Connecting with tweens and teens

Small Doses of Attuned Connection With You Can Make a World of Difference to a Stressed or Anxious Teen

Room tidying. Homework. School. Tests.

Teen anxiety can display in the form of minor avoidance of a certain activity, but can also escalate into full-on terror at the thought of something. It takes on different disguises but with fear at its source. 

A series of unfelt emotions can accumulate into a big, uncomfortable knot that has the power to prevent us from moving forward. 

It can be incredibly challenging to witness signs of anxiety in our children. Too often we can feel helpless, but as parents, it is possible to play a powerful role in gently supporting them as they face and feel the big emotions that are holding them back.

It is important to find our own support as we help our children, as parenting itself is very emotional, under-supported work.


The Essential Groundwork: Building a Connection Habit 

 Well beyond the baby and toddler years, and even when they’re yelling at us to “Just. Go. Away!!!!”, our teens still deeply long to feel connected to us; it’s simply the way they are wired. Particularly when they are at their worst; consider these times a nudge to ramp up your ‘time in’ with them.


Older children can be slow to warm to our presence and over time can develop a shield of isolation around themselves when things haven’t been going so well. Through building a connection habit and providing safety and availability, we can reach them.

TIP: There are different ways to connect with a teen, and in general, it’s good to be more stealth and opportunistic than in the toddler years when it was possible to pick them up and swing them around or blow raspberries on their tummy. 

It can be great to start with a habit of being in the vicinity and lightly occupied around your teen. Your proximity and availability will be felt. This might well be the setting in which they first share about something they’re finding difficult.

It may take some serious mental resolve for you to step over piles of dirty clothes in your teen’s bedroom as you go in to simply keep them company for a short while. When you do, it’s really important to put on hold any demands, questions, or even general small talk. Simply bring your unconditional warm attention and interest to them and anything they share at these times on their terms. There may be no sharing, but you’ve been there with them unconditionally, and this is perfect. 

A great way to deepen the connection with an older child is to make a habit of actively stepping into their world, one-to-one. Ask to join them in watching their favourite series or YouTube channel. Sit next to them as they are gaming and ask to play with or against them, or simply show you’re impressed with their skills. Throw or kick a ball back and forth.

After some days or weeks of one-to-one time spent, or bedroom ‘sit-ins,’ don’t be surprised if your teenager comes to invite a daily dose of this type of connection with you. 

Ready to receive?

In addition to our connectedness, the teen brain scans for how ‘safe’ & emotionally available we are. Adolescents are wired to be highly sensitive to social cues such as body language and voice tone; direct eye contact can feel overwhelming for them. 

It’s important to be able to bring your most anchored self to your teen. Notice if you’re getting triggered in their company and find a place to explore this. If your own teen years were difficult, your child may be unintentionally pressing on points you had long tried to forget about, from when you were their age. Seek extra support if you need to. Read about Hand in Hand Parenting’s supertool for parents only: Listening Partnerships here, or consider joining a Parent Support Group.

Get Playful and Promote Laughter

Play and laughter often fall away in adolescence when life can become a little too serious, social status feels important to maintain, and studies can take over. Yet play and laughter are highly effective connectors and have the bonus of helping teens release lighter fears. What really makes yours roar with laughter? Or what used to?

TIP: Look for opportunities to take the less powerful role in your play with them. Pillow fights and play-wrestling never grow old.


 With the parent-child connection well secured, the groundwork is laid; the conditions are right for your teen’s nervous system to sense that it’s safe to start recovering from uncomfortable feelings fueling their anxiety.

You might be just about to leave a no-agenda sit-in when your teen brings up a delicate issue they want to share. Equally, they may bring up what’s troubling them during a car journey, with no face-to-face intensity. Or there may be an eruption of full-blown tears with trembling seemingly out of nowhere.  

It’s now that we get to do our most transformational work: We listen well.  Because emotional offloading in teens is often more verbal than a straightforward toddler tantrum, it can be tricky to just listen! We can be tempted to engage with a rational, logical response for how they might fix whatever it is they are bringing up. These well-meaning suggestions are nearly always angrily shot down because that’s not what they need right now. If problem solving support is still needed, doing it after they have had a chance to sort through all their feelings about it will make the problem-solving much more effective. 

Our child has deemed us an emotional safe harbour, but the healing process isn’t always pretty. 

Although lighter fears are released through laughter; tears, trembling, raging, and sweating are also signs that some big feelings are passing through. As we anchor our teen, our job is to get as close as we can to them (safely), and to beam the non-verbal signals: “I’m not worried”; “I know you’ll get through this”. Offer eye contact and gentle touch, but often, physical calm proximity is enough. 

TIP: Listen well: validate, but don’t question and don’t fix.

As a mother of 3, for many years a part of my brain was always thinking and scanning for solutions or causes of the problems that sent my children into meltdowns. There was a lightbulb moment when I realised my brain power would be better spent simply focusing as calmly as possible on my child, and grounding myself in the process. The same applies to my now teenager. 

Anchor & Staylisten until the emotions have run their course. It can be useful to think of these as energy-in-motion – taking their natural route through: up and out. 

When you make the time to continue with a connection habit, further emotional releases can follow. Your teen’s nervous system receives the message ‘I can get through these big feelings… what else? Then wonders: how about facing something new?’ Their emotional resilience grows; with you as their safe harbour.

Here’s how Staylistening helped one teenage daughter.

Always consider reaching out to a mental health professional if you feel your teen’s mental health challenges are bigger than you alone can help them with.

Katharine ([email protected]) is a certified Hand in Hand Parenting Instructor based in Guildford, UK. Hand in Hand Parenting ( is a US-based nonprofit organization that teaches a system of 5 trauma-informed, healing-centered Listening Tools that have the power to transform family lives. It offers support for parents, caregivers, early care and education professionals.

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