Your sweet kid's morphed into a teen who hates you. Reacquaint yourselves, quick.
When your children were born, that bonding thing went pretty well. Quite naturally, in fact. Their chubby little faces lit up every time you came into the room. These days, though, their faces darken at the sight of you. You have teenagers.
Parenting during the teen years is at least as important as it was in the early ones, says Michael Bradley, PhD, a practicing clinical psychologist and author of Yes, Your Teen is Crazy! Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your Mind. Believe it or not, research has revealed that the higher parts of the brain form - key word "form," as in take shape out of chaos - during adolescence. Which means good parenting is essential at this stage, if, that is, you want to have anything to do with your child's grown-up outlook on life. "This is when you are shaping the adult," Bradley says. "These are likely the most critical years of parenting."
Well, okay. Except it is also true that one of the primary jobs of adolescents is establishing themselves as independent beings, separate from you. Anthony Wolf, PhD, another teen psycholo-gist and author of Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall warns us, "Just your existence compro-mises their need to feel like independent beings."
"It's like adolescents have an allergy to parents," Wolf explains. "So if a parent's aim is to have close bonding with a teenage child, that's not realistic." What is realistic, even important, is connecting with your teen in meaningful ways. Roni Cohen-Sandler, psychologist and author of - you've gotta love these titles - I'm Not Mad I Just Hate You, cautions that "Teens say they aren't interested, but deep down they do want to feel connected." Just don't expect it to be easy.
GOTTA GET OUT MORE
The first golden rule: Don't even try to work serious bonding into your daily routine (at least at first). You'll have better luck away from home and all its competition TV, Internet, music, siblings, telephone, friends, and so on - because, let's face it, at this point in their lives, anything is more interesting than you. Doing something out of the context of day-to-day life creates the best opportunities for making a connection.
Cohen-Sandler took her teens to Costa Rica, and while there, the kids got to play expert because they knew more of the language and were more physically fit than their parents. Give your own kids the opportunity to try on new roles by choosing destinations together. Look for a variety of activities as well as a setup that allows both of you a little breathing room. Avoid highly structured tours, which create too many opportunities for adolescent rebellion against authority.
Seek activities that don't involve your usual parent mode - that "where-were-you, what-about-that-English-grade, who-are-these-weirdos-you-call-friends" stuff. Show that you see your teen as a person, not just your child, and temporarily put aside your job of setting limits. How? Try something new, preferably something your teen is dying to do.
If your daughter has been fantasizing about surfing ever since she saw Blue Crush check out Surf Camp in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina (www.wbsurfcamp.com) or Paskowitz Surf Camp in San Diego (www.paskowitz.com). Both promise to have anybody - even you, Dad - up and riding a board in five days. Or cater to your kid's inner scientist. Cheryl Bennett and daughter Lauren spent 10 days researching leatherback turtles on an Earthwatch Institute expedition in the Caribbean (www.earthwatch.org). "It ended up being the trip of a lifetime for both of us," says Bennett. "It was more like we were partners ... researchers working together." If turtles don't excite you, Earthwatch offers expeditions on everything from dolphins to medicinal plants.
As you're casting about for something you can both agree on, don't take rejection of your ideas personally. Your teen will knock some of them just as a power exercise. Don't give up. The offer alone is a connection. If you keep striking out with big plans, start small, with ice cream, a movie, or dinner out. Above all, be creative.
Even if that means, as in Michael Bradley's case, that you have to provide incentives - aka bribes - to get your teen to go along. Bradley rented a convertible for his son to drive through California -with Dad in tow, of course. Such tricks are fair play, but don't be too pushy. If you have to force your teen into that car, your fantasy weekend could turn into a nightmare.
HEY, LISTEN UP!
Taking a trip together isn't the only way to foster bonding time. Be open to your teen's ideas, even, perhaps especially, about activities you wouldn't normally do. "I play Ping-Pong with my son, even though it's not my favorite activity," says Cohen-Sandler, "and I hate the mall, but that is where my teenage daughter wants to go."
Volunteering is another way to put you both on level ground and to create shared memories, even if it's not something exotic like an Earthwatch trip. Be open to what is meaningful to your teen (say, saving turtles) rather than to you (art museum), and don't push too hard. You don't have to build houses; maybe your kid just wants a local skatepark. Offer to help him start a petition or visit city officials.
Develop rituals like sharing a Saturday morning breakfast or a Friday night pizza, or reading the morning comics together. Repetitive events are very centering, and while teens may act like they don't like it, the experts say they do. Trust them, they're experts.
If you just want to have a conversation, Bradley has a foolproof trick: Set your alarm for midnight. The adolescent brain kicks in late at night, and teens will actually talk if you just hang with them. Can't stay awake at that hour? "I think about waving goodbye in a couple of years," says Bradley. Works better than a double espresso.
Above all, hang on to your sense of humor. Teenagers still don't have all their brain equipment, and they really are a little crazy. Just like potty training, this, too, shall pass. And if relaxing on a beach makes it pass more quickly, hey, who's to argue.