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‘Talk to your child at night, late at night’: A valuable strategy to help parents ‘keep connected’ to their teen

Go to any parenting session and no matter who is presenting or whatever angle they’re coming from, they will undoubtedly stress the importance of ‘keeping connected’ to your child, particularly during the adolescent years. Now as I’m sure many of you with teens of your own are saying, that is so much easier said than done! Trying to maintain a positive relationship with a 14 or 15-year-old can be extraordinarily difficult but is vital if you’re going to survive the years ahead. During this time, your child is going through a whole pile of changes (physical, psychological and emotional) and trying to find their place in the world. They are desperate to establish their own identity and, in doing so, often pull away from their parents and, as a result, their peers become increasingly more important in their lives. It’s a tough time for all involved! As one Mum wrote to me a couple of years ago:

“Every conversation I have with my 15-year-old at the moment ends in a fight! Apparently, I don’t understand anything about the world, my rules are completely different to every other parent’s and, as I’m usually told as the door slams, I just want to ruin her life!” 

I’ve used this quote before but it’s worth showing again as it clearly illustrates the problem that almost every parent faces during this time. As a parent you must have rules and boundaries in place to try to keep your child as safe as possible and they are not going to like that! As far as they are concerned, they are now (young) adults and any attempt to ‘hem them in’ and prevent them from doing what they believe is their God-given right is likely to be met with anger and frustration, often ending up with a whole pile of yelling and screaming and slamming of doors!

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 son or daughter during adolescence. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by mums and dads that their wonderful, communicative and co-operative teen went up to bed one night and was somehow replaced by aliens with a ‘pod person’ – an adolescent that they now simply don’t recognize! If a conversation was to happen, it usually ended up in an argument about absolutely everything but it was far more likely that words were replaced with mono-syllabic grunts, particularly where young men are concerned, and any attempts to find out what was going on in their lives was met with great resistance. But don’t give up – although it may seem as if you’re banging your head against a brick wall, I promise keeping connected as much as possible will be worth it in the end!

Sadly, I meet too many parents who beat themselves up around this area, acknowledging that they are busy people and ‘time poor’ and they 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. Spending an hour with your daughter at a coffee shop with both of you on your phones for most of the time is not going to be particularly helpful, whereas having a great 5-minute chat with your son as you’re dropping him off at school can be so powerful.

Over the years I have found that parents are desperate for ‘real-life’ practical strategies to add to their parenting ‘tool box’, particularly in regards to helping them maintain a positive and open relationship with their child. Without a doubt, one of the best is as follows – ‘Talk to your child at night, late at night.’

I have 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. There are a whole pile of strategies that he suggests in this wonderful resource for parents and this is one of my favourites, particularly because of the science behind it …

In the opening chapter of the book Riera talks about the different sleep rhythms that adolescents have and how parents can use these to enhance their relationship with their child. He talks about research that has shown that teens have a different circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle) than adults. Where the fully-developed brain releases sleep-inducing chemicals in the early evening (around 7.00pm) causing adults to start to get sleepy after dinner, teens don’t experience the same effect until much later, with many of them not getting sleepy until around 11.00pm. Because they get sleepy earlier, adults are able to wake up in the morning feeling well-rested and able to function (well, that’s what the science says anyway!), while teens on the other hand find the mornings very difficult and trying to have a quality conversation with them over breakfast or anytime before lunch is likely to fail.

Adolescents are most likely to open up and talk late at night and Riera suggests using this unique wake-sleep cycle to connect with your teen. In addition to their brain chemistry, it is at this time that they’ve had time to reflect on the events of the day, their defences are down to some extent and there are far less distractions. The problem for parents is that this is their natural time to sleep and it actually takes a little bit of forward planning to get these late-night conversations happening. Riera gives a couple of great examples of parents who have used this strategy successfully, including one mother who actually set her alarm to wake up at 1.00am and ‘accidentally on purpose’ bumped into her daughter and started a conversation by simply asking her ‘How are things with you?’. In the words of this mum, “I’ve learned more about her life during these talks than I have in all the family dinners we’ve shared during the last three years.” 

I’ve written about this strategy a couple of times before but I thought I would revisit it due to an email I received this week – it read as follows:

“I just wanted to say a big ‘thank you’ to you for one of the tips you suggested in a parent evening I attended a few years ago. You talked about talking to your child late at night (I think you suggested setting your alarm for midnight at walking past your child’s bedroom and seeing if their light was on – if it was, just knock on the door) and the fact that they are more likely to have a good quality conversation at that time (I can’t remember why that that was the case). My youngest daughter is now in university and still living at home and I continue to use that tip to this day. She shut down from my husband and I early in Year 11 and we were very worried about her – she wouldn’t talk to us and her grades started to drop. Both my husband and I started to use the ‘talk late at night’ strategy and, although it took a little time, she finally opened up and we found out what was wrong. She was being bullied at school and was very unhappy. Once we found out and helped her (she eventually moved schools) she got back on course and did incredibly well (she’s now studying medicine). Although conversation is much easier now, I still find that the best talks my daughter and I have happen late at night.”  

Of course, once you’ve got them talking (as the mother did above) you’ve got to know how to respond appropriately (which, once again, the parents above seemed to get right). In addition, there’s always that risk that your child is going to tell you something you really don’t want to know, and you need to be prepared for that, making sure that you don’t react in a way that is going to shut down future conversations. It’s important to remember that sometimes just listening is enough …

I’ve been saying it for a few years now, but I’d strongly recommend that parents take a look at this book, whether you’re struggling to keep connected with your teen or not. Here is a quote from the end of the chapter on the late-night strategy that will give you some idea of the positive messages contained in the book – I think you’ll agree, it’s well worth a read.

“Remember, your teenager has a different rhythm to his day than you. Therefore, even though it isn’t convenient, it is well worth the effort that it takes to adapt your rhythms to match his, if even only for an evening every now and again … Those are … the nights that will help you get through all the other nights when it’s an hour past curfew and you haven’t heard a peep from your wayward teenager. It’s all about balance. Just never let yourself forget that it is your connection with your teenager that will always lead him back home.” 

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

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