mind and I’m learning to be okay with that. I’m learning to be okay because I know that I’m a mom and I’m supposed to worry. It is a natural instinct. The worry allows me to remain on high alert for danger because it is my job to protect them and keep them alive. The worry doesn’t hurt me, instead, it helps me do my job. So, I know now that I don’t have to be afraid anymore. I can stay present in the moment and take it all in, the good with the so-called “bad”.

Megan Smalley, MA, tLMFT
Megan Smalley, MA, tLMFT
Megan enjoys working with people of all ages. One of her focal points is helping clients break down the emotional walls that tend to hold people back. As a result, she can help patients see the driving forces behind their behaviors. This approach includes a strength-based, family systems approach that is personalized to each client.
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Megan Smalley, MA, tLMFT
Megan Smalley, MA, tLMFT
Megan enjoys working with people of all ages. One of her focal points is helping clients break down the emotional walls that tend to hold people back. As a result, she can help patients see the driving forces behind their behaviors. This approach includes a strength-based, family systems approach that is personalized to each client.
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