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How to connect with 16 - 18 year olds
By Tim Shoemaker
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How to Connect With 16-18 Year Olds

It can be hard to figure out how to connect with 16-18 year olds. You can start with engaging and connecting. Take this next scenario, for example.

“You have 10 minutes, $5, and absolute freedom to buy whatever you’d like to eat or drink.” That’s what I told a high school small group when I took them to the grocery store.

You can imagine the things they pulled out of grocery bags afterward. Chips. Soft drink. Lollies. With time, resources and freedom, they chose junk food. That launched us into a discussion about how God gives us the same three things in life. Time. Resources. And the freedom to choose how to spend them.

As parents of 16 to 18 year olds, we deal with this constant tension — how to spend our time, especially our time to influence our teens, which is limited. They have the smarts, but often lack the wisdom to make great decisions. Therefore, they need us more than ever — whether they realise it or not. But first, we have to engage them. Here are tips for connecting with older teenagers.

One-on-one Time

Our kids want to be treated as special and with individual attention because each of our kids is different. Connection won’t happen on its own. So how do we carve out time for each of our teens?

  • Food connection. We can take our kids out for a breakfast, dinner or a snack — just Mum or Dad. This is our time to listen to their hopes, dreams, excitement and fears. Often boys fear deep down that they don’t have what it takes to be a man. Over a meal, I had a rite-of-passage night for each of my sons, welcoming them into manhood. Just talking about what it means to be a man and how God helps them was a great way to connect with them. Daughters need this this same rite-of-passage acknowledgment, too.

This one-on-one time can also be used to better understand their forming opinions. We can say, “I’m wrestling with a couple of choices I have. What are your thoughts?” Our kids are almost adults at this stage, and they long to be treated that way. When we take the time to solicit their opinion, we show how much we value their input. And that is a nonthreatening way to connect, because they see that we are showing them respect and valuing them.

Teach Them to Drive

One of the best, but most underestimated, ways to connect with our 16 year olds is to teach them to drive. Many parents dread it — and for good reason. Once they got their learner’s permit, our boys were chafing to get on the road. They were asking, begging, to spend alone time with my wife or me. Imagine the possibilities:

  • 120 hours to listen, share and dream together.
  • 120 hours to talk about life, faith and the hard questions that surface.
  • 120 hours to touch on topics that have eternal impact.

Often kids this age find it easier to talk when they don’t have to look a parent in the eyes. Driving is perfect for that.

Our kids will make mistakes driving and show poor judgment. They may have a close call or two and get embarrassed. Sometimes they may even feel angry with themselves or be scared. But if parents want to connect, we’ll need to do all we can to make this driving time a positive experience. Here are ways we can do that:

Watch our tone, especially when correcting our kids. Say things in a kind way.

Stay encouraging. “Good job on that turn.” “Good job checking that lane before switching.”

Demonstrate patience, lots and lots of it. They’ll love to hear stories of how we messed up when we were learning to drive.

Be excited. We don’t want them to think taking them out driving is a chore for us.

The Car is a Great Tool

  • Errands. Often I’ll take one of the kids with me when I’m running errands. At this age, they’re doing their own thing and don’t necessarily want to go with Mum or Dad, so getting our teens to come with us isn’t always easy. But if we single out one of the kids — and don’t give the person an easy out — we’ll likely have more success. “I’m going to the store. Grab your jacket and keep me company — and you can drive.” By tossing my child the keys, he’s likely in.

If we end up in a supermarket together — and he wants to add something to the cart — I let him do it. Then sometimes I make an impromptu snack stop on the way home. This helps to make it even more likely that he’ll join me in the future.

Often we find out how to connect with our 16 -18 year olds at times like these. Maybe we see something that makes us both laugh. We talk about some little thing going on in his life. And he more readily lets down his guard to let me in.

End the Day with Conversation

  • Late night. Here’s another great tip for how to connect with 16-18 year olds. Be prepared for and initiate late-night talks. This is when teens really open up. They’re more likely to talk about the things that are on their hearts when we go to their bedrooms to catch up with them before they go to sleep. The later at night and the darker the room often sets the stage for deeper and more honest talk. Yes, we’re tired, and it isn’t likely we’ll do this every night, but we need to deliberately make sure it happens some nights.

For my wife and me, when did we hear about the girl one of our sons was thinking of asking out? Late night. When did we hear the detailed version of how the date went? At the end of the day. When did we hear confessions about how one of our kids had messed up? Just before they nodded off to sleep.

There are times when our kids hide things from us. But a part of them wants to stop the deception. That pull on their hearts never seems stronger than late at night when the house is quiet, the screens are off and our kids can’t sleep. Sometimes I think that’s the Holy Spirit’s favourite time to do His most powerful work, and we need to be ready to do our part to listen, encourage and guide.

Teach Them New Skills

We have an opportunity to teach our kids skills that they may use as an adult. This isn’t homework — and we shouldn’t treat it that way. If we teach them something new in a patient, encouraging way, we’ll grow closer to them and connect in ways we wouldn’t otherwise be able to.

Parents can start by making a list of tasks to add to our teens’ skill sets. We also can ask our kids what they’d like to add. Here are some starting options:

  • Change a tyre, check tyre pressure and check the oil.
  • Use basic hand power tools, such as a drill and a saw.
  • Get out an atlas and read a map. Navigate without any sort of GPS, which is especially helpful when they’re in a spot where they can’t get a signal.
  • Set up a meal plan for the week.
  • Do their own income tax.
  • Learn how to interact with customer service.
  • Set a budget.

Connecting with older teenagers by teaching new skills will also build trust between parents and teens.

Learn to Drive a Car With a Manual Transmission

Our boys already knew how to drive a car with an automatic transmission. My pitch for teaching them how to drive a stick? Simply that they’d be well-rounded drivers. They’d be able to get into any car or truck and drive it. And we made it a fun series of tasks. Their final task was to start from a stopped position on a hill without rolling back. They loved the challenge, and we had a good time of connection. Two of our sons later got jobs while in university as valet parkers at downtown restaurants because they knew how to drive a manual.

Take an Interest in Their Interests

When I was 16, my dad and I took a scuba diving course together. That was huge for me — and it opened a new world of experiences and ways to connect with him. Then one summer he taught me to sail and how to handle a speedboat. He showed me the secrets to making a 3.5 kg anchor keep a 1360 kg boat from drifting even in heavy surf.

During these times, I felt as though he was sharing secrets to succeed that I would have never known otherwise. He took the time, walked me through everything and praised me when I got it right. I have a boat now, and every time I pull out the anchor, I think of my dad and how he took the time to connect with me.

Teens have many interests that can be used as a means for intentionally connecting with them. Maybe your teens are interested in writing, art, sewing or cooking. Sign them up for a class, and join them. As it turned out, all my sons liked camping. There may be no better environment for great talks than around a campfire.

Sometimes we limit ourselves by trying to “sell” our kids on things we’re interested in. I think we’re most successful when we look for things that may interest our teens. My dad had no real interest in scuba diving, but because he knew I did, he took the opportunity to connect. Smart dad.

Clear the Air

The instructions printed on the back of most glue bottles remind us that the best bonding happens when the surfaces to be joined are clean and free of burrs or other obstructions. The same principle applies to connecting with our kids. If we want a great bond — one that will hold strong — we need to make sure nothing stands between our kids and us.

How do we do that? We can ask our spouse. I know my wife often sees things that I miss: issues that could cause friction between the kids and me. We can ask our kids’ youth pastor. Often this person will have great insights into the things kids in the youth group commonly share as being irritations with parents. But one of the best ways is to ask our kids. If we’ve been working to connect, then we can ask, “Hey, is there anything about me that you resent or wish you could change?” If they share something, we need to listen, try to understand and not defend ourselves. When we do that, we’re well on our way to connecting with them on an even deeper level.

These teenage years rocket by, but we can still find countless opportunities for connecting with older teens. As parents, God gives us time, resources and the freedom to choose how to spend them. Let’s use them wisely. And try these ideas for how to connect with 16-18 years old. You’ll be glad you did.

© 2019 Tim Shoemaker. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.