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Staying connected: How to use the family dinner effectively during the teen years

Few parents would be unaware of the importance of doing their best to ‘stay connected’ to their child during adolescence. This is particularly true as they transition from early to middle adolescence (around 14-15) – a time when they’re trying to find their place in the world, develop their own identity and, in doing so, often pull away from their parents.

It is at this time that peers become increasingly important and, as a result, teens can begin to disengage from their families. In addition, their interests may change and friends they’ve had since they began school may drift away. Years of music lessons or sports training are suddenly forgotten as your teens appears to wake up one morning and decide to abandon something you believed they genuinely loved. Seemingly, overnight, everything you thought you knew about your child can be turned upside down. The real challenge that many parents face at this time is attempting to put rules and boundaries into place to keep them as safe as possible (that their teens are not going to like), and, at the same time, do their best to maintain a positive relationship and keep connected. It’s tough!

As tempting as it might be to just turn and walk away and think this is just all too hard, it is incredibly important that parents continue to try and work hard to maintain a dialogue (no matter how stilted or one-sided it may be) with their child during their teens. Sadly, I meet too many parents who beat themselves up around this area, acknowledging that they’re busy people and ‘time poor’ and, as a result, feel as though they don’t spend enough time connecting with their child. But this is not about ‘quantity’, it’s about ‘quality’. Even if you can only manage to find a couple of minutes a week where you truly connect with your teen, that can be so very important. This is not always easy and is something that parents have to develop over time, as Michael Gurian explains in the following quote:

“Connecting to your teen is a process not unlike building up muscles. As parents, you need to work on your timing and build up strength in your relationship.”

I’ve talked about the book Staying Connected To Your Teenager (subtitled How To Keep Them Talking To You and How To Hear What They’re Really Saying) written by US parenting expert, Michael Riera, many times before. He discusses a range of strategies in this wonderful resource and I often mention some of them in my presentations to parents. One that he discusses is around the traditional ‘family dinner’ and how it has to be used differently during the teen years if you want it to be effective in relation to staying connected.

There has been much written about the importance of taking the time to sit down as a family and eat dinner together. Riera stresses that family dinners are still important during the teen years, but how they are important changes. Most parents would agree that if they sit down to a meal with their teen it would be rare for any meaningful conversations to take place, no matter how hard you try to get one started. Getting a teenager to actually sit down at a table with the family for any longer than 10 minutes is nigh on impossible and if you expect to be able to extract anything of any real importance from them during that brief time you’re likely to be disappointed.

It was very different when they were younger. When they were in primary school (and even as they first started high school) you could ask them questions about their day, what they and their friends were up to and you were likely to be given detailed accounts of much of what was going on in their lives. They’re also far more likely to let you know if something is troubling them in this setting at that age. Reira explains this by discussing research that has found that when asked who they would talk to if they had a problem, children around the age of 11 or 12 list, in order: parents, teachers, friends. When they hit adolescence, however, the list reverses. It’s now friends that they’re most likely to confide in, with teachers and parents likely to be a fair way behind. This means that the family dinner is unlikely to be a place where teens are going to share much of what is going on in their life.

So how should you be using the family dinner at this stage of their life? Reira explains it this way:

“During adolescence dinner becomes the bridge that leads to bigger conversations later on … Dinner is the time for small talk. It’s time to make eye contact and check in with one another. It’s the time to crack a joke or two and laugh. It’s time to reconfigure logistics for later that night or the next day. These exchanges build the bridge of communication between parents and teenagers.”

He describes the family dinner as a “check-in time”. As already said, during adolescence it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to get the quality conversations you may be hoping for in this setting. Ask them about their day at the dinner table and, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a sentence in response. If you’re not, it’s likely that a grunt or two may be the best you get. Trying to keep things light and avoid asking them too much about what’s happening in their lives at this time is most probably the way to go. The small talk that will hopefully take place may seem unimportant at the time but it lays the foundations for the more important discussions that come later.

I’ve written about Riera’s recommendation about talking to teens late at night in a previous blog entry and I’d urge parents to seriously consider this strategy. It’s based on research that shows adolescents have different sleep rhythms to adults and, as a result they’re more willing to talk and share at night. In addition, they’ve also had time to reflect on the events of the day, their defences are down and there’s likely to be far less distractions. This dovetails into the family dinner issue, with Riera writing the following:

“There is a direct correlation between the small talk of dinner and the big talks that happen away from the dining room table …  It’s different from one family to the next. The constant is that it occurs after dinner, in the transition time between dinner and personal time.”

Staying connected with your teen is so important. Finding ways of doing this as your child goes through so many changes during adolescence can be tough. Research shows clearly that strong parent-child relationships build resilience and keep young people safer in so many ways. But beyond that Reira highlights another reason to maintain your connection with your teen:

“It’s fun. Teenagers, for better and worse, are some of the most creative and fun people on the planet, and when you stay connected you, too, enjoy these aspects of your teenager; and in doing so, you regularly replenish your parenting batteries.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself!

Riera, M. (2003). Staying Connected To Your Teenager Da Capo Press Lifelong Books.

Published: February 2022

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