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Distance Brings Our Teen Closer

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There was a time when Riley would talk to me of her own accord:
Guess what happened to me today at school, Daddy.
Wanna hear a joke?
Can I ask your advice about something, Papa?

Now she’s sixteen, and, yes, she talks to me, but it’s often like pulling teeth:

“How was school today?” I’ll ask.
“Fine,” she responds, eyes glued to her smartphone.

I tell her a joke. She offers me a courtesy smile, then heads off to her room.

I overhear her talking in the van with her girlfriends about a dilemma regarding her social circle. “Can I offer you a bit of advice?” I ask later.

“Thanks, dad. I think I’ve got it, though.”

And when she does initiate conversation (with a toothy smile and a sing-songy “Papa?”), I know she wants something: a ride, a sleepover or a loan.

Let me tell you, though, Riley’s a great kid. She gets good grades, is polite (to everyone outside of her immediate family), makes excellent choices, and hangs out with a wonderful circle of friends. She’s just a teen, and if I remember correctly, parents are the antithesis of cool during those years, and friends are everything. So, I finally get it; I don’t like it, but I remember it and I get it.

Recently Riley had the opportunity to travel with a friend and her family on a cruise to the Caribbean. We bought bug repellent, flip-flops, and sunscreen. We updated her passport. We researched the islands she’d be visiting. We helped get her all packed.

Then, we went over the rules and conditions: always stay with her friend, never go into anyone else’s cabin, and communicate with us daily.

There were kisses, hugs, “miss you”s, “bon voyage”s and then she was gone for a week and a half. She called when she got to LAX, then again at the Houston Airport. She texted when she landed in Puerto Rico, then sent pics as she boarded the Royal Caribbean ocean liner, and called again once she got settled on the ship…and that was all within the first twenty-four hours of her leaving the house.

My wife, Mary, and I assumed once the cruise got underway, the communication would die down a bit. But, we were surprised, because it didn’t.

Once she sent me a text: Just thinking of you.

I responded: Who is this?

Her: Your daughter.

Me: Which one?


Really, “Lol”? I never get an “Lol”, and I actually really do make people laugh out loud in real-non-phone-life. One evening she FaceTimed us and stayed on the phone just shooting the breeze, showing us around the ship, and having us chat with her friend, as well.

Mary and I assumed she must have been having a really bad time on the ship, bored out of her mind to the extent that she was killing time talking to her folks. But no, come to find out she had the time of her life, made all sorts of new friends, had a blast on the boat, went on excursions galore: zip-lining, diving with sea turtles, waterfall exploration.

Then, what the heck was she doing reaching out to us…and actually staying on the phone? Why was this sixteen-year old sharing her thoughts with her parents…us? And, please, somebody tell me, why was she actually initiating the “I love you” at the end of the conversations? She never says, “I love you.” It’s always one of us that initiates, and Riley responds, usually looking at her phone or walking away to her room, “Luv you, too” (I know we can’t tell that it’s “Luv” instead of “Love”, but you can just feel it).  Her calls from the cruise were more than just fulfilling her obligation to contact us each day.

Then, it hit me as to why. Our teenager missed us. No, I am absolutely serious about this. I know I have no actual tangible proof of this, but what else could it be? She actually wanted to hear our voices. Turns out, she really does love us (the “love” kind; not “luv”).

My wife and I learned more about Riley during her eleven days away from us, than we had the first three months of 2016.

Looks like absence makes our teen’s heart grow fonder. We finally found out how to communicate with the kid; just send her away.

She’s back now, and we are seeing things start to return to the pre-Caribbean cruise days: non-eye contact monosyllabic answers, courtesy smiles and pretending she doesn’t hear us (“Oh, were you talking to me?”). Looks as though we need to start planning for her next trip away from home, but Caribbean cruises are pricey. I think for summer break, we’ll stick her on a Greyhound Bus to Fresno for a few weeks…that’ll get her talking again.

What we’ve learned, though, is that when we send our daughter away to college in a little over a year, ironically it’ll probably bring us closer together once again. She’ll be excited to chat, and to visit. She’ll laugh at my dumb dad jokes again, and actually pay attention to her sister.

She just needs her space, in order to realize that she wishes that she had less of it.

Leon Scott Baxter's picture
America’s Relationship Guru

Leon Scott Baxter, “America’s Relationship Guru,” is the author of Secrets of Safety-Net Parenting and the founder of He’s the father of two girls, 12 and 16, and has taught elementary school for eighteen years.