What to do when kids start slipping away

Meghan Leahy

THE WASHINGTON POST – I have a 15-year-old boy, 13-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy. After dinner, everyone goes their separate ways, usually to an electronic device. I try to get everyone to watch a show together or play a game, usually unsuccessfully. I definitely feel the older kids slipping away; I feel as if they don’t tell me much about what’s going on with their friends, etc. Should I try to push for more family time, or am I waging a losing battle at their ages?

A: Oh man, I feel you. I have a 16, 13 and 10-year-old, and I, too, feel them moving out of my orbit. Some days, I cannot believe I ever had little kids; time has passed so fast. As I read your note, two thoughts occurred to me: First, there is the developmental reality of your children growing up and away from you – and everything that comes with that. Second, there is the parental grief that often comes with this transition.

It is important to understand that our grief and worry can colour our parenting, and it is easy to want to push our agendas out of fear rather than connection.

But, at the same time, there is a voice in you whispering, “gather them in”, and I want you to listen to it.

We can address what you can do, but I want to put a plug in for keeping our teens in our orbit a bit more. American parenting, culturally speaking, encourages independence in our children, and it is normal for teens to stop speaking to their parents.

Although autonomy is a part of adolescence – and freedom and risks come with that – American parents are too quick to let go of their teens. There is a middle path between controlling them and knowing their every secret, and allowing them to shut their bedroom doors and ignore us for days on end.

To be clear, you have three children in three very different developmental stages. Although that 10-year-old is rounding the corner on his tween years, he is still a boy and can be treated thusly. And because each child is in a different place, it might be a hard sell to get them to all agree to a movie or game without a plan.

How you decide what to do is up to you, but I reached out to psychologist John Duffy, author of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety, for his thoughts.

Duffy often uses two methods in his practice of working with teens and their parents, and they are both variations of the family meeting.

First is what he calls “the hard reset”. This method has everyone, parents included, discuss how their time is spent, as well as the family’s intentions for how they will spend more time together moving forward. Duffy stresses that this is not a time to blame the children for their love of video games or social media; it’s a time to make a new plan for an hour of family time (a game, movie, food, whatever you decide).

The second option is less formal than the hard reset. It uses dinnertime (and congrats on getting them there!) to connect with them through conversation. You stay away from the “how’s school?” or “what’s your homework?” questions, and you instead talk about pop culture, politics, current events or anything else the children are interested in (break dancing in the Olympics, for example).

I find that having these conversations is also a beautiful way to tell family stories. Although our children have everything available to them on their phones, they still need to understand their ancestry, family stories and your own childhoods.

Feeling grounded in a space and time, especially during the pandemic, is important to tweens and teens, and through the eye rolls and shrugs, they are listening. And as Duffy said “When parents engage their kids organically, kids are often drawn into conversation (sometimes despite themselves). They feel competent and respected as a result, and more likely to stick around at the dinner table for a while the next night.”

Neither strategy will work perfectly; the prickliness of the hormones and growth spurts may cause some grumbling and bad attitudes, but if you make these meetings a habit, you can build a routine of connection that will begin to run itself.

Finally, find some parent friends and share your “slipping away” feelings. These are bittersweet times, and it helps to have a shoulder to lean (or cry) on. Good luck.