Full Show Notes
Connect Then Redirect
Parents of teens are all too familiar with this scenario: You want to find ways to build a strong bond with your teen but you’re often met with indifference. You try to think of simple, non-invasive questions that might get them to engage with you. “How’s school?” “Who’s that girl you’ve been hanging out with?” “What did you and Jason see at the movies?” And you’re met with one word responses: “good,” “no one,” “I don’t know.” Maybe all you get is silence because they don’t even bother to take out their headphones.
It’s understandable; your kids do not want to talk to you about who they have a crush on or why they’re fighting with their best friend. We can all remember feeling embarrassed by our parents. Thinking every little thing they say is annoying, believing that everything they do is an attempt to completely control our lives. But now that you’re a parent, you probably feel differently.
This constant battle to find ways to build a strong bond with your teenage kids can feel frustrating and even hurtful at times. You try so hard to not just be their protector but their confidant, to show them how much you care and want to be there for them. You want your teens to come to you with their problems, but your eagerness to help might make them run the other way.
Obviously, it’s important to help steer your teen in the right direction when they are facing the many challenges, peer pressures, and awkward situations that come with adolescence. You want them to make responsible choices and be respectful towards others but how can you find ways to build a strong bond with your teen if they won’t open up to you?
Todd Cartmell has some solutions for this. In addition to being a clinical child psychologist, Cartmell is the author of 8 Simple Tools for Raising Great Kids. This book discusses various ways to build a strong bond with your teen by partaking in simple, leisurely activities that help develop a mutual respect between parent and child.
Manifesting Time Together
Having raised two boys, Cartmell uses his parenting experiences to pinpoint ways to build a strong bond with your teen. He explains that before delving into conversations about “the hard stuff,” you first have to focus on creating an enjoyable environment for them. This translates into doing activities that they enjoy, not just stuff that you like to do.
Instead of forcing them to go shopping or watch football, which they might find excruciatingly boring, seek out an activity that your teen is interested in. For example, Cartmell saw that though he himself found little joy in playing Mario Kart, it was a game that his boys loved to play. He realized that it didn’t matter whether he liked playing the game or not. You have to find ways to build a strong bond with your teen in a setting that they are comfortable in—even if that means spending an entire afternoon being brutally beaten at video games.
Parent’s must realize that as their kids grow older and find new interests, opportunities to spend quality time with them become more scarce. Cartmell reiterates that participating in seemingly one-sided activities can actually be a tool for developing camaraderie with your kids. He states that these activities often serve as catalysts for more important conversations to come up. Manifesting opportunities to have fun with your kids will help them see you in a more positive light and will in turn make them more willing to listen when it comes to having more difficult conversations.
Operant Conditioning and the Pour On Technique
Cartmell discusses the benefits of using operant conditioning techniques with teenagers, which are associations between particular behaviors and the positive or negative consequences that follow. These techniques are especially helpful when it comes to distilling values and finding ways to build a strong bond with your teen. He encourages parents to sit down with their teens and mutually agree on specific values to work on, such as integrity or respect. You must then show your teen how learning these values can benefit them in multiple facets of their life. For example, when discussing the values of respect you must establish that it’s not only a crucial element of teen-parent relationships, it’s also important in any friendship or romantic relationship. Showing them the social worth in these values may increase the effectiveness that these conversations have on them.
Cartmell also discusses a method he calls the Pour on Technique. After you’ve discussed why values such as respect are important, the Pour on Technique then requires you to focus on High Frequency. This means being extremely attentive in identifying when your teen is acting in a respectful manner and consistently praising them for doing so. Responding at a High Frequency means you need to notice every time they are being respectful, not just 25% of the time. This teaches them to always associate respectful behavior with a reward, whether that be increased privileges or positive feedback on your behalf.
Cartmell also emphasizes the importance of complimenting teens in a concrete way that specifically identifies what they’ve done right and why you appreciate it so much. Rather than simply saying “Good job!” say “I really appreciate that you cleaned the dishes after I only asked you one time.” Specifically identifying positive behaviors and complimenting them for it are great ways to build a strong bond with your teen and encourage them to continue practicing good habits.
Creating No-Judgement Zones
In addition to spending time doing activities your teens enjoy, Cartmell urges you to find ways to build a strong bond with your teen that are intellectually stimulating without being intimidating. He states that it’s important for families to create no-judgement zones where teens can practice conversational skills and develop opinions on various topics.
Cartmell suggests a game where all participants sit in a circle and one person holds an object, such as a red ball. Whoever’s holding the ball has the floor to share their views on a given topic. Once they’re done, the next one with the ball is only allowed to share their opinion once they’ve summarized everything the last person said. This teaches your teen that in order to be heard, they in turn have to give the same respect and attentiveness to others.
Bonding Exercises and Correcting Bad Habits
In this interview, Cartmell further discusses exercises for encouraging positive habits and ways to build a strong bond with your teen. Other topics we cover include:
- Developing the foundation for a strong and trusting parent-teen relationship
- Determining when and how to approach hard subjects with your kids
- Identifying the root of your teen’s bad habits and changing them
- How creating connections with your kids at a young age can steer them away from negative influences later in life
I really enjoyed hearing how realizations from his personal and professional life simplified Cartmell’s approach to parenting teenagers. I hope this very laid-back, yet thought-provoking conversation with Todd Cartmell about ways to build a strong bond with your teen makes tackling the roadblocks of parenthood a whole lot easier.
Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen
1. Give teens specific verbal rewards when they do things you like
“Hey, dude, I just asked you to turn off the TV and you did it right on the first time and I just wanted to let you know that I really appreciate that.”-Todd Cartmell
2. How to start a regular weekly family time with a teenager:(Members Only)
Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview
1. Use the “Pour it On” Technique:What do you want your teen to start doing more of? Listening to you? Being respectful? Being patient? Being honest? Todd says you need to think like a Sea World trainer, so you don’t want to try changing a ton of things all at once. Focus on one or two behaviors you want increase in your teen. Note, if you want your teen to stop doing something, you need to phrase it in reverse. For instance, “stop lying” becomes “be more honest”. This is needs to be phrased in the positive. Write this on a piece of paper. Next, think back to the past three days and list all of the times your teen has done what you want. Even if it’s really basic, that’s OK. Come up with as many examples as you can. If you want them to study more, think about whether there was any time they spent studying at all the past few days, even a little, or doing something for school or even just talking about something they learned in school. Write down all the examples you can think of. Circle the one that seems like the best example of the exact behavior you want to see more of. Talk to your teen today and praise them for this behavior. Really give your teen a lot of genuine love and praise for their behavior. Now watch for any more of the behavior over the next week and be sure to praise your teen again every time you see it.
2. Find Opportunities to Connect with Your Teen:(Members Only)
Complete Interview Transcript
Andy: I love your book. And one amusing chapter in the book is about Mario Kart. And I wonder since writing the book if Mario Kart is still a big deal in your household.
Todd: Believe it or not both my boys are actually married and not in the household anymore. So that happened pretty quick, but I believe Mario Kart is a thing for each of them still, not sure if that’s good or bad to say. So, yeah. And in fact, I think one of my guys, Luke was just mentioning that he and his wife were playing Mario Kart last weekend, just messing around. So the fascination with that evades me. Yeah, and I’m still terrible at it I’m sure.
Andy: Okay. But that was like kind of the point of what you brought it up in the book, was that you maybe not that good at it and you don’t quite get it, but that you still did it and you tried to get into it.
Todd: Yeah, in that example, and for sure the allure of that game totally alludes me. Other games, I can understand, just not that one. But yeah, they were playing that in all of its glory and throwing the little bombs at each other and whatever that was. And they said, “Hey, dad, you want to play?” And I have no attraction to that particular game. But I thought, “Well, here I am, I’ve got two older teenage boys asking me to play with them. How lucky am I?” So of course I did. And it was fun and I lost and it doesn’t matter. That just a little silly example, but I’ve seen the opposite. I’ve seen in my office times where I’ve heard dads… There’s this precious little interaction. And not that there’s not opportunity, it’s just that, I don’t know, they’re just not valuing the opportunities or looking for them and let alone trying to create them.
Todd: I was talking yesterday to a mom and dad about a very challenging boy, I’m just kind of beginning to get involved. And I mean this is going to be a pretty challenging situation coming up. And so one of the things, before we even get to that, one of the very first things we’re going to start doing is looking for any opportunity to connect and do some activities together that are non conflictual.
Todd: In some of the research, this is a special time kind of idea, even with the middle teenager because if we’re going to have some difficult territory to travel here in a little bit, the more connected they are, the better that’s going to be. And then the more connected they are in the little things, then that opens the door because they were telling me that this young guy is starting to get into the wrong kind of kids and there’s areas of his life they didn’t even know he’s interested in. And so there’s super disconnect. And so again, we’ve got some tough behavior to handle. So we’re going to try to prep for that by trying to create as much of a connection up front as possible. Obviously, because the more connected he is and the more connected they can be to him then the other stuff is going to feel more relationally-based and hopefully go smoother.
Andy: Yeah. I mean, I love that. And there’s a lot of studies showing that openness in parental relationships is like a moderator of a lot of other things like frequency of communication sometimes. Or that if you have this strong foundation built, then anytime you try to impart a value or teach a lesson it’s more effective and your teenager is more receptive to it. And so, I think, what you’re saying is really important. And I wonder how you specifically can go about identifying those moments as a parent and then what you do to capitalize on that?
Todd: Sure. It’s like the old John Maxwell quote, you got to connect before you direct. This is age old wisdom kind of stuff, right? Yeah. Well, I would say, my guys are certainly on… They’re 23, 25 now, with birthdays and things. But I mean, there might be a little opportunities that pop up, but I like to be a little more proactive than that. You want to just craft that stuff. You want to create that stuff, which is, I mean, maybe later on we can talk about family times and that’s a way of literally building that into the sequence and rhythm of your family life over the years, but lone, intentional connection via physical touch and being connected that way, and just creating that kind of close relationship builder, little warm touches. Those are social reinforcers. Those are social rewards. Those relationship builders, doing activities together individually, family-wise whatever, like we’re just talking about the Mario Kart. It doesn’t matter what. The point of them is to connect.
Todd: This is Gary Chapman, I mean, in one of his books and talking with him a little bit, one thing he said is, he told some story about some dad who was trying to connect with his kid, taking him fishing and stuff. And so the kid is talking to Chapman about this and saying, “My dad takes me fishing. Number one, I hate fishing. Number two, all we do is talk about fish. I don’t care about fish.” And so the kid is just hating it and the dad ia trying to do the right thing, but he’s totally missing the mark. And Chapman’s point out of that was, “Hey, when you’re doing an activity with your kid, you got to make sure that the kid knows that they’re more important to you than the activity.”
Todd: If I’m watching a football game with my boys and I want it to be a connecting time. Well, I can make a connecting, but the way you have to make a connecting, you just got to make sure the kid feels you’re more interested in them than the activity you’re doing.
Andy: Like this time is number one, time that we’re spending together. And number two, we’re watching football. There’s a hierarchy.
Todd: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Andy: I see. Okay.
Todd: Yeah. Yeah. My focus is on you. I mean, this is what we’re doing. We’re shooting baskets, but I’m way more interested in you than the baskets. You do that by engaging, by physical touch, by you asking them questions, by you talking first. If I just sit there and watch the game and say nothing, unless my son initiates the discussion, then that’s non-verbally saying to him, “I’m really watching football. You’re just kind of along for the ride.” If I’m starting first, if I’m engaging, if during the commercials I’m asking him about his friends, then he feels like, “Hey, dad is interested in me more so than even the game.
Andy: Right. But then of course, one thing that I always feel with teenagers is they’ll shut down and give you really short answers to questions a lot of times, and parents tell me it’s grunts that they get from their teenagers kind of. Not even like a full word. Because I also think that there needs to be kind of a power dominance within your family where you’re the parent and they’re the kid. A lot of times parents, it can come across really needy when they’re supplicating to the kid, almost like trying to, “Oh, can we spend some time?” Or like, “Can we go fishing?” It feels needy. I think partly because it’s not what the kid wants to do. It almost solves itself if what you’re saying, if you can kind of tune into the right activity, I think. But also I wonder when you’re asking those questions, like you’re saying, how do you walk that line between not being too like, “Oh hey, so how is it going to school? And how’s like…” And the kid just being like, “Yeah, it’s whatever. It’s okay, right?”
Todd: Yeah. I don’t think it really has to have that pressured feel. I mean, if you’re trying to make up for lost time or do everything at once, I guess it comes across that way. But the point is you don’t do that. So, you’re not trying to cram for a test at the last minute. I know some kids were obviously, because if they’re seeing me, there are some things to talk about and ought to be talking about something important and it will strike me as well. And this is something I hope they’ve talked to their parents about whatever the thing is. I’ll say, “Hey, did you… You told your mom and dad this?” And sometimes they’ll say, no.
Andy: No way.
Todd: And that’s problem number one. I mean, and it’s unfortunate that they haven’t and I’ll go, “Well, that’s kind of too bad. How come?” They’ll invariably say something like, “Well, that would be weird,” or, “Well, we don’t usually talk.” It’s almost like if you’re walking down a pathway and then foresee a grass, where people have walked a lot, you see the grass had padded down a lot because there’s been a lot of frequency there.
Andy: Trail there, yeah, yeah.
Todd: Yeah, yeah. And it’s like that the pathway of communication between them and their parents just hasn’t really been frequently done. So, even about little things, let alone things that are a bit more awkward or important, and so then when there’s something comes up, the kid just isn’t used to that. You can easily fix that by getting them used to it, by talking lots about little things and doing lots of things together and just hanging out and they get used to talking to you.
Todd: And again, that’s where the whole family time idea is just insanely huge because what you do there is once your kids are kind of old enough, at least kindergartenish probably, you have a regular time. We did weekly. When they’re teenagers, get a little tougher to pull off the weekly, so you do the weekly while you can. But anyway, you have a regular time that even saying the word regular is huge because that communicates to your kids, “Hey, this is like a big deal. We’re going to make this every week.” What do you do every week? What’s regular? School is regular. Maybe you work out regular. You eat breakfast. Things that are regular are importance. Or say, “This is going to be not just when we have time. No, this is a priority. We’re doing this every Saturday night or Sunday afternoon or whatever.”
Todd: So, regular family time. And then in that family time, what are you going to do? Two things. You’re going to have some kind of fun activity. So, you’re getting that happening. And you’re going to have some kind of meaningful discussions, a fun activity, meaningful discussion, and that meaningful discussion, there’s all sorts of different things you can do, but you’re going to get your kids used to talking or maybe praying together, or doing some little Bible study or you’re talking about friends or how we’re doing as a family, or how do we solve a problem, or how do we handle bullies? There’s a million things you can do and talk about. And they’re all important. And they’re all meaningful. And your kids just getting the groove of talking to mom and dad about all sorts of things. So, you’re creating that pathway and heck you’re building a superhighway on it, so then when something big comes up, your kids are totally used to talking to you.
Andy: The channels of communication have been open, right? And the Roto-Rooter has cleared them out.
Todd: That’s right, yeah. Exactly right. So, that’s how you do it. So, that way there’s no pressure feeling or anything. It’s like Stephen Covey’s stuff. You’re creating the family culture you want for your family. It’s me, it’s my family, me and my wife, we got two boys. We decide how our family is going to be. I don’t know how someone else is, but the only family I get to really control is mine. So, from the very beginning, we say, “Well, what kind of family do we want? Let’s start creating it.” Again, you don’t wait around for those opportunities. You manufacture them, you create them, you build an environment where they’re likely to happen and you make them happen.
Andy: Yeah, if you’re not active in pursuing it, then you’re just kind of going to be tossed around at the whims of whatever happens.
Todd: I agree.
Andy: So family time is going to be a regular thing. There’s going to be two components. The first one is one of those Mario Kart kind of things that we talked about earlier, some sort of a fun activity. And then the second part is a discussion. So are we talking about overall that this is going to take an hour or does it vary widely depending on how much time you want to throw at it or is there like a recommendation that you have?
Todd: Yeah, yeah, good thought. I think it’s the meaningful discussion part that maybe scares some folks. It scared me a little bit, and I talk all the time. It’s like, “Well, what are we supposed to do?” I’m not a teacher. I don’t know. Do I got to make a lesson plan every time? It’s a little tricky. I think it’s intimidating.
Andy: And coming up with something that’s like meaningful enough to be the topic this week. That’s some pressure.
Todd: Yeah, totally. Yeah, it is. And so, I think that’s one of the reasons why maybe people might avoid it because they don’t, they kind of, I don’t know, wreck it up. So, you can make that kind of easy. Number one, there’s a ton of books out there that have lots of ideas and activities and you explode a pickle or whatever different things, little object lessons. Even in one of my books and my sibling book, I have in the end appendix, I have 15 family time discussion guides laid out there to address sibling kind of things. If you’re coming from a faith perspective, maybe get a little devotional book that has a little two-page story and lesson that’s good for your kids’ ages. You read through it, you talk through it, you’re done. They’re going to be longer or shorter.
Todd: So again, not a big pressure deal. But one of the first things we is, we sat down and said, “Hey, we’re going to be having these family times. And we want it to be really fun, and talk about things that are important to us and do some fun things. One of the very first things we did is I had a blank sheet of paper. I said, “Okay, let’s make a list of some of the fun things we’re going to do in our future family time.” So, our family discussion was making a list of fun things we’re going to do. We had this big old list like this great list, and that was our discussion. That was it. So, it was five minutes.
Todd: In our second family time, we made a list of things we wanted to talk about, “Hey, we’re going to talk about all sorts of important things. I have some ideas, but you guys may have some ideas or we’ll think of new ideas as we go. So let’s just make a list of whatever we can think of now of different topics. We’re not going to talk about them now, but in the future, that might be important.” And there’s all sorts of things you can think of and they’ll change and you can revisit them and they’ll change as your kids age. I can remember, we talked about what kind of family do we want to be? What kind of family do we want to have? These are awesome topics. How do we want to solve problems, how do we want to treat each other, how to share? I mean, there’s just a million of them once you get going, and then you end up having these discussions, and here’s the thing, Andy, you almost ended up feeling spoiled. And I felt this way many times.
Todd: As a result of just the benefits that come from these repeated family times, and then just the quality discussions you’re having. We’ve had so many discussions with our boy, just together as a family that were like unbelievably awesome, that I simply know they would not have happened any other way. They just don’t pop out of nowhere in the busy hustle and bustle of life. They only happen whether we’re talking about how to show caring for each other or how praying for each other. I get to see my little teenage boys, you know pray for each other and as we do that as a family, at the end of family times. And we’re talking about how to make friends or how we’re going to solve problems, the way we want us, the right way or how we’re going to be respectful to each other. What kind of discussions are these? Like awesome. And they don’t always pop up out of nowhere.
Andy: It sounds as if getting the most benefit from every minute you spend parenting, having deep conversations about how you want to live, what you want to stand for is like about the best bang for your buck minute per minute that I think you can possibly get. And I love the idea of just like building it in to the weekly schedule.
Andy: You implemented this pretty young with your kids it sounds like.
Todd: Yeah, sure.
Andy: Do you sometimes recommend it to clients that you’re working with if their kid is already a teenager? Is it hard to implement it at that point? And what would be any kind of like little things you might want to consider or do differently? Or how would you approach it?
Todd: I mean, hey, you start, when you got to start. If you haven’t been doing it for the last X many years, well then either don’t ever do it or you start now. So, you start when you can. And depending on a situation, that parent just is really genuine and honest and says, “Hey, here we are. We’re eight and we’re 12 or whatever ages we are. And here we are as a family and you guys are getting older. And now for my part, as the mom or dad, I just want to be the closest family we can. And I just came upon this idea of, hey, maybe we could get together every week just for a little bit and do something fun, and then talk about some things that are important for us in our family. What do you guys think?” You include them in it and you do some fun things. You make it fun. You would kind of come up with topics that are relevant to them. It’s an easy sell.
Andy: And so, I wonder to what extent during these conversations do the topics that parents kind of naturally want to talk about? I would assume it would kind of come up. You don’t need to put drugs and alcohol on the list for your teenagers, or do you? Do you know what I mean? How over do you think it’s good to be in terms of steering the conversation towards certain topics versus talking about the things that organically come up with your kids?
Todd: I guess, maybe everyone might have different ways of doing it. For me, I like to be a little bit purposeful. I’m the dad. In a sense, it turned out I was usually leading the family time and running our discussion. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. As it were, I know what we’re going to do whether it’s a certain topic I bring up or something from the list we’ve kind of revised or if there’s nothing big, maybe we’ll just do a little devotion or maybe we’ll just, sometimes we just do a check in. How’s everyone doing? So, pretty light. You want important age appropriate topics. So, if you’ve got a bunch of six year olds, “Hey, let’s talk about pot unnecessarily.”
Andy: Do you know about sex?
Todd: Yeah, right, right. Peer pressure. I mean, there are just tons of important topics that will be age appropriate. And if they’re age appropriate topics, your kids will be… I mean, substance abuse would totally be one that you want to have in there for their kids of the right ages. And they’d be all over it. And it’s not like you’re going to give him some of the lecture. Maybe you’re going to print it off a couple of things about pot or alcohol or some stats that they’ll find interesting. Maybe you’ll ask them, “Hey, what’s it like at your school? What do you see?” Because you have two things you’re trying to do. You’re trying to, first of all, get a glimpse into how they are thinking. I get to hear what my boys just thinking in this. I get to hear what they see. I get to hear… I’m going to ask them, “Well, what do you think? What’s your opinion? Because they’re developing their little opinions. And so I get to hear, and then I also want to help shape and influence that opinion.
Todd: So, this is like the most awesome stuff in the world when you’re a parent and whether it’s a substance abuse or peer pressure, or just how you make good choices or whatever the topic is, how we’re going to solve problems in our family, great topics. And I’m lucky to be able to have those discussions.
Andy: We talked about a lot of stuff today. So, hopefully some great stuff that parents can use. Todd, thanks so much for making the time to be here.
Todd: Sure, man.
Andy: And for sharing your wisdom with us.
Todd: Oh, my pleasure.
About Todd Cartmell
After earning his doctorate in clinical psychology from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA, Todd moved to Columbus, OH, where he completed a postdoctoral fellowship with Wright State University at the Children’s Hospital. Since then, he has done his clinical work at Summit Clinical Services in Wheaton, IL, where he continues to see difficult teenagers, children, and whole families on a full-time basis.
Todd has written five parenting books:
- 8 Simple Tools for Raising Great Kids
- Respectful Kids: The Complete Guide to Bringing Out the Best in Your Child
- Keep the Siblings, Lose the Rivalry
- Project Dad: The Complete Do-It-Yourself Guide for Becoming a Great Father
- The Parent Lifesaver: Practical Help for Everyday Childhood Problems
He has presented many parenting workshops at mom’s conferences (Hearts at Home, MOPS International), MOPS groups, churches, and schools. He has also recently developed a skill-building game for kids called The Flexible Thinking Game.
In his free time, Todd enjoys doing anything with his wife, spending time with his boys whenever possible, reading, running, and playing jazz piano any chance he can get. His Christian faith is an important part of his life and thinking.