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5 Keys for Connecting with Teens

If you have a teenager, you understand that parenting a teen can sometimes feel like trying to hug a hedgehog. Gosh, they’re cute when they want to be, but watch out for those spines! With nine children, I’ve now successfully survived seven teens and a total of forty-nine years of parenting the wonderful, exasperating, amazing, challenging, fantastic, and ended-too-soon teenage years. If you count the thirty years working with youth in other organizations, my experience now stretches well beyond what should be endured and enjoyed. Phew!

And what have I learned? That every teen is different and that my most successful response has been, “I only have you for X number of years, and I’m just going to love you!”

When Teens are Prickly

However, there are some important keys to connecting with teens. According to authors Brad Wilcox and Jerrick Robbins in their book How to Hug a Hedgehog: 12 Keys for Connecting with Teens, establishing and maintaining communication, overcoming adversity, and building self-esteem are essential. Also, as parents and leaders, we must find ways “to bypass the barriers and reach out to even the most prickly teen.”

Robbins and Wilcox suggest that following three rules for hugging a hedgehog can be applied to your prickly teen:

  1. Don’t wear gloves; let him sniff you.
  2. Take your time; let him relax. If he rolls into a ball and extends his quills, stay calm and be patient.
  3. With both hands, scoop him up from the belly, which is covered with fur rather than quills. Let him explore you and become more comfortable with you.

Making Teens Feel Comfortable

While we’re not really working with hedgehogs, the principles have a lot in common. Rather than forcing our teens to trust us and open up and follow our rules, it’s important to let them explore and feel comfortable with our role in their lives.

While you should anticipate some quills, it’s possible that you’ll build a positive relationship and enrich and transform your and your teen’s lives. Here are five ideas from authors Wilcox and Robbins:

  1. Improve Communication: Teens are often hard to talk to. They don’t want to talk. They lock their doors, turn up the music, and tune us out. Try identifying your teenager’s hobbies and favorite things. Show interest in those hobbies and learn how to value your teen’s unique interests. This will create better opportunities to talk and have her open up.
  2. Dismantle the Wall: Walls are often ways of protecting ourselves and our individuality. If your teen puts up walls, think of people you trust. How did you get to that point with them? Consider how you can create more trust in your relationship with your teen by reflecting on your own walls and experiences extending trust.
  3. Enjoy Dinner Conversations: When was the last dinner you enjoyed with your teen? Teens are hungry, often really hungry. Some will never stop eating. Take advantage of that and don’t lock up the fridge. Try putting away the devices, turn off the screens, and make your teen’s favorite meal. Better yet, invite him to make it with you from shopping to preparation. Food can sooth your teen’s prickles, and taking time at the dinner table will provide time to explore your teen’s interests without interruption.
  4. Set Limits: Wilcox and Robbins write that “by setting limits, we offer teenagers the security, stability, and safety they need.” But how? Think about what you expect. Clarify realistic expectations and family rules. Think about games. All games have rules and limitations. Those rules and limitations force creativity and an even playing field. Life is similar. Family rules and limitations provide an agreed-upon rulebook for behavior. And when your teen meets or exceeds expectations, express your appreciation. Yes, they’ll test the rules and may even try to cheat, so be consistent with consequences, but catching your teen meeting expectations goes a lot farther than focusing on the negatives.
  5. Overcome Adversity: Remember rule two for working with hedgehogs: “Take your time; let him relax. If he rolls into a ball and extends his quills, stay calm and be patient.” Teens can feel threatened by many different things. Don’t add to their anxiety by forcing them to open up. Robbins and Wilcox suggest that sharing your own experiences growing up can help relax them. Also, don’t be afraid to tackle difficult subjects like pornography, sex, and substance abuse. While the mediums of entertainment, challenges, addictions, and activity may have changed, the foundational experiences we go through are basically the same for each generation. Your teen will benefit from knowing how you approached and navigated your teen years.

Christopher is currently the co-founder and CEO of Familius, a trade book publishing company founded in 2012 with a mission to help families be happy, a mission that has helped Familius be one of the top fastest-growing independent publishing companies in the US for the past three years as reported by Publishers Weekly. Christopher earned a BA in English and an MBA from BYU. He has served on numerous boards including Writers@Work and the Independent Book Publishers Association. His favorite quote is attributed to Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Christopher currently lives in the central valley of California with his wife, four of his nine children, and their cat and dog.

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