Feel like your kids view you as a walking bank machine or a taxi service? You’re not alone. Between the ages of 13 and 16, teens start pushing their parents to the sidelines. Today’s dad, having played a greater role in the diapering and dinner-making than previous generations, might wonder just how he can bridge the gap, now that their needs aren’t so immediate and apparent.
“It’s easier if you have a good relationship early on,” says Tim Paquette, chair of the Fatherhood Involvement Initiative-Ontario Network. “The teen years are a culmination of all the other years. Don’t look at it as a task. Being involved with your kids shouldn’t be approached as a project or accomplishment.”
Mark Lindquist, a Windsor, Ont., dad of two — Kayla, 15, and Austin, 12 — has stayed involved with his kids through the years thanks to their dinner table conversations and his involvement in their athletic pursuits, and his wife fills him in on the rest. But mom shouldn’t be the gatekeeper. “Moms need to step back and give dads the room to find out what his parenting style is,” says Paquette.
“Men are socialized around performance issues rather than relational issues,” says Dr. Carl Pickhardt, author of The Connected Father: Understanding Your Unique Role and Responsibilities During Your Child’s Adolescence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). “Dads tend to ask, “How are you doing?’ rather than “How are you feeling?” Dads often want to fix things, an approach that won’t work with the complex relationship and peer-influence issues teens face. Teens don’t want solutions; they want to solve problems on their own — and they want empathy and understanding, says Paquette. Show your kids you care as much about their interests, feelings and experiences as you do about their actions and accomplishments. Simply saying, “Help me understand,” whether it’s referring to your teen’s bad mood or a poor grade, also paves the way for the teen to be more open about what’s really going on his life. And don’t discount the impact of the simple question, “What can I do to help?”
Adolescence is abrasive as kids experiment with independence. While Mom sees conflict as an opportunity to interact, Dad often sees conflict as competitive, and instinctively tries to control the outcome of the situation, says Dr. Pickhardt. “Dads are less emotionally resilient than moms,” he explains. “Kids don’t fight with their fathers because their fathers won’t engage. Dads just want to shut it down or fix it.” But dads can learn to use conflict as a stepping-stone to communication.
“There are two paths to intimacy,” says Dr. Pickhardt. “One is confiding. The other is companionship.” If Dad isn’t comfortable in confiding, he can create companionship opportunities, even if it’s just working side by side doing yard work or cooking dinner. Lindquist has coached his kids in a variety of sports since they were very young, and the family vacations together frequently. As a result, his kids want to spend time with the family. “I suggested selling our annual timeshare in Tennessee last year,” says Lindquist. “The kids had a fit because they have too much fun on those trips.” You can also show your support by attending school events and games. And remember, all that driving to and from the mall leaves you perfectly positioned to get the latest scoop on their lives.
Shelley Divnich Haggert enjoys encouraging her teenaged daughters and their dad to stay connected — it leaves her more time to write about all of them.
Non-custodial dads may find that the long-standing visitation schedule is disrupted as their teens’ peers become a bigger priority. Remember, it’s about quality, not quantity. “Things will change,” says Paquette. “Look for ways to communicate outside face time, like email, instant messaging or Facebook.” Keep abreast of school activities, attend events and be willing to work around their social schedule. Continue to seek out those opportunities for companionship when you are with your kids. Remember, kids are looking for consistency.