Connection with others is important at every age, but it’s critical for teens. Research shows that positive relationships with family, friends and others build teens’ self-esteem, increase their resilience, lower their risk of anxiety and depression, and even help them be more physically healthy. Connections give teens a support system when they’re facing challenges and a cheering section for celebrating success. “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all women, men and children,” says researcher Dr. Brené Brown. “We are biologically, cognitively, physically and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.”
Here are four things you need to know about helping teens build strong connections:
1. Parents and caregivers are at the heart of it…
Even as they become more independent, teens need the adults in their lives to provide love, security and stability. Caring for a teenager isn’t always easy, but researchers at Penn State found that keeping a strong connection through adolescence makes parent-child relationships even closer when children reach adulthood. “Our research showed that parenting can change a lot during the teenage years: parents often express less warmth and affection, spend less time with their teens, and become more harsh in their discipline,” says Greg Fosco, PhD, professor of human development and family studies and co-principal investigator on the study. “Parents that were able to maintain positive parenting and involvement laid the foundation for a close relationship when their teens became adults.”
2. …but you may need to connect differently than before.
Researchers also agree that since teens are wired to seek more independence and autonomy, they may push back against some of the ways you connected with them when they were younger. Fosco suggests doing things together like playing sports, going out for a meal, gaming or cooking: activities you both enjoy and that you can build into your family’s routines. He also stresses the importance of warmth and affection: “This is a great reminder to say the important things in life, such as ‘I love you’ or ‘I care about you,’ or physical expressions such as a hug or a pat on the back.” Regardless of what you do together or how busy you are, make sure your teen knows they always come first and that family time is sacred. When you set that example, they’re more likely to follow your lead.
3. Friendships with peers set the stage for success.
There’s a good reason tweens and teens are so focused on friendships: They’re wired to connect with their peers because those relationships have historically ensured humans’ survival. “…Young people are learning how to manage relationships that are going to ultimately determine how they fare for the rest of their lives, and they sense that in their bones,” says Joseph Allen, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. So rather than being silly, teen friendships set the stage for success. Teens are figuring out necessary social skills like caring for others, cooperating, compromising and resolving conflict. The more practice they get connecting with others as teens, the better at it they’ll be in adulthood.
4. Online connections can provide safe spaces, too.
Lots of attention goes to the negative effects of social media and digital devices, but it’s important to remember that there are safe spaces for teens to connect online, too. Online communities are havens for LGBTQIA+ teens, teens with a disability and teens with social anxiety, among many others. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 80% of teens said social media helps them stay more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives, 67% percent said it makes them feel like they have people who can support them through tough times, and 58% said it makes them feel more accepted.
… and here are ways to engage with your Crew
Lucero has created a safe space for teens and tweens to just be themselves and connect with others who radically support them. Teens captain a Crew by inviting up to seven friends and family members to join them on their self-care journey. Crew members cheer each other on, support each other on the hard days and always apologize if their actions or words hurt someone’s feelings. It’s a great way to spark meaningful conversations, check in with each other and give your teen a positive place to strengthen their capacity to connect.