Connecting With Your Emotional Teens

Pensive teen boy sitting in rain splattered car

Full of energy, Rebecca headed to the kitchen for breakfast. Her 17-year-old daughter was already there. As Rebecca sat to eat, her teen accidentally knocked over the milk.

Rebecca told her, "The kitchen towel is behind the flour."

Her daughter quickly scooted back her chair and stood. "You're always bossing me around." By the time she returned to the table, tears were smearing her mascara. Just then Rebecca's son walked into the room and burped loudly. Immediately her daughter's fury turned on him.

Not a great way to start a morning, is it? Daily, parents of teens witness the incredible highs (“I aced my biology test!”) and the inconsolable lows (“No one will ever ask me to homecoming!”) that come during the adolescent years.

Teenagers are emotional. Their sudden mood shifts may cause parents to question their overall well-being, as well as set everyone else on edge. So how do parents nurture a strong emotional health in their teenagers?

Offer affirming words

During the teen years, affirmation and approval are crucial. Your young man wants to know, Do I have what it takes? Are you proud of me? Am I becoming a man in your eyes? Your young woman wants to know, Am I pretty? Am I of value? Am I becoming a woman in your eyes?

While your teen seeks approval from peers and others, you are actually your child’s most important cheerleader. He or she needs your “way to go” and “I’m so proud of you” more than you know.

Not long ago while shopping, I saw a tall, gangly teenage boy walking behind his mom. I overheard her say, “When you grow up, you’ll make a fantastic husband for some lucky young woman. I’m so proud of who you’re becoming.”

As she continued walking and talking, her son followed behind, wearing an embarrassed but pleased smile. His mom had given him an incredible gift of affirmation. It’s amazing what a sentence or a few words from us can mean in a teen’s life. Try these statements and watch how your teen responds:

  • Have I told you lately how glad I am that you’re my son/daughter?
  • I thanked God for you this morning.
  • You’re doing a great job!

(When you can't say these things in person, use technology. You can text your teens to affirm them.)

Show unconditional love

Love is the most basic of all emotional needs. When teens know that God and their parents love them, they feel they have value and significance. Be careful, however. All love is not equal. Parents can choose between two kinds of love: conditional and unconditional.

Conditional love requires a certain behavior or performance. If you express your love only after your son catches a touchdown pass or your daughter gets a leading role in the school musical, he or she will quickly pick up what pushes your “love” button. Or if you express your love only if your son wears his hair a certain length and if your daughter is thin, your teens will pick up that they are only worthy of your love because of something they are or aren’t. Conditional love is either “love if” or “love because of” — and it is highly unhealthy.

The healthy alternative is unconditional love, which means you love your teen “in spite of” — even when he drops the game-winning pass in the end zone, even when she finds herself on the stage crew and not in the cast. It’s putting an arm around a shoulder and saying, “You did your best. I’m proud of the way you tried.” Unconditional love says to your child, There is nothing you can do to make me love you more. You will never lose my love.

Stay connected

Another way to show your love and connect is through touch — a friendly pat on the shoulder or a warm hug. Some parents think teens outgrow touch, but in fact, physical contact is important to their emotional health. Touch sends the message: You are important to me and worthy of my interest and my time.

You can also draw closer together through discovering and supporting your teen’s uniqueness — especially when he or she has different gifts and passions from yours. What is your teen good at? Tennis? Basketball? Piano? Scottish dancing? Drama? Study your teens and take an involved interest in what they feel called to do or are gifted at. And if they haven’t yet discovered that special talent, point out the godly character traits you observe.

Parents and teens who spend time together regularly and communicate openly with one another enjoy a closer emotional connection. Barb and I stayed connected with our son and daughter by eating breakfast and supper as a family, as often as our schedules allowed. It was our time to find out what everyone was going to do, or had done, that day, as well as a time for Barb and me to share our values with our teens. Our kids knew they had Mom’s and Dad’s full attention to discuss whatever they wanted.

The goal is to make yourself a “safe place” to engage in discussing ideas, doubts or questions — about any topic, including drugs, sex, tattoos, social media, bullying, body changes, success, money, painful relationships, messy worldviews, politics, God and faith. You don’t need to have all the answers, but by providing a safe haven for your teen, you’ll be building a strong emotional connection.

This article originally appeared on in 2014. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get it delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
Copyright © 2014 by Walt Larimore. Used by permission.

Next in this Series: Terrible Teens?

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