Building a Family Culture With Teens 

Just when I thought I had this whole parenting thing figured out, adolescence hit 

By Shawna Gamache (Estimated reading time: 6 minutes) 

The author on a family trip to Camano Island with her kids Nora (8), Ruby, (12), and Quinn (14). Photo courtesy of Shawna Gamache. 

My kids were little forever — until they suddenly weren’t. It crept up on me, maybe because my two oldest came into adolescence during the pandemic. 

As terrifying and overwhelming as that time was, it was also comforting. No sleepovers or dances to freak out about. No physical contact with peers could be lonely, but it also put off many social dynamics of middle school. My kids were going through puberty, and experiencing big feelings, but our closeness was seemingly untouched. 

All of that isolation meant we were each other’s whole worlds again, lulling me into a false sense that parenting teens really wasn’t that different from what I’d been doing all along. 

This was the year I woke up. 

My oldest kids are now 12 and 14, and they don’t defer to me like they used to. They don’t even hear me half of the time. Luckily for me, I have an eight-year-old who still thinks I’m hilarious, and though she doesn’t hang on my every word (because third baby independence), she acknowledges me. 

My older kids mean well. They aren’t trying to be cool or hurt my feelings, at least not usually. They’re just chronically distracted by all that is going on in their lives and bodies — and I’ve moved a few rungs down their priority ladder.  

This is how it’s supposed to go as children get older, but at first I felt sad. My kids didn’t seem to care about me like they used to, and I wasn’t sure what it meant for us to even be a family anymore. But I just needed to shift my expectations of closeness and meet my kids where they are right now.  

Here are a few things I thought about as I reconsidered our family culture, and where I wanted it to grow.   

Keep it squishy and stretchy 

When I think about concepts like family culture, it can trigger my perfectionism, my compare-and-despair instincts. I wish I could blame Instagram, but I’ve always had a case of they’re doing it better.   

I remind myself to keep goals on matters like these squishy, to not have too rigid an expectation of what they’ll will look like, and to keep them stretchy, remembering these years of parenthood require a lot of flexibility. My vision for our family culture goes best when I keep it in blurry outline. It’s tempting to set finite goals, like the number of times daily I engage with each kid, but honestly, quotas rob those moments of their joy and authenticity — and set me up to fail.  

When I do catch myself being too rigid, I share my challenges with my kids, giving them permission for squishiness and stretchiness long into the future (I hope!).  

How we treat each other in hard times 

The author and her husband, Todd, stayed up late to help Quinn make pancakes for a school project. Photo courtesy of Shawna Gamache.  

Teaching toddlers how to be in the world was constant work. They didn’t know how to do anything, and they wanted to touch everything. Corrections were a way of life, and though they had oversize reactions, the storms usually blew over just as fast. 

It’s a lot more complicated with teens. Protracted periods of ease give you a false sense of security. Teens are so capable so much of the time, making blow-ups all the more shocking — theirs and yours.  

It’s easy to lose your cool with teens. Like a few months ago, when the project I’d been bugging my seventh grader about for weeks finally became overdue with an hour before bedtime, and a complicated recipe with ingredients we didn’t have. 

I was furious I’d put so much energy into trying to prevent this from happening, and it happened anyway. I vented for a while, but shaming her wasn’t making either of us feel better. 

I had an opportunity to show her that while I was frustrated, I could pivot. I gave her a chance to strategize about solutions, and she made a plan. It actually ended up being a sweet and funny evening together. The pancakes were good, too.   

I can’t prevent my teen from making mistakes, or from making me nuts, but I can focus on how I respond. It’s a lot more complicated than reminding her to say please and take turns — and a lot more rewarding, too.  

Getting into what they’re into 

I’ve never been wild about fantasy. I’m more interested in this world. But my kids love role-playing games, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings.  

In the beginning, spending entire afternoons working on D&D character sheets was a little like torture for me. But the more I focused on what my kids loved about it, the more fun I had.   

Like a lot of parents, I had so many movies from my own childhood I couldn’t wait to share with my kids. Frankly, they’ve mostly been total duds, and not just because of all of the racism and misogyny. It turns out, nostalgia for my own childhood drove my love of so many songs, shows, books, and movies — and that’s not transferable for my kids. We have connected so much more over the things we’ve discovered together. 

Making space — when they’re ready  

Maybe two nights a week, my teen comes into my room when I’m about to dig into my book and finally drink the mug of lukewarm tea I poured an hour ago.  

I want to tell her to just go to bed so I can have a minute to myself. But I’ve learned our biggest talks always happen when I’m least expecting it, so I try to drop other things whenever I can and be present. 

Sometimes she’s been working through something and she’s finally ready to talk about it; other times she just wants to cuddle and reconnect. Unlike when I try to have a meaningful talk with my teen on my timeline and I’m met with crickets, the moments when she comes to me are always significant, and really, my tea is already cold, so what’s another hour?  

The author and her family at a school event this spring. Photo courtesy of Shawna Gamache. 

How we celebrate together 

One of my favorite things about older kids is how much they shape the way we celebrate — our accomplishments, our special occasions, and our every day.  

During early parenthood, marking occasions was pretty much in my court. This was one part fun, and three parts overwhelming. For one thing, I was not keeping it squishy and stretchy, and for another, my ideas were not always a great fit for our family.  

When my kids celebrate, it’s so much more organic and fun. It may sometimes be messier and less Pinterest-worthy, but it’s perfect for us. Like how after Trick-or-Treating, we snuggle up, have tea, and watch episodes of Kipper. My middle child made us all a homemade calendar where we write memories each month. Every Saturday before family movie night, my husband and I sit on our hands while our kids watch trailers and devise a complicated methodology to decide what we watch.  

The constant pivots of building a family culture with teens can be really daunting, but so empowering, too. Unlike toddlerhood, our kids will actually remember these years, so any thoughtful moves we can muster right now really matter.  

Are you a parent of adolescents interested in connecting with other parents going through the same phase? Learn more about our Program for Parents of Adolescents and Teens (PAT)

About the Author

Shawna Gamache is a writer, editor, teacher, and mama to Quinn, 14, Ruby, 12, and Nora, 8. In her quiet moments, Shawna loves reading, walking her pencil-eating Shih Tzu, avoiding eye contact with her laundry pile, and working on her weekly Substack newsletter, Damptown Almanac.  

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