The teen years can make it challenging to create genuine and meaningful ways to connect as a family. Teens naturally gravitate toward their peers during these years, and even when home often want to retreat to their bedrooms alone to play video games or scroll social media. Suggestions of previously fun family activities are met with eye-rolls, surliness, or even outright refusal - parents and siblings are patently uncool to many teens. And family schedules are often complex and busy during these years, making it logistically difficult to find time to spend together as a family.
However, quality family time remains important for healthy development, even if the amount and form of family time may change into adolescence. Teens who spend time with parents report fewer depressive symptoms, greater coping skills, and stronger resilience in the face of stress1. Quality time together helps build strong relationships with trust and open communication, which are important safety nets for teens as they weather the many challenges of these years.
So how do you connect with your teen during these years? The first thing to keep in mind is quality over quantity. As teens spend more time with peers and alone, it may become unrealistic to expect that they spend the same amount of time with parents and siblings as they did in elementary or middle school - but you can get the same benefits from making the time you do get together fun and meaningful.
The second thing to keep in mind is that what constitutes “quality family time” might look different in the teen years than in childhood; keeping an open mind and being creative with planning family time will help everyone enjoy it.
Finally, don’t be afraid to set reasonable expectations for family time and hold teens to it - making some family events (extended family get-togethers, or weekly dinner) mandatory or near-mandatory will be met with initial resistance but over time set a foundation for quality time. If you set aside the time, you can work with your teen (see below for ideas!) to fill that time with teen-friendly activities.
This might be Sunday night family dinner, or Wednesday night game night, or Saturday morning pancake breakfast. It doesn’t matter what day, or time of day, or what you do—but if everyone knows they are expected to keep their schedule clear for the one family event, it becomes easier and easier to keep that time protected.
Many families will shift their weekly family night once or even twice a year with big changes to extracurricular schedules or the start of the new school year. The important thing is setting an expectation that there is one protected time each week that the family connects. Bonus, this is a great time to sync family calendars to make sure everyone knows what busy teens have going on in the coming week!
You’ve invited your teen to go shopping, see a movie, plan dinner - all to no avail. The answer seems to always be “no” or “I’m busy”. Try setting a day or time (hey, next Saturday I’d like you to keep a couple hours free for me) and then invite them to decide the activity (within reason of course). You might just end up watching their new favorite show or taking them to run errands at the mall, but you’ll get some insight into what they’re enjoying and likely get more buy-in this way.
One of the things that makes teens shy away from family events is concerns over being interrogated. Parents, feeling like they get so little quality time with their teen and feeling disconnected, use any opportunity to ask all the questions that have piled up. How are classes, friends, college apps, mood, plans for the school dance?
As hard as it is, making family time low-pressure for teens can help engage them. One way to do this is to plan activities that involve being active—hiking, bike riding, bowling, even seeing a movie together! Some creative activities include:
Perhaps it is as little as 10 minutes after school or before bedtime, but make it a habit to do a quick “check-in” every day with your teen. Keep it high level—a quick “How was your day?” or “Anything I can do to help you?” or “Remember this weekend we have grandpa’s birthday dinner.” While the first few times might feel forced, over time it will become more natural to share a few details of each others’ lives on a daily basis. Fun tip: use a game such as Rose, Bud, Thorn to structure the check-in!
Perhaps it is the fall fun run in your town, volunteering at a food bank over the holidays, or the spring trail cleanup at your state park. Volunteering together builds family closeness, strengthens family commitment to shared values, and is a great way to be together while doing good for others.
If it seems like your family has gotten disconnected in these teen years, you’re not alone! But with persistence, patience, and creativity you can foster quality family time with your teen.