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A Guide to Building Relationships with Our Teens

Decode your child's bids for connection and extend your own with these 6 effective tools.

When my boys were little, it felt simple and easy to stay connected. They were always under my feet, after all. We shared loads of quality time, and if a disconnect did occur, a few minutes of playing together quickly resolved the issue. 

Those little boys grew up. Now that they’re both teenagers, I’m finding it is much more tricky to stay close. If you’re the parent of a teenager, you already know that maintaining a strong connection is much more difficult than it used to be. During adolescence, our teenagers naturally gravitate toward their peers more as they figure out their identity outside their family systems. While it is developmentally normal and appropriate for them to do so, it is still important (and perhaps more important than ever) that we continue to make the effort to connect.

Giving and Receiving Bids

Dr. John Gottman is a world-renowned relationship researcher and co-founder of The Gottman Institute. He has conducted 40 years of research with thousands of people. From his research has emerged a practice that is important to the emotional connection between two people. It is the act of answering bids. What is a bid? According to Gottman, a bid is an attempt to get attention, affection, or acceptance.

In healthy relationships, bids come from both parties. When my children were young, I found that they did most of the bidding, and it was my responsibility to look for and answer those bids, or to “turn toward” them, as Gottman puts it. 

“Will you play with me?” was an obvious one, but all bids from children are obvious. Sometimes their bids come in the form of behaviors we don’t love seeing. Sometimes they’re nonverbal but conveyed only through body language or facial expressions. Learning to read when bids are made and answering them positively has a great impact on the connectedness that we share with our loved ones. 

Now that my boys are teens, the tables have turned. I find that I’m the one making most of the bids. However, they still make them too.

Here are a few ways teens may make bids for connection:

  1. Do you want to watch a movie? When they ask to sit with us and watch something together, they’re asking for closeness. They’re asking to spend time with them. This is one of the more obvious bids.

  2. Telling jokes. If your teen is telling you jokes, recognize it as a bid. They’re wanting to laugh with you.

  3. Asking for help. Whether it is to help with a school project, a chore, or rearranging their bedroom, when our teens ask for our help, it is often a bid for closeness.

  4. Loitering. If your teen is hanging around in the kitchen when you’re trying to cook or hanging out near you, they’re craving attention from you.

  5. Sharing their day. “You wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had!” or “Mr. Smith gave us loads of math homework.” We might take it as complaining, and perhaps they are, but if they are telling us about their day, even if it is to gripe about it, they’re reaching out for our attention.

  6. Nonverbal cues like sighing or doing any behavior that seems out of the ordinary for them might be an attempt to get your attention.

  7. Showing you memes, funny videos, etc. This is another way your teen may try to connect with you.

Gottman says there are 3 ways to answer bids. 

  1. Turning away. This is ignoring the bid altogether. 

  2. Turning against. “What are you doing in the kitchen? You’re in my way!” “Those videos you watch are stupid. I don’t want to see that.” “I don’t have time to help you.”

  3. Turning toward. This is recognizing and accepting the bid. “I’d love to watch that with you. Give me an hour!” “Wow, your day sounds really tough. Tell me more.” “I hear you sighing. Is there something you want to talk about?”

6 Ways to Turn Toward and Build Relationship

A parent’s relationship with their teen is often fickle. These years give us ample opportunity to repair, adjust, and grow! There are, however, 6 ways I’ve learned to accept their bids, extend my own bids, and build relationships with my teens.

1. Validate them

Many times, my teen’s responses to things seem so blown out of proportion. I’m often tempted to say things like, “You think you’re the first kid to have a long paper due?” or “You have no idea how easy you really have it!” To be honest, sometimes, I have said those things, and they’ve never once been helpful. That’s because our teens want validation, not criticism. They don’t want to hear how hard we had it. They’re not concerned that billions of people have gone through adolescence too. They want to know that we see them. That we understand. That we care. That sounds like, “Your experience is real and it sounds hard.” 

2. Be curious

One way to make a bid to your teenager is to ask, “I’m curious how things are going for you?” Or you can ask specific questions about something you know they have an interest in. The goal is to get them talking and to let them feel that you care about their experience and interests. 

3. Suggest special time 

I have to make an extra effort to get quality time with my kids these days, but it is so important for relationship building. The key is suggesting something they might actually want to do. Much to my dismay, my boys do not want to play Scrabble, so I usually have to offer Marvel movie tickets or trips out for food. Boys LOVE food! 

4. Show that you are open and available

If you see that your teen is having a difficult time, feeling down, or if you just haven’t spent much quality time together lately, you might try this: “Do you mind if I sit near you and not talk?” Sometimes all they want is our presence. No lectures. No advice. Just presence.

5. Encourage communication 

If you flip your lid when your teen confides in you or you offer lots of judgment or advice, they will shut down communication. Tell them, “You can tell me anything. I can handle it,” and then prove it.

6. Let your love shine through 

Keep verbalizing your love and giving positive affirmations. “I love you no matter what.” “I like spending time with you.” “You’re fun to hang out with.” “I love your wit!” Say something positive every day!

It isn’t possible to always give positive responses to bids, and that’s okay. The intention is to try, and when we fail, we can always come back to repair by making our own bids to them. As with all relationships, it’s about the quality of connection, not the presence of perfection.

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