Using Social Media to Deepen Your Relationship With Teens

I have a personal policy that if a teen I know wants to friend me on Facebook or follow me on Instagram then I always accept and follow back, but I don’t friend or follow first.

Here are 3 reasons why I have this policy:

It is important to me that the teenager feels a sense of power and control in the relationship. This is because the world is set up so that teens have considerably less power than adults do, and teenagers can internalize this imbalance and feel like their thoughts or feelings or desires are not as valid or worthy as the thoughts, feelings, and desires of adults. From home to school to the legal system young people are at a major disadvantage, and I like to turn this situation (sometimes called adultism) on its head and put the teen in the driver’s seat. That’s why I don’t friend or follow first.

This might mean that a teenager I really like doesn’t want to connect with me on social media. That might even be my own kid. And I have to be okay with it! If I feel disappointed or rejected or jealous those are my feelings to own and deal with. Remember – there is a whole world of relationship-building possibility out there beyond the borders of Snapchat. Relationships IRL are far more meaningful and impactful than those that happen online anyway.

I accept all such friend requests and follow back because teens are hungry for positive adult role models. They won’t say this; they aren’t usually aware of this need. But teenagers are as eager for love and acceptance as they were when they were small. In fact, none of us outgrow the need to be liked and accepted for who we are. Remember not so long ago when you could barely go 5 minutes without hearing, ‘watch me! Hey – look at this!’?

This is a complete 180 from the popular narrative we are given that teens are too cool for us and that they don’t need us anymore. DO NOT listen to those lies. Sure, they don’t need us to wipe their bums or reach the light switch. But they definitely need someone who cares about them to be curious about their lives, to be interested in their successes and challenges, and to be compassionate.

If a teen has chosen to friend or follow you this is a compliment. The appropriate emotions to feel are honoured and pleased. This teenager likes something about you. We adults can get all flustered and weird when teenagers like us, and I have heard some adults express concern that they especially do not want to send the wrong message to teens of the opposite sex. Rest assured that this weirdness and worry is primarily in your own head and it is something for you to deal with in a responsible manner. You would never have these concerns if the kid was 6 instead of 16, so quit thinking that you aren’t allowed to be interested in a teenage boy just because you are grown up woman. Adults that are committed to having strong personal boundaries and wide-open hearts are a gift to teens everywhere.

If you are part of the social media scene your teenager is involved in, you will have a fabulous window into the relationships and interests of your son/daughter. If you ‘like’ and ‘comment’ these are opportunities to demonstrate our interest in the lives of teenagers we care about. Sometimes it’s better to just lurk. But either way it will help you to be in the know.

With my son, I learn so much by reading the comments he leaves on other people’s IG photos.

Adults that are warm and friendly and fun to be around are a valuable resource to teenagers. They don’t want to just go on, long after the thrill of living is gone; they want to see that some adults enjoy this crazy ride that lies ahead of them.

It’s been almost 100 years since the end of the First World War, when folks said, “never again”; yet we live in a world of constant violent conflict somewhere on the globe. Teens look at the lives of adults and think, ‘that looks less than appealing.’ They see us stressed out at home, unable to curb our consumer addictions that are killing the planet (actually, killing the human species because the planet will carry on long after we suicide ourselves with plastics and rising oceans and fresh water shortages), trying desperately not to be part of the problem but not exactly poising ourselves as part of the solution. So they urgently need an injection of hope to help them keep on keeping on. Often adults look to teens for hopeful optimism and playfulness, but it has to be a two-way street. When we post photos and updates on social media of our engaging lives and creative expressions we are demonstrating to teens that adulthood is not all serious drudgery and that we actually have values in common with them.

What is your approach to interacting with teenagers through social media?

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Poverty Didn’t Stop Me From Reaching My Parenting Goals

You may think the constantly changing landscape of the teen drama unfolding in your home week by week is enough to send you running for a 5-year spa retreat, but I went from being a single welfare mom stressed about the basics of finding food and shelter for me and my son when he was 5 to being a government employee with a healthy salary and Masters degree, all while nurturing a warm and supportive relationship with The Boy (who is now a super-together 18-year old).

I started to consciously prepare for the teenage years when my son was tiny. All my life I had listened to adults left and right speak with disdain and despair about teenagers, so I knew that despite my difficulties with a toddler things were probably going to get much worse for me as a parent the older my kid got. This was discouraging and frankly, kind of terrifying. Especially having a son. Everybody knows that teenage boys are supposedly the most annoying, aloof, and angry human creatures on the planet. I figured I had some time to get ready so I started to prepare.

Unfortunately, as The Boy neared school age our living situation became extremely challenging. The summer before he started kindergarten we were couch surfing with different friends because I couldn’t find a place to live. I was on welfare and looking for a job. I had no phone, and no family for hundreds of kilometres. At that time I didn’t have a degree or any special credentials. We have all heard tragic tales about how children who grow up in poverty blow up in their teen years and drop out of high school, suffer with low self-esteem, turn to substance use, and get involved with the criminal activity; but I refused to let this be our story.

Luckily I was able to stick to the long-range plan I started developing when The Boy was just a baby. The evolving plan eventually involved things like volunteering with teenagers, attending monthly women’s groups, and reading about educational reform. I was also part of a group of people that met regularly to discuss our own teenage years.

One month before kindergarten started I began volunteering at a recreation centre to help with sports and activity programs for pre-schoolers, This was on the advice of a friend who knew that I was amazing with kids. After 2 weeks of volunteering the recreation centre offered me a job! The first week of September, just as kindergarten started we were able to move into a small basement suite I found out about through a former neighbour. And things began to look a little rosy. I struggled to make rent some months but I could always put food on the table (even if I did use the food bank one time). But I never took my eyes off the prize: I wanted a close and supportive relationship with my son through his entire childhood to prepare him for life as an adult.

But here’s what surprised me. I ended up working at the recreation centre for 7 years, with children from newborn to 18 and their parents in a huge variety of programs and activities. The recreation centre was in a higher income neighbourhood and almost all the parents who participated in my programs owned houses, owned vehicles, were married, went on regular vacations to Hawaii or Mexico, and yet they couldn’t seem to meet the needs of their children. These parents looked on the outside like they had their whole act together, yet their connection with their kids was weak and the quality of their parenting was for the most part what I could call mediocre.

My life was far from easy, but it was pared down to the very basics: put food on the table, pay the rent, and meet my son’s needs for loving attention, active play, interesting stimulation, and emotional safety. I was not preoccupied with things like maintaining a car (we rode the bus), making financial decisions (I had no money), doing yard work or home renovations (I rented), planning holidays, or shopping (no money to spend), or even keeping up with favourite TV shows (we had no TV).

We spent our time:

  • playing with the neighbourhood kids on the street
  • visiting the beach
  • going to the playground
  • attending free programs at the library
  • taking advantage of the $1 swim at the pool on Tuesdays
  • reading a lot of books
  • running around the forest
  • picking berries along the creek

I knew that science is certain about connection being the number one protective factor for children; it isn’t anything to do with having a master bedroom with an ensuite or an SUV. Those things can be serious distractions from the essential work of parenting! My mandatory to-do list each day consisted of:

  • keep The Boy’s long-term development and his needs in mind constantly
  • tackle present-day crises
  • strategize about tomorrow’s possible crises

I didn’t get to where I am today alone. Far from it! I was lucky to have many, many loving friends and family members along the way. As I figured my sh*t out, supportive people and exciting opportunities kept showing up. And I was courageous enough to grab on tight and run after my dreams.

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Cultivating Future Childcare Resources

When my son (The Boy) was 2 we moved into a house on a street filled with pre-teens, and I had the brilliant idea of grooming this bunch of go-carting, kick-the-can playing loudmouths for future babysitting duty. These rowdy neighbourhood kids didn’t look much like trustworthy companions for my precious little one, but I liked them and they were full of life and happy to hang out in the street and talk to me. They were not yet teenagers full of mystery and aloofness; they actually enjoyed when I paid attention to them.

I was The Boy’s full-time caregiver when he was 2, so I didn’t have a huge need for childcare. His dad was living with us most of the time and another mom (Karen) and her 2 year-old daughter (The Girl) were also part of the communal household, so there were often adults around to play with the kids and supervise their safety. But I take the long view with almost everything; I knew my need for babysitting would increase over the years and I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to fully take charge of what was inevitably ahead.

The main 11-year olds on the scene were Derek and Michelle. When Karen and/or I were outside with our toddlers, Derek and Michelle would often swing by on their bikes or their scooters or their skateboards to see what we were up to. They usually had lots to say about their friends and their families and their teachers. We would happily share our popsicles or popcorn as they told us about their adventures in the creek behind our street and about their various pets. Derek and Michelle interacted with our little ones and they watched how we interacted with them too. In a very organic way, we were all learning about each other and becoming connected.

I knew I was adding value to the lives of those pre-teens with my warm curiosity and my cheerful friendliness. Children of all ages thrive on these inputs. Actually, that’s how humans of all ages work! (Sadly, we parents have an extremely difficult time giving our kids as much warm curiosity and cheerful friendliness as they need. Children are practically bottomless vessels for loving attention, but parents are sometimes terribly time crunched and full of stress.)

The Boy and The Girl also loved having these older kids hanging around. The pre-teens were energetic and playful and could do fascinating things with their bodies and their bikes that the little ones could watch all day long.

At the same time, knowing Derek and Michelle and their gang of friends was bringing tremendous value to my life. Those kids taught me many things about the trail network in our neighbourhood, they taught me how to play games I had never even heard of, they taught me what it was like to be in grade 6 in 1999 (which was a whole lot different than being in grade 6 when I had been in 1982); but most of all I learned directly from them what needs and desires drive a pre-teen. This was extremely important intel for me, since I would be the parent of a pre-teen before I knew it.

My plan for that time was:

  1. Get to know these interesting young people.
  2. Continue to build my personal relationships with them, and between them and our little ones.
  3. Bring value to them through my warm curiosity and cheerful friendliness (these are vehicles of caring that make sense to kids).
  4. Use these relationships with the neighbourhood pre-teens to actively observe and consciously learn about the pre-teen stage through my ‘mother’ lens, in preparation for The Boy being that age one day.

My intended future outcomes from the above plan were:

  1. My kid would have babysitters who were also dear friends and neighbours, so he would feel at ease and have fun in my absence.
  2. I would add value to the lives of Michelle and Derek, two young people that I cared a lot about, by providing them with some spending cash.
  3. I would have peace of mind knowing that my babysitter was someone whom I had a close relationship with of mutual respect.

In this way, at the same time as our lives were being enriched by our relationships back when The Boy was a toddler, the seeds were starting to grow for all of our lives being enriched in the future. My son didn’t have a real sibling (although The Girl was a great substitute), nor did he have anyone to interact with who wasn’t right around his age or else an adult. This is not the way humans have evolved; we are tribal people meant to learn from mixed age groupings. Cultivating my relationships with Michelle and Derek  in this conscious way was intentional and strategic. It was also a loving choice for everyone.

And, if you want to know, it pretty much turned out the way I hoped it would. Derek and Michelle were highly appreciated and competent babysitters for years.



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