Quality Time with a Teenager (Seizing the Moment)

When our children are young, quality time is mostly clear and straightforward, and the opportunities are plentiful, even for busy parents and those who work outside the home. The key, always, is to recognize and then seize the moment, which means putting away our tech devices and other distractions, clearing our minds as much as possible, and giving our full attention to our child.
The gold standard for quality time is not defined simply by laughter and hugs. It is about enhancing and strengthening our relationship.

Quality time with our children often entails being in leadership mode — guiding and supporting them to participate with us in a caregiving routine like dressing, bathing, or a diaper change. It might also mean setting and enforcing limits. If we approach these tasks with connection as confident, honest, empathic leaders, which I sometimes refer to as wearing our “professional hat,” this becomes quality time. As leaders, we accept our children’s differing point of view, meaning we actually encourage our children’s feelings and feedback while continuing to guide them forward. For example, acknowledging as we’re taking our flailing child out of the tub, “You really wanted to play in the bath longer!” and allowing for the complete meltdown that might ensue.

Infant specialist Magda Gerber referred to all the above as “Wants-Something Quality Time.” Although it doesn’t always feel comfortable in the moment, I’ve learned that children perceive these exchanges as positive. When approached with respect and empathy, these hard times deepen our connection as much, if not more, than the “good” times.

The other type of quality time our children need (that is more easily recognizable to most of us) is what Magda called “Wants-Nothing Quality Time,” and I’ve described this as wearing our party hat. Again, our job is to clear away the distractions and be fully present, but this time we have no agenda at all. We relax, observe and take our child in while she plays or putters. We trust that the moment is perfect just as it is. These periods of quality time are purely for both of our enjoyment and are the reward for all our hard work and commitment as parents. They also provide opportunities for us to discover the unique person we’ve helped usher into the world.

As our children get older, the opportunities for either type of quality time are presented less and less frequently. We can still safely designate mealtimes, morning greetings and “goodnights” as moments to be fully present and available, however briefly, but there may not be any other obvious connection times built into our daily routines.

Toddlers who persistently requested our attention become teens who seem quite fine without it. We’re rarely, if ever, actually asked to wear our party hats with them, and their need for our professional hats, though still necessary, becomes harder to detect and seldom solicited. When we do decide to bite the bullet and confront our teenager about a concern or to set a limit, we’re likely to be met with angry dismissal, denial, and rejection. It’s only later –days, perhaps – that we might sense a softening and the subtlest trace of appreciation indicating that, perhaps, we did the right thing.

Yet quality time continues to be the glue that bonds us, and we still need to remember to go for it whenever possible. A recent personal experience provided a gratifying reminder, and I shared about it with an online discussion group. Here’s the gist:

I generally make it a point to drop everything to greet my 15-year-old when he comes home from school, and my enthusiasm is genuine. He makes my face light up. We might briefly exchange some words, and then he’s off to do his homework. Sometime later we’ll eat dinner, and then he plays FIFA soccer or watches something on TV.

But the other night he asked me to help him study for a science test (YES!). I’ve learned to leap at these opportunities. Don’t get me wrong — reviewing science facts isn’t an activity I’d enjoy for the sake of it, but to be wanted or needed by a teenager is no small thing. This is primetime, and I’ve learned to relish it.

Once we’d finished the studying, I thought we would go our separate ways. But my son continued dribbling his mini-soccer ball, which he’d begun while I was quizzing him. He’s never been able to sit for long periods, likes to move while he’s thinking.

I thought of Magda Gerber’s ideas about quality time and made the decision to stay put and linger there on the couch, just watch. I wondered if he’d think this was weird.

Mostly we were silent, although I’m certain that he felt me there observing him. He was dribbling and scoring goals in a metal wastebasket that had turned on its side. Memories flooded in of the hundreds of hours we’d spent in that room over the years. The experiments, games, make-believe play, dancing, quarrels, learning to roll, scoot, crawl, stand, walk, read, and other magic that had happened there from the time that he and his sisters were infants. This room was our happy place, rich on so many levels.

I asked if he still remembered the play section we had cordoned off for him there as a baby and how, as a toddler, he would do his puzzles in the center of the room by the fireplace. He said he did. I shared how I couldn’t imagine ever selling the house and how I hoped we’d be in the position to pass it down to his sisters, both of whom are adults now, and him.

It was one of the most affirming moments we’ve shared in months. And to think… it never would have happened if I’d done the normal thing and gone back to my computer. As a rule, I try to always wait for my children to be the ones to move away from me, and then I go, but it can be so easy to get caught up in my own activities and forget that even brief moments of pure connection matter.

If the experience hadn’t been rewarding enough on its own, it was made even sweeter by my son telling me several times that he loved me. Later when he was going to bed, he gave me an especially tender hug goodnight.

A parent in the group where I shared this story commented:

“That’s precious! And with a teenager! People occasionally tell me, ‘You think it’s hard now with toddlers, wait until they’re teens!’ I just ignore them and smile. Thanks for sharing that example because it gives us parents of little kids hope for the future, a reminder that we’re laying a solid foundation of trust, respect, and unconditional love for our children that they will always come back to through the years.”

I elaborated:

The challenge I sometimes feel with teenagers is that it’s so easy to forget that they are still our babies and need that attention from us. They don’t ask for it as younger children do, and they can seem so aloof and distant, like they don’t need us.  We get out of the habit of even recognizing these opportunities as they are so few and far between. On the rare occasion my kids want to talk to me or help them with something, or I see they’re having a hard time, I do my best to rise to the occasion, and I’m forever grateful for Magda’s amazing advice for seizing these precious opportunities.

“…with teenagers, it’s not always easy to know how to connect. By their nature, adolescents aren’t always on board with our plans for making the most of family time and they aren’t always in the mood to chat. Happily, the quality parenting of a teenager may sometimes take the form of blending into the background like a potted plant.”                – Lisa Damour, “What do Teenagers Want? A Potted Plant Parent,” New York Times




Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. It’s so great to hear your anectodes and thoughts on parenting older children. I have a three year old and I often wonder about the future and admittedly fear the teen years, as though it won’t be as rewarding or ill feel terrible most of the time, being “not needed.” But reading this I can see that I may feel sad at times and long for these precious times when he is young and his need is more constant and certainly more obvious, and I may feel frustrated in different ways than I do now. But that the idea I will not be needed is absurd! We just need to be still observing, still self aware, still available, still loving, still patient. Still respectful.

  2. Remember when my daughter told me to pretend not know her in the bus. That was the first time I realized she was becoming a Teenager.

  3. No matter how much time we spend with out teenager, what matters the most is how much attentive we are to their desires. I believe in spending quality time with my kids. They feel happy knowing that I am pretty attentive to them.

  4. So, I completely agree that it’s hard to connect with a teen and I look back at my life and try to remember how I thought of “lame old mom and dad” when I was younger. For the most part, they were just a burden and I feel like most teenagers think this way. The one thing that I’m striving to do with my nephew (he’s 13 yrs old) is to be the “cool” uncle and connect with him. I don’t have a teen yet myself, but I feel like this is a good precursor of things to come.

    All that said, do you think the above advice still applies if it’s a teen who also works a part-time job? How do you still get the quality time with them?

    Between school and work, they’re gone most of the week and it makes things more difficult.

  5. In retrospect I always tried to give space to my teenage son and daughter to have a go at whatever they were striving for. Sometimes I could see that they bit off more than they could chew, but other times I saw them manage and grow as a result. I was always focused on them whenever I was around them. Not speaking much, observing, trying to get a feeling where they were regarding their emotions, activities, plans, etc. They eventually recognised my attention for what it was and sometimes acknowledged my opinion and sometimes not. Now that they are grown we are more connected than in those times. Probably normal but I am more or less happy with how it turned out.

  6. When my children were infants and toddlers, we always “read” together at bed time. We continued doing this even as they grew into teens. They got to pick the reading material (or I would provide suggestions if needed). I read to each of them separately, so it became a time we would spend just with each other. After reading, sometimes we would talk a little about the book (if they wanted to) or anything else they wanted to talk about. Or I would leave if I sensed it was time to go. It was a wonderful time to connect with each of them and because they had my full attention and we were both relaxed, they sometimes brought up sensitive ideas or something that happened at school or problems they were facing. As they grew to adulthood, we eventually stopped the reading aloud at bedtime. Even today, my youngest son and his wife sometimes read aloud to each other at bedtime. If I take a driving trip with one of my adult children, the non-driver may read aloud to the driver. Not only is this a special activity on its own, but it opens and encourages line of communication.

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