The blog

Connected??

You may be thinking this is another post about technology use. There has been a lot of talk on the impacts of how connected our teens (and we) are with devices and the impact. This message is not, however, about tech use. It is an attempt to highlight a different and way more powerful type of connection… the human kind. While we all need connection with others, for teens it can be a literal lifeline.  As adolescents are evolving into themselves and finding their way in the world beyond family, they are understandably focused more on social relationships and seeking a sense of acceptance and affiliation. Through this process of trial and error as they “find their people” they are in a precarious place. They seem to desperately want to connect, feel accepted by peers and be part of a “friend group.” During their search, both within and without, it is critical for them to have other, more predictable and stable connections from which to tether. We, the helping adults and parents are the stake grounding them, however long or short the tie may be, during a time of great change, growth and necessary risk.  These are the connections with the greatest power to affect, influence, and impact adolescents’ emotional health and wellbeing.

For such a requisite endeavor, it can feel challenging to cultivate and nurture a sense of connectedness with teens in the midst of their pushing and pulling away. They both need us and do not always want us as such vital supports. How can we engage with them to feel genuinely connected in a way that honors such dueling needs and wants?  Let’s start by exploring how we understand the meaning of connection.

The concept of connectedness in psychology teaches that it is an experience of each person as a separate being and also linked to each other as well as nature, not only by physical contact, closeness or through language but through a sense of our and others’ beings. Humans experience connectedness physically, emotionally, cognitively and some may say spiritually through sensing feelings, risk for harm, and having awareness of the experience of others. For many years in my work with adolescents and parents I have said repeatedly that once your kids are old enough to be away from you and independent enough to do things and be places on their own for extended periods of time, the best thing you have to influence their thinking and decision making is your connection with them. We want them carrying our sense with them wherever they may go.  When all of us feel a sense of connectedness it adds to the value of life through an experience of meaning.

The benefits of connectedness are profound for both teens and the adults who love and care about them. It is both a protective and reparative factor in helping teens maintain or regain a sense of feeling mentally and emotionally healthy and well. We, parents and helping adults, have a greater impact on the teen mental health crisis than we may think. The Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, has identified teen mental health and suicide rates as a public health crisis in his 2021 Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health and has identified relationships and a sense of connection as a critical intervention. In 2017, even pre-pandemic, the CDC put out a report titled, “Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policies, Programs and Practices. In it, efforts to “promote connectedness” was recommended through peer norm and community engagement activities, which they highlight has the potential outcome to increase healthy coping and help seeing behaviors.  Gallup shared a 2023 report through the Institute for family Studies titled, “Parenting is the Key to Adolescent Mental Health,” touting that strong and secure emotional attachment, a mechanism for connectedness, has a powerful influence on health and wellness for children and teens. Other studies show that connected relationships with parents and caregivers predict healthy outcomes that protect against illness and increase the likelihood for young adults to have close relationships with their parents, and in general, beyond adolescence and through their adulthood.

Experiencing meaningful connectedness with adolescence and emerging adults is complex based on their evolutionary need to separate and self-sustain (“I don’t need you. I can do it”) and caretakers’ evolutionary urges to nurture and protect (we can see a train wreck coming at them from behind a mile away). So how can parents and other helping adults instill a sense of connectedness while honoring autonomy? Here are some ways to foster the experience of connection and some common traps adults can fall into that can inadvertently create a sense of disconnection.

Give up efforts to control.

Parents and helping adults tend to be excellent problem solvers. After all, we have had the years of experience teens have not to inform us on how to predict, plan, respond and recalculate our decision making in a variety of contexts with a fair amount of success. We know what they need to do (and not do). It can be tempting to exert measures of control to achieve a specific end. Efforts to use control for immediate compliance has its pros and cons and when employed as routine parenting, can jeopardize a sense of connectedness, and therefore the relationship. Thus, it can be easy to lose sight of the value of the decision making process for teens. We may try to lead them to a particular end result, which tends to look like nagging, power struggling, judging, and sometimes name calling, restricting or even punishing. These adult management behaviors inevitably lead to teens’ rebelling, withdrawing, lying, or arguing. Not an experience of connectedness. Alternatively, when parents and helping adults allow teens to articulate their own goals and use those as a basis for offering guidance and encouraging thoughtful contemplation (“have you thought about…” or “there are pros and cons to everything”), they are able to guide teens through such a thought practice and allow them to find the way to their own answers. When we walk side by side with them through the trials and errors rather than walking ahead and pulling them along our path, we offer opportunities for connection.

Share values by articulating and modeling them.

Parents and helping adults understandably want to have influence as teens shape their own beliefs, values and find what feels meaningful. At critical moments, caring adults have an opportunity to share honestly their own values, beliefs, and feedback with teens. If teens feel our efforts are an infringement on their ways of thinking, they are likely to tune us out, which is disconnecting. When we offer our own thoughts, values and beliefs as our own, acknowledging theirs may be different, we create opportunity for an exchange of ideas and dialogue, an opportunity to connect. When we live our spoken truth and teens observe this in us, they are more likely to walk away with an openness, curiosity, and minimally, an acceptance of these values as meaningful for us.

Create accountability based on how much you care and what you see in their potential.

Consequences are also influential, when executed through an experience of connection.  When teens inevitably engage in unacceptable, inappropriate, or unhealthy behaviors, responding thoughtfully while accepting their mistakes without judgment and helping them look forward, creates connectedness. For rule or norm breaking behaviors, outlining the consequences (in advance as much as possible) and allowing them to experience those consequences without judgment helps them learn from their own actions and feel our support in helping them grow and mature.

When responses to behaviors make sense to teens, either natural (they did not earn a desired grade as a result of lack of effort) or designed as a meaningful response (parents deny use of the car for a period to reflect on driving safety and they must pay the ticket they were issued), teens are more likely to see the value in the result of their choices and how you are helping them learn, a connected experience. If we engage in judgments, insults, or statements about how they “always do these things” or “never learn”, we are making statements about our lack of confidence in them, which can feel shunning and therefore disconnecting. When we are addressing risk taking behaviors like substance use, sexual activity, or behaviors that may cause harm, a connected approach allows greater opportunity for discussion, guidance, and to be available for help, even when part of that response may involve some limit setting. When our attitude is that we are holding them accountable because we know they can do better and create positive change, we convey that we believe in them to learn and then exhibit responsibility. We are lifting them to a higher standard, creating an experience of connectedness.

Accept their mistakes without judgment and look forward.

When we assume that making mistakes, even really big ones, is a part of the growing up process and necessary for learning and growth, we are less likely to engage in the emotionally driven responses that lead to feelings of disconnection and potentially shame, neither of which contribute to emotional health. In fact, when loved and valued adults respond with judgment, shame, a lack of acceptance, punishment or overcontrolled responses, it can be a pre-cursor or trigger for self-inflicted harm or suicidality in more vulnerable teens.  When our attitude is that we are holding them accountable because we care and know they can do better and create positive change, we convey that we believe teens have it in them to learn, cope in healthy ways, and exhibit responsibility. We are lifting them to our while building their own higher standard, creating an experience of connectedness. Remember, any response to a behavior is not going to change what already occurred. It is to cope ahead and learn for the next time.

As you reflect on your connections with teens, ask yourself which interactions, behaviors and responses result in connectedness and which may cause disconnection. Remember the benefits of feeling connected are a powerful force in the fight for teen mental health and wellness.

Wishing all the Mom’s out there a very Happy and Connected Mother’s Day!

~Julie Baron, LCSW-C

References:

(2021). Surgeon General Advisory on Youth Mental health [Review of Surgeon General Advisory on Youth Mental health].

 

‌ (2017). Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policy, Programs, and

Practices [Review of Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policy, Programs, and Practices].

Ford, C. A., Pool, A. C., Kahn, N. F., Jaccard, J., & Halpern, C. T. (2023). Associations Between Mother-Adolescent and Father-Adolescent Relationships and Young Adult Health. JAMA Network Open, 6(3), e233944. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.3944

Giannakopoulos, G., Dimitrakaki, C., Pedeli, X., Kolaitis, G., Rotsika, V., Ravens-Sieberer, U., & Tountas, Y. (2009). Adolescents’ wellbeing and functioning: relationships with parents’ subjective general physical and mental health. Health and Quality of Life Outcomes, 7(1), 100. https://doi.org/10.1186/1477-7525-7-100

kushala, sayedul. (n.d.). Parent-adolescent relationships and their associations with adolescent suicidal behaviours: Secondary analysis of data from 52 countries using the Global School-based Health Survey [Review of Parent-adolescent relationships and their associations with adolescent suicidal behaviours: Secondary analysis of data from 52 countries using the Global School-based Health Survey]. CHOP.

rothwell, jonathan. (2021). Parenting Is the Key to Adolescent Mental Health [Review of Parenting Is the Key to Adolescent Mental Health ]. Institute for family Studies. https://ifstudies.org/ifs-admin/resources/briefs/ifs-gallup-parentingteenmentalhealthnov2023.pdf

Whitlock J, Wyman PA, Moore SR. Connectedness and suicide prevention in adolescents: pathways and implications. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 2014 Jun;44(3):246-72. doi: 10.1111/sltb.12071. Epub 2014 Jan 20. PMID: 24444252.