What do you get back when you suggest a family walk to your budding teenager? Maybe your bundle of joy will break into a broad smile and jump to their feet in anticipation. Or, maybe it's more along the lines of;
“That sounds totally lame!”,
“You can’t make me", or the old favourite,
“Other parents don’t force their kids to do things with them.”
If I suddenly drop it on him that we’re going on a family walk, my eldest son can come up with all sorts of reasons why that is absolutely unacceptable, to the point of infringing on his human rights! It drives me crazy at times when all I want to do is get from A to B in the minimum time, and I can’t even get all of us out of the house! That’s my point of view, but what’s his?
Full disclosure, my eldest son is just turned 11 so I’m not quite in the teen years yet but we are definitely arriving in the neighbourhood. I can already see the mood changes, the self consciousness and general embarrassment he feels being seen in public with his family.
What teenager wants to be seen walking around the block with their parents? I certainly didn’t! In the teenage years, it becomes all about the the friends’ family, they are the center of their world. As hard as it is to accept, my once adorable little boy is now turning into his own independent person, with free will, opinions, and a personality which might be very different to my own (I shudder at the thought!).
So how do I tackle this shift in the family dynamic? I've been digging around for top tips and I've put together some pointers. It will take effort, and test the depths of my stamina, but with the right combo of positive encouragement, hearing each other out and solid role modelling , maybe it won't all be uphill.
1. Don’t expect your teenager to like what they used to
Have you ever noticed when you’re away on holidays that your teenager might relax and come along for the family walk or activity without the pushback you get at home? The reason is simple-their friends’ family isn’t around. Their lives are heavily entwined and dependent on their friends, be that connecting on social media or in person. That’s just the way it is. It’s a physiological change within them that shifts their focus away from the central home and into the wider world. This is how nature prepares them for being an independent adult away from the nest and I think everyone will agree that this is something we all certainly want at some stage!
But I won't be the first parent to take it personally and feel put out by their dwindling interest in the home family.
As much as it stings, the reality is we are not their number one family anymore!
We have been replaced by their friends’ family. As much as that hurts us mammies in particular, things change fast over a few short years. This affects what they are willing to do, be seen doing and are interested in doing.
The effect of this is that it takes much more planning and imagination to entice your teenager outdoors with you now. You can expect them to pass on the daily or weekly walk in favour of doing absolutely nothing. Don’t be offended, try to understand this is space they feel they need. You can only expect to meet them where they are in their lives right now.
2. Establish a tradition
Jumping right in there out of the blue with a fabulous plan for hiking the Macgillycuddy Reeks could well go down like a lead balloon. In their world, why are you suddenly asking this of them and why should you expect them to like it?
Building a tradition with them, something you do together outdoors several times each year, will go a long way to creating that connection between them and the outdoors.
Ideally, you would try to start this with your kids when they are younger but your child is never too old to begin. The trick is to find what excites them. Ask your teen what they might be into and do that together. It could be the same destination every year or a different location. There are no rules except limited devices and spending a lot of quality time together.
If possible, plan a one on one trip, or day out, with each teenager on their own during the year. They can often feel invisible in the family or overlooked in favour of other siblings, so taking time out to hang with them on their own goes a long way to their feeling noticed and valued in the family. But if that can't happen for your family, another good idea is to let your teenager plan a trip and take on responsibility as you treat him or her more like a grown up.
Tradition can attach to the food you decide to eat, and while eating at the end of the trip, have the tradition to ask about the favourite part of the trip. This can lead into discussing the next trip. They may be more willing to talk about it then when the good feelings are still around and they are still away from their everyday distractions. This will help nurture the positive feelings towards the trip, make lasting memories, and also help you lock in a plan with them for the next trip.
3. Encourage their interests
As your kids try out different activities over the years, take notice of and encourage their interests. Once you can pinpoint something, let that be your connection, as you do it together or give them access to their interest activity. Maybe your young person can start to influence the family, bringing you along as you all explore a new interest together.
Give positive feedback so that they come to expect these trips in a positive way.
Try to let this become a time when they can expect to get on well with you. Relax and let them see the fun, carefree side to you as a person. They will make mistakes, they will take risks and need constant reminders about simple things but again that is where they are right now. Try to bite your tongue and find a positive from the situation while on your trip. Be aware of their limited knowledge and experience, even if they aren’t, and try to take the opportunity of mistakes to teach them about safety or better solutions in a low key, non-preachy way.
If they are out with you and are listening to their headphones, in my opinion I'd let that be. The main thing is that you are outdoors together. As time goes on, they may drop the headset and start to engage more, but don’t force it or guilt them into it. The key is to find something your teenager is interested in, so if music gets them out the door, work with that.
If art, drama or music is their thing – use that as the basis for your adventure together. Finding a scenic spot to paint, create music, listen to music, write or get ideas and creative inspiration could all work well. If Gaming is their interest, sit in a spot and see if they can talk about how the setting could be used in a game. Spark their imagination and ask for their ideas without taking over.
To even remotely challenge the dominance of social media and devices in their lives, planned activities need to be specifically aimed at their interests, challenging and exciting. Because spur of the moment doesn't always sit well with pre-teens and teens, drop in a few suggestions beforehand. They may come back and tell you what they'd like to try, so react positively (even if it scares the pants off you!) You can work out the details of enjoying a safe and fun activity together at a later point. Right now, you want to start the conversation and hook their interest.
4. Use the professionals
Not everyone is a mountain hiking, wildebeest barbequing, he-man or she-woman type of parent, or child for that matter. Many of us are lounge by the pool types and that's fine too. So, my advice is use the services of those who can do this stuff if it’s beyond your interest or skill set. Camps are a great way to introduce your kids to nature, the outdoors and the wild without having to do something that is outside your own comfort zone. Check out Irish Forest School Association – IFSA supports the development of Forest School in Ireland or keep an eye out for local camps during the school holidays that might interest them. Ask other parents or in school for ideas too.
Don’t get me wrong, for the sake of our kids, it can be very beneficial and even fun to push ourselves to do things with them that scare us at times (I’m still building up to a roller coaster!). It’s good for them to see us facing that challenge. But, if camping or water sports, for example, are a step too far, think "how can I make it happen without me?"
Book your older kids into a few special outdoor activities each year and it will work just as well. Just make sure to build a connection around their trip and be interested. They can perhaps show you what they’ve learned in more local or low key activities you do together as a family afterwards.
Join them into a club that interests them. If they are into hiking, mountain biking, wild swimming or water sports, horse riding, whatever it may be, connect them with like minded teenagers while spending time in the outdoors. Teenagers love a challenge so put them in the way of some. Tailor it so that your teenager experiences some wins and success, builds confidence and grows their will to explore more difficult challenges.
Making a Boredom Jar at the beginning of the summer holidays as a summer bucket list is a great focus when the inertia of lazing around sets in. The more they hang around doing nothing during the holidays, the more they loose touch with what they used to do with their time. A bored jar for teenagers.... | The Diary of a Frugal Family. The options are endless once they sit down and start. You could make it into a fun evening at the start of summer holidays, with their favourite food and a movie night together too-another tradition is born!
If you have a teenager, aged 13 to 16 years, who is struggling at the moment - a camp like Headspace Adventures | Dr David Coleman | DavidColeman.ie could make a difference for them. Using Nature and the outdoors as a backdrop, young people get a chance to connect with themselves in a way that can rebuild resilience and promote a positive image of themselves.
Other more general camps can be found here:
A Nature based camp would be great of course, but not essential. Whatever will keep them interested and having fun is always of benefit to teenagers, and all kids. The Irish Times also ran a roundup of Irish camps in early June 2021 so check that out too 2021 in-person summer camps in Ireland: Our guide to the best and most popular (irishtimes.com).
5. Play to their strengths and drive for independence
Teenagers can be sensitive and self-conscious, torn between the tug of their families and their innate drive to shake us off. They can also feel judged and have a negative view of themselves at times.
How does that impact on you? You may find yourself having to tip toe around certain issues, pick your moment or approach them from a certain angle when you want them to be cooperative. And you do this because you know your own child best. If they are moody, you'll know the best time to ask them a question, and when to let it lie. Take the same instinctive approach when it comes to getting them outdoors into Nature with you.
You may have a plan for the family on a particular day, for example a forest walk, and the noises coming from your teenager aren't promising. Try to reframe the plan for your teenager in a way that builds their confidence in themselves. For example, telling your young person you want them to come on the forest walk to help you use the PlantNet App might be of more interest to them. You might ask them to help you with some Nature photography for a new App you need their help with. Or drop into the conversation that you're asking them to come along on the hike for extra protection for the family - this may tap into their sense of adventure and desire to be taken seriously.
Let them feel part of the planning of your trip and part of the solutions to any issues that come up on your trip. This is an opportunity to let your teenager show you what they know, or have an interest in, so try not to be the one talking all the time, showing all the time, or making all the decisions. Support your teen to be a nature mentor to their younger siblings. Ask for their opinions, see what they know and see can you tease the solutions out of them so they feel part of it. This will empower your teenager and start to let them feel more on a par with you at these times, not quite equal just yet, but at least more so than when they were younger.
They want to be listened to, not preached to at all the time and nagged. So, bite your tongue if you need to at times. I struggle with this and always feel a need to pass on the moral or life message, correct them from saying something unkind or a mistake in their understanding. I need to just listen more.
If they feel you start to listen on a more equal footing, without judgement or telling off, they may open up more and also want to spend more time with you as a family. I know we can’t be “friends” with our growing kids, as we still need to step in to parent them, but we can at least listen and see their point of view.
Above all else, let your young person know you value their opinion, their contribution, their being able to act up and take responsibility within the family.
6. Pick a shared goal
Why not pick a goal or two which you can dip into together throughout the year, tapping into their interests.
It could be climbing certain peaks in the next 12 months, learning to sail, learning a new water sport, or learning to survive outside, camp cooking or foraging - whatever interests them.
Give them a couple of options if they can’t come up with anything themselves, and let them choose. Involving them in the planning and prep is half the fun. Show them you have faith in them and they’ll be more invested, more connected and look forward to it more.
7. Bring their friend or like minded relative
This is a very useful tip to use as kids get older. Make sure the friend will be up to the challenge too and their parents are on board. Encouraging them to bring their friend feeds the need for social connection in their lives.
You could always rope in your outdoorsy friend or relative to help you too, and for more off the beaten track exploring use a professional guide when you can.
Guided activities are a great way to get out as a family without the pressure of getting everything right yourself-you can follow the leader like everyone else. Many kids will love survival weekends so if you join up with another like minded family, or join a group, it can make all the difference. Even a short camping trip with another family can add to the fun for you all.
As they get older, maybe you end up being the chauffeur, or the mobile wallet, for these excursions but that’s not the point. Being there and part of it is what matters. If you don’t force yourself on the situation, but show them by your actions how to do things, they may start to naturally ask questions and follow. As they get older, they may begin to organise their own trips with their friends so our job is to prepare them with the skills they will need for those solo adventures.
8. Watch and talk about Nature as a family
Sow that seed of interest in Nature by how YOU enjoy the things you do outdoors.
And listen to them. Listening is a very important skill-just let your kids chat, giving positive feedback without taking over. Just because they want to spread their wings, doesn’t mean they don’t still want your approval or love on some unspoken level.
When the moment is right, share with them about your experiences in nature as a child and growing up, what you did with your friends and how you feel about it now. Watch nature documentaries and movies together at times and start the chat with them about their views on the environmental and their ideas on how you can make a difference as a family.
9. Explain the benefits
Maybe we just sound like nags when it comes to encouraging our kids outdoors, but our teenagers are old enough to
understand that there is real science to support us when we urge them to take some time outside. When scientists show them these benefits, they may be more likely to listen and take it on board. So, take note of the reasons why getting outdoors into Nature benefits your teen (check out Benefits of the Outdoors and Nature for Teens & Young People) and, when the time is right, help them understand that even sitting on the back step can help improve their mood.
10. Expect resistance but remember your trump card
You will get resistance. Even for the most weathered outdoor family, the teenage years can completely change your son or daughters priorities. So, push through this for their sake and play smart;
Tap into their Interests & establish a Give and Take system
I know that not everyone will agree with the idea of a reward system. Yes, our children should want to do the activity for it's own sake but what if that just isn’t working? How can you motivate them then?
For me, it’s straightforward. Make it a Win Win for everyone.
Be crystal clear
Firstly make it clear what you expect of them in everyday situations and what is expected of them when it comes to pulling their weight within the family. Don’t get into bargaining over everyday things expected of them like cleaning their room, helping with household chores, helping their elderly relatives or walking your dog. As a family, everyone should pull their weight and help out in an age appropriate way so set the standard for your family and make it clear to everyone involved what they must do.
Leave some wriggle room
But there could be some things up for grabs in a Give & Take System to give them a chance to earn, achieve and at the same time get them outdoors too. In tandem with this, having pre-teens and teens start paying their own way for privilege items will motivate them to want to earn money, favour or credits doing things asked of them.
What are their privileges?
Next, explain clearly what are considered privileges in your family. Yes, we are obliged to look after their basic needs, give them love and shelter, but after that we’re soon into privileges territory in my opinion. New designer trainers or clothes, money for an unnecessary activity, consent or a lift to meet up with friends- all privileges.
The key to this is that I stop mindlessly giving my kids these things without having them earn them in some way. This prepares them for the long road of life and also gives me the power I need to have influence within our family. Because families are not a democracy- not until the kids are all adults at least and even then its up for debate!
Privileges are earned!
The last step is to let them know clearly that privileges must be earned-they are not guaranteed.
Here is where the Give & Take System comes into its own. Set Win Win exchanges which will work for your family.
So, for example:
For every 2 hours on your device this week, you spend 1 hour outdoors.
Take the nature walk with our family this week and get that hang out time with their friends they were asking for.
Join the weekend trip and get to invite a friend along the next time or earn tech rewards (extra time on their device).
Phone credit, pocket money or credit in their revolut card in exchange for certain outdoor chores like car wash, garden overhaul, painting-the big things.
This is not about creating a power struggle. Let them know clearly the times when they can negotiate with you and then let it be a win win outcome for you both.
Our consent is probably the most valuable currency we have as parents, especially as young people get older and have access to phones all the time. Giving it away cheaply diminishes our influence considerably.
Over time, the need to negotiate may decrease as they accept the Give and Take system works for them overall. They do something for you and you do something for them.
11. Power down & Be 100% there
You can’t tell when that moment will come when your son or daughter will turn to you and start to chat. Maybe it's in the car, or when the younger kids are in bed. Or maybe it’s during a programme you’re deeply engrossed in. Whenever that time arrives, try to drop everything and 100% tune on. Put down your phone, mute the TV or tell the other kids to move on - take that moment when it comes to listen to what is on their mind.
Don’t listen and be thinking of how to respond- just listen!
Take note of your own phone habits. This is definitely something I have to apply to my own life! Our teenagers and younger kids are constantly noticing what we’re doing. If you’re constantly checking your emails or lost in Facebook or Instagram while having dinner, during family time, or just at any spare moment, they will follow. We all need to model the manners and behaviours we want to see in our kids. I must limit my screen time as best I can if I want to ask my kids to do the same.
Work towards building some unplug time into the family routine, which every family member must follow, including parents! This is especially important with young people in mind - meal times, during certain family events or activities for example. As they get older, parents feel pressure to just let older teenagers have their phones all the time. But, in reality, they aren’t a paying and contributing adult in your home so what you say still counts. Be an example, plan tech breaks for everyone at certain times of day and stick to it. With hope, as they get older, they will continue to see and feel the benefit of this in their own lives.
You could bring this further with tech free days during family holidays for example. There may be withdrawal symptoms for everyone but stick with it.
Whatever you do together in the outdoors, use it as an opportunity to chat to them about their interests. If the teenager comes to associate these outings or the nature walk with a sense of open communication about topics that are important to them, they may be more likely to engage.