A father talks with his son during a hunting trip

Practical Suggestions for Building Real Connections

As parents, we can see, hear and feel the changes and challenges of these weird and often stressful teenage years. Just like we did at their age, they want independence, but may not know how to handle it yet. They want to succeed, but they don’t yet know which direction is best for them. At this age, they will be testing limits (just as they did at three-years-old) and gaining a better sense of what and how they can control certain aspects of their life. It’s our role to help them develop their own sense of responsibility and resilience while they navigate, and sometimes stumble on the rocky terrain of these formative years. 

No matter the age, a child wants to make their parents proud. It doesn’t matter if they are learning how to put their shoes on all by themselves as a toddler or if they are buying their first home as an adult, they want us to be pleased with them. Just like we want our parents to praise us, our middle schoolers want us to cheer them on and be there to help lift them up when they fall. They might just be too cool (or is it “yeet”?) to ever admit it. 

The whole “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” mantra can really rings true with middle school students. “Joining” our kids in their journey is often difficult, or may even seem pointless, so how does a parent get connected?

Whether it’s trends like fidget spinners (remember those?) or knowing the latest YouTube star, it’s often difficult to stay in tune with what your middle schooler is really interested in. We aren’t usually the first ones our middle schoolers tell when they form a new hobby or take on a new interest. So, how do we really know what is going on behind those youthful eyes and pimply faces? 

Here are some tips on what has helped us stay connected with our young teens so that you can build real connections that provide value to your child and foster a stronger relationship at the same time.

Be Observant of Your Teenager

Your child’s actions when they aren’t scheduled to do anything else can be a great indicator of what interests them. What do you see your child doing in their free time? Are they outside exploring? Playing video games? Tinkering in the garage? Nose in a book? Keep an eye out for what your child is doing. How they invest their time can be a great indicator of what has captured their interest.

A father engages with his teenage sons while they play a board game

Listen and Ask Open-Ended Questions

As you’ve probably already learned, conversations can be difficult with a middle schooler! Talking about something they love is a good way to make a conversation last more than a few seconds. The key is to ask questions about what they are interested in, and listen! Try to avoid asking only yes or no questions.

Once you have observed how they are choosing to spend their time, ask about what you have witnessed your child doing and add positive comments about their efforts or hobby. Then listen. These simple steps will open up conversation about your child’s interests and show that you care.

Here are a few examples:

  • “You were outside most of the day. Where are you exploring? Find anything interesting?” 
  • “I heard you playing a video game earlier. What do you enjoy about that game? Are you working toward a specific achievement or goal?”
  • “I noticed that you spent quite a bit of time reading today. The book must be really good! What is going on in the book you’re reading?”
  • “I noticed you were using some tools in the garage. It looked like you were having fun. What are you working on?” 
parent and child communication

Engage in their Chosen Activity

Now let’s take it a step further and become hands-on with your child. Spending the time with them will be something you will never be able to get back. Time spent doing the activity that they enjoy is like play time when they were little. Now that your child is older, “play time” has changed a bit, but they still enjoy playing. It just may look different these days. Now they have their own ideas of what is fun and what to “play”, allow them to show you. 

If your child is out in the yard with a football… join them! Pass the football, hold the ball while they kick. Maybe they are playing a video game, ask to watch. Encourage them to explain what they are doing and how the game works. Stay engaged and interested, even if you don’t love what you are doing. Remember, this isn’t about satisfying your desire for entertainment, it’s about investing into your child.

Be Vulnerable

During the middle school years, your child’s activities can sometimes seem like a complete waste of time. Before judging their actions (or lack of actions), remember that you’re the experienced adult and they are the bright-eyed person with their whole lives ahead of them. As a way to show support and to aid them in their journey, take time to get involved in what they are doing. Let them guide you so that you can get involved. You don’t need to be their soccer coach, but ask if you can kick the ball around in the back yard from time to time.

In doing this…

  1. You will learn more about your child and their skills. You will become immersed in how they see the world. 
  2. You will learn something new. Plus you will see and experience how your child thinks. You may even be able to discern traits like their work ethic, natural abilities, or preferred learning style.
  3. You will be a role model for your child. They will see you jumping in, learning something new, and will see that as a sign of bravery and love. They may never tell you those things, but they will appreciate your efforts to get to know them on a deeper level.
  4. You will struggle. Your child will witness your struggles. They will also witness how you handle those struggles by not giving up and working hard to understand the activity they value.

If the opportunities aren’t clear and evident, don’t worry. Just be present. Sit down and enjoy a meal together. Take them with you to a store that they would like to visit. Don’t just buy them things. Ask them what they value in specific items, or what attracts them to the songs they enjoy. Invest time. 

Remember that these years are meant to shape their future, and they need time to understand, explore, and improve their abilities to function in this complex world. No one starts off being world-class at anything. It takes time to develop, and often takes a person many attempts at several activities before they find ones they value and enjoy. While you may be comfortable in who you are, they haven’t figured out “who they are” yet, and that takes time to think, reason, and explore.

Keep Cultivating, Even when it’s Hard

While you are observing, listening, engaging, and being vulnerable, you’ll begin to see moments of connection with your middle schooler. While these moments may not be the length that they were when your child was younger, cherish them nonetheless. Use this new understanding of your wonky middle schooler to connect with them better. Keep asking questions. Keep listening. 

When times get tough, these steps will provide them with opportunities to talk with you when more serious challenges come in the future. When your children are fired up about something, run with it! Encourage exploration of the issue instead of shutting them down with logic or wisdom. Seize the opportunity to help them go deeper and guide them to conclusions so that they see the value in them, not just because you said so. Get books, go to museums, and use their curiosity or crisis to cultivate deeper understanding… especially if the subject does not excite you. That is sacrificial love.

We can’t help but think about God’s example in our own lives when we think of these five steps. God observes our interests and actions. He listens to our prayers and petitions. He engages with what we do and blesses our efforts when what we are doing honors Him and His Word. He doesn’t push himself into our lives, making everything about Him. He simply is present and guides us in a still, quiet voice through his Spirit. He continues to meet us where we are, showing love, support, and wisdom along the way. He plants seeds of hope in our hearts, cultivating growth in our hearts and minds for our benefit, and to benefit those around us. 

As God prepares us for the future, we can use these steps to prepare our kids for theirs, so that they, one day, will build strong connections with their children too.

Are you feeling the tug to be more involved in your child’s education?

Through proven curriculum, parent partnerships, and learning flexibility, Lenawee Christian Academy can provide your family with an online education solution that delivers adventure to middle school learners and peace to parents like you. Download your free parent resource to learn more!