There you are...a paragon of success. Gainfully employed. Grinding through a career and well-appointed reality. Bumpin’ to some early Nelly in your luxury-grade vehicle, you assertively navigate the hustle-and-flow, collecting promotions, bonuses, while assuming ever-increasing responsibility. A family man, you’re a loving father and loyal husband with beautiful children and an enviable life. The catch? This life has overhead. Sweat-equity in the form of sacrifice. Collateral damage in the form of an alienated teenager. The kicker? The alienation was abrupt, lacked warning, and feels impenetrable. The good news: that awesome description of you above; the bad news: unless you make some adjustments, the alienation that feels impenetrable, will, in fact, become impenetrable.
So what can you do to restore, reinforce or repair this strained relationship?
One: carve out (scheduled) time with your teen. Take a moment to look at the calendar on your iPhone. Of the appointments, how many, if any, are with your teen? And if so, how many are obligatory (sports, doctor, dentist, DMV, court)? Any left? While teenagers don’t require much individual attention from parents, they do require it. Teens need routine face time with their father. Regardless of what it looks like, the most crucial tenet is frequency. Establishing a routine will benefit all parties; it will become normal amidst the layers of your busy world. So dive in, pick a day, time and commit to spending it with your teenager. No, passing the hallway, driveway or freeway doesn’t count. And neither does a group setting; one-on-one is best. Start simple; drive them to school; bring lunch and eat together in your car; play 9 holes on a par 3. Anything is better than nothing, assuming it’s just you, and it’s routine. The what matters far less than the why. Spending time with your teenager will provide them with positive validation and prevent negative attention seeking behaviors.
Two: establish an open line of communication via text and social media. So your teenager annoys you with their heavy phone use; they’re always on it, it’s glued them, blah, blah, blah. But zoom out and you’ll discover it provides a sense of connection. And if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Speak your teen’s language by engaging via their #nextgen platforms. Send entertaining, and nag-free links, memes or messages during the week. Follow them on social media. Create a fantasy football league to capitalize on passion and increase causal correspondence. Form a group chat for your entire family to quickly and informally check-in. Whatever it is, keep it light and positive to foster and repair your relationship. Avoid lecturing, over-reminding and nagging at all costs. The sum of these casual interactions will make the difficult ones accessible, so be strategic in your approach.
Three: wrap your head around the academics of high school. It’s imperative to know the details about your teen’s high school academics. And while sports are awesome, there’s more to the picture. Many functional ways exist to keep you in the loop. Most schools use a web-based, iPhone friendly grading platforms, complete with a downloadable app, giving you access to all pertinent information. Too often career-dads shift this access point to their wife. And while you don’t need to know every detail, you should maintain enough insight to facilitate a guided conversation when the need arises. If you open each school-related discussion being reminded of courses and teacher names, your teen will use this to keep you at bay. A stark difference exists between a conversation with a well-informed dad, asking specific question, and one being reminded of basic details (for the fifth time). Finally, when a school conference is required, attend; the most effective parents operate with a united front.
Four: parlay high school requirements into bonding activities. Most high schools have a community service requirement; and all colleges view service-learning with high regard. In the spirit of killing two birds with one stone, volunteer alongside your teenager in these obligations. By rolling up your sleeves and joining in, you get a chance to see your child through a new lens by watching them interface with elderly adults at a senior center, veterans at the VA hospital, impoverished families at a soup kitchen, or other cultures on a mission trip. Regardless of the scope, these comfort-zone pushing scenarios create an element of discomfort in teens, pulling them closer to you (much like a toddler at a dinner party). Or perhaps they will shock you with their gregarious personality and engaging persona. As a bonus, they see your skills normally reserved for work, like social swagger, confident delegation, multi-tasking and brute strength. In all, you both win; your teenager doesn’t have to complete hours alone, and a bonding opportunity, if only from osmosis and proximity, is born.
Five: revive the family dinner (even if it’s not at dinner). The family that eats together, sticks together. Another effective strategy is spending time together within the greater family unit. Pull the patriarch card and round up the herd to sit down and have a weekly meal. Pick a meal, any meal, but as reiterated, be consistent. Realistically speaking, schedules vary, so remain flexible, but don’t skip the weekly meal. A few ground rules: include all members of the clan, no iPhones, no iPads, no TV on the flat screen and no leaving early. Couple those with: no mention of work, or school, no lectures, no nit-picking and no overly boastful trips down memory lane. What should you expect? Well at first, expect long stretches of awkward silence and dish-clinging. And you’ll certainly notice the absence of everything that served as comfort blanket. The devices and conversation staples were minutia; they said and contributed nothing substantive toward family bonding. But over time, the weekly meal will become enjoyable, a welcomed departure from your face-paced lives, and a chance to stay connected, in a life that has you neatly compartmentalized into various stages of life.