Staying Connected to Your Teens


Thursday night, Mike Riera, an author and expert on teenagers and the relationships parents have with their teenagers, spoke at Marin Primary & Middle School in Larkspur. Here is a summary of his talk.


Sometimes kids have to do something wrong to learn what not to do. It allows them to see that they can recover. Also, they can see what it’s like to be outside of their values and realize that they usually don’t like how it feels.

Middle school is a safe time to make mistakes. And we can be there to help them understand why they did what they did. If you ask them why they did what they did, they mostly likely won’t have an answer for you (most likely they don’t even know why). It’s a good chance to help them to understand why (peer pressure, didn’t know how to say no, thought it sounded fun at the time) and help them come up with ways they can do better in the future.


FiredStampWhen our kids are young, we start as a manager of their lives and the kids like it and go with it.

When they become teenagers, they fire you as the manager.

At this point, most parents go in one of two directions:

  • They either fight to stay as the manager, which results in an ongoing power struggle and kids who feel micromanaged, or
  • They just let them go and the kids feel abandoned. These kids crave more structure and often end up getting into trouble as they keep pushing the boundaries that they realize never exist.

Mike Riera recommends that instead we become the consultant:

Manager —> Consultant

Control —> Influence

  • consultantFirst, we have to grieve. You’ll be sad – it’s a loss. But it’s necessary.
  • When you’re re-hired as a consultant, you move into a side-by-side position. Or more like in their peripheral vision. Our kids need us there but they don’t want to acknowledge it.
  • We have to stop thinking about control because we really don’t have a lot of control anyway. But we do have a lot of influence, so we need to focus on that and be more strategic about how we influence
    • Imagine you are in the car and your child is talking in the back seat to his/her friend. They’re talking all about their teachers, the school, their friends, etc. Friend gets out and your child gets into the front seat. You feel the impulse to ask about what they were talking about or chime in with your opinion. STOP. Resist saying anything. You each know that you heard. And this provides your teen with a safe place to talk to you IF he/she needs to, knowing that you know.
      • If you hear something that doesn’t sit right, you can, quickly and lightheartedly, say something like “hey guys, let’s not talk that way here, when you’re alone with your buddies, it’s fine, but not here.” And then move on. Through that, you show them that they can stand up for themselves AND stay in relationship. This helps them feel more able to handle peer pressure because their biggest fear is that they stand up for themselves and become unable to stay in relationship.
    • At bedtime, go into their room…perhaps tidying up, making the bed, just doing stuff and they may be more open to talking. Perhaps they will even be more affectionate. It’s a great time to talk – on their terms.
    • Our goal is to allow them to lead the conversation, on their terms, and trying for side-by-side conversations.



dreamstimelarge_49017024They will do more klutzy things. Especially as they go through big growth spurts. It’s best to handle this in a way that helps them feel okay about it – for example, sharing a story about when you were a teen and you felt that way. Share that it’s a normal process leading to a jump in development and it WILL PASS.

These kids need sleep. They need 9 hours, but tend to get 7. And for each hour they miss in sleep, they lose 1 point in their functional IQ. That means that by the end of the week they are down 8+ points.

A stress busting tool to learn for yourself and to teach your kids:

Ask yourself these questions:


Are you Hungry?

Are you Angry?

Are you Lonely?

Are you Tired?

When the kids go through this and realize that their stress is caused by one of these, they end up feeling better just by KNOWING it.


They are less black and white in their thinking. They think more abstractly (yet still move in and out between abstract and concrete thinking).

They will argue more and they’ll usually argue for these reasons:

  • To show you their sophisticated thinking
  • They are upset about something else and you are a safe target
  • They are pushing you away (developmentally appropriate)

This is a time where they enter the world of self-conscious thinking (and this can be paralyzing for them). They are worried about what others think about them.

Typical scenario:

Daughter comes in the door after soccer practice. You ask her how her day was, she responds with a curt “fine” and goes right to her room and closes the door. We worry, take it personally, and stew over it. Meanwhile, likely, your daughter quickly jumps on social media to reconnect with friends. If all is okay, she may come out and talk to you. If something is amiss, she will have to address it and then once it’s sorted out, she may come talk to you. Ultimately, at some point, she comes out and is ready to talk but you are stewing over the earlier rejection and not ready to talk to her.

Mike’s advice:

  • Don’t take it personally.
  • Cut them some slack.
  • When you ask how school was and they say “FINE” and go to their room, this is the teen translation for Fine is “I really don’t know. This self-consciousness thing is exhausting and I need to go to my room and figure out how my day actually was.”


dreamstimelarge_16702421During these years, they will do anything to avoid being lonely.

A couple of things you can do to help them:

  • By 8th grade, you can give them more power by asking them what they bring to their friendships.
  • Teaching them to read emotions will be helpful with their friendships. This is a great quiz you can take together.

Mike shared an example about the first time a teen smokes weed or drinks alcohol. For most kids, their first time usually comes out of left field – they are exposed and do it before they really know what they are doing. To help them in those situations, make sure you make your conversations concrete before you wrap up:

  • Make sure you ask them HOW they will say no.
  • Perhaps ask them to give you 4-5 ways to say no so they have them in their concrete thinking mind if they are exposed.


They will try on identities and change might happen often.

Stop asking them what their passions are and instead ask them what they are curious about.

“Ultimately what we want for them is for them to have a strong center from which they can live.” ~Mike Riera

Integrity vs. Self-Esteem

When we focus on their self-esteem, we praise them. When we start praising them for things not worthy of praise, our kids know the truth – and then they are faced with the awful choice of either turning off their internal evaluation system OR thinking their parent doesn’t get it and feeling like they have lost their parent as a support person. False praise also leads them to a sense of entitlement.

integrityInstead, we focus on integrity where they come from a place of wholeness…bringing all of themselves. To do this, we ask deeper and more process-oriented questions (perhaps questions that are not immediately answerable). This develops responsibility.

Some examples of how to ask questions that develop responsibility:

Academics. Stop focusing on the grades and focus more on the process and the effort. Ask questions like “Did you try studying a different way this week?” or “How did you figure out that you were done with that art project?”

Behavior. Let’s say your teen lies to you. Our typical reaction would be either to provide consequences or to support them (with pumping them up, lectures or questions). The alternative that develops more integrity and responsibility is to ask something like this: “when you lied, was there a little part of you that thought ‘don’t do it’?” If he/she says yes, ask “what stopped you from listening to yourself?”

MoralCompassHeadTeach them to listen to their inner voice

We won’t be able to control them and stop them from doing what they want to do. They must develop their own ability to make good decisions. The best way to do that is for you to remind them, as they leave the house, to “listen to the part of you that always knows what is the right thing to do.” This is their moral compass.

“Listen to the part of you that always knows what is the right thing to do.” ~Mike Riera

Some final notes

  • They are looking for their parents to be real and authentic.
  • It’s great if they can learn to see confusion as an ally – to see that growth is on the other side of confusion.
  • Show up (at events, games, etc) but allow your kids to determine how you behave (for example, sit there and don’t cheer). This too shall pass.
  • When they’re pushing away and your relationship seems really uncomfortable, try to keep some aspect of your relationship healthy. One great idea is to drop them very short notes to foster connection.
  • If you’re facing a particularly difficult time around a specific issue (college applications, grades, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.), it might help to set boundaries around when you will discuss the issue (for example, one day per week or take a week off from talking about it). This allows your relationship to have a break from the conflict.

For more information

Mike Riera has written five books, but his most relevant books are:

Uncommon Sense For Parents of Teenagers

Staying Connected To Your Teenager


4 thoughts on “Staying Connected to Your Teens

  1. Thanks for sharing, Deb! Sorry I missed it. Great write up – Going viral! Bonnie Seto shared with our book club, and in turn I shared on the Kentfield Schools PTA facebook page. Hope you enjoy a wonderful Thanksgiving with your family. ❤


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