7 ways to build authentic connections with teens

As teens develop and grow, it’s common for them to push boundaries, gain new experiences and explore their independence. Whether you’re raising a teen of your own or building a stronger relationship with a young person in your life, this process can feel challenging to navigate. Here, Kids Help Phone shares tips for forming healthy relationships with teens and creating supportive spaces to connect.

Teens often look to parents/caregivers and/or role models in their lives for a combination of support, guidance, structure and discipline. Modeling trust, respect, honesty and transparency can go a long way in showing young people you’re someone they can go to if they have questions or worries.

As a parent/caregiver or someone a teen looks to for support, it can be beneficial to:

  • be open minded
  • be willing to try new things
  • focus on getting to know the young person without assumptions or judgment
  • maintain a sense of equality in the relationship
  • have a supportive attitude

Many young people learn about relationships by observing how their parents/caregivers relate with others. This doesn’t mean you need to be perfect –– being authentic and self-aware is enough.

How can I build connection with a teen in my life?

It’s important to acknowledge that this process can take time and patience and you may not get the response you’d like at first. Remember that the young people in your life benefit from your willingness to keep going and be present for them.

Here are seven things that can strengthen connection and help to open up lines of communication:

1. Pay attention

By being present, curious and open, you may start to notice subtle comments and/or pieces of information that are a young person’s unique way of communicating. Direct questions can, at times, be difficult for teens to respond to. As an adult, you may not love direct questions either. Young people may be more likely to open up to you if they don’t feel pressured to respond or share information they’re uncomfortable with. For example, rather than asking “How was you day today?” you can ask “What was something funny or cool that happened today?” or “Which class are you learning the most in lately?” You may also find it helpful to start conversations about things that feel more neutral to discuss, like a television show they love, a sport they play or a friend they’ve been communicating with a lot lately.

2. Validate their feelings

Teens feel empowered when their concerns are taken seriously. When a teen shares an issue they’re facing, it’s understandable to want to problem solve right away. It’s OK to slow down and check in with the young person about how they’re feeling. An effective way to show empathy is to be present and create space for them to explain the pain they’re in without judgment. You can validate their experience by saying things like, “Wow, that does sound difficult,” or “It makes sense that you feel…”.

3. Be trusting

Find ways to show the teens in your life that you trust them. This could mean assigning specific responsibilities, asking for their help, genuinely seeking their opinion about decisions, etc. These actions demonstrate you believe in their ability to help with something important to you.

4. Be transparent

As a parent/caregiver, setting rules and boundaries is important, but this can be met with resistance. Explaining the rationale behind your decisions may help teens understand why you made a specific choice or set a rule. It’s OK if they don’t agree with all your decisions and still push back. Demonstrating your trust by providing context can further show that you care and value their role in your relationship.

5. Give compliments and look for strengths

Many teens value positive encouragement and care what their parents/caregivers think about them. Find opportunities to be positive and encouraging, no matter how big or small. This might mean phrases like “Thanks for walking the dog,” “I love how you’ve styled your clothes today,” “I can see that you’re a really good friend”, etc.

6. Don’t hit the roof!

It’s important to remember that you’re also human and may have complicated emotional reactions from time to time. Build on the transparency you’ve developed by being honest about feeling upset or overwhelmed and find time to communicate once you feel more grounded and open to listening. Practising self-care, setting boundaries and taking time for yourself both contribute to an environment of mutual trust and understanding.

7. Set aside together time

Connecting can happen in many different ways. Spending time doing things you both enjoy (e.g. cooking, watching a movie, sharing a meal together, going for a walk or drive, etc.) without talking about anything personal can help to build your connection and set a foundation for harder conversations. It’s important for young people to have opportunities to be close with you and share positive memories.

You can explore additional resources to support the young people in your life here:

Building authentic and healthy relationships takes time. It’s OK if you try some of these tips and still get the feeling nothing is working. As you continue to make an effort to create meaningful connections, remember that being there for the young people in your life and reaffirming that they’re worthy of love, kindness and safety is what’s most important.

Published May 2021