One of the Most Important Things Our Teens Need From Us – What, Why, and How to Give it To Them.

As our adolescents navigate their way from childhood to adolescence, they will wobble, fall and rise many times. They’ve done this before – as tinies when they were discovering their walking legs. We stayed close, held them up, and let go when we needed to. We knew they wouldn’t learn to walk if we didn’t let them fall.

Adolescence will work the same way, and the temptation to hold on tight to our teens and control the path that lies ahead of them will be bigger and more fierce than ever – but our response has to be different. As littles, they craved us. They’d seek us out, they’d want us close, and kissing them goodbye in front of their mates didn’t bother them a bit.

During adolescence, things start to change. We start to feel their separation from us and sometimes, we might miss them even when they’re beside us, and long for the way things used to be. We might wonder whether to hold on tighter or stand back. The answer is, we do both. We hold on to them but we give them the space they need to again, wobble, fall and rise.

They’ll need our love and support more than ever, but more on their terms. What they won’t need is our control. During adolescence we won’t have any anyway. We might have the illusion of control, but our teens are resourceful, creative and brave and if they want something enough they will do it anyway. They don’t do this to be deliberately defiant or to make our lives difficult. They do it because they are driven to explore their independence. This means making their own decisions, walking their own path, and learning their own lessons from their own mistakes. 

They can’t make the from childhood to adulthood without doing this. The same courage and drive towards independence that will see them forming relationships, driving, getting a job, studying, moving out of home, becoming financially responsible, and changing the world in amazing ways with their passion and insights – can also see them pushing us away, claiming their voice against us, testing their power and boundaries with us, and making decisions that don’t end well. We don’t get to say when their courage switches on and when it doesn’t. Ditto for their independence. We don’t get to say when they can claim their voices, own their power, stand firm on their boundaries, and when they can’t. We also don’t get to say when they fall. We don’t get to decide the lessons they learn and how they learn them, as much as we might wish we could.

The temptation to control the path that lies ahead of them will be monumental, and done from a place of love. It’s likely that fear will have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our chest. Sometimes it will feel like failure, or guilt or fear. Sometimes anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It stirs the fears and anxieties in us like nothing else can. It turns the most passive of us into warriors and fighters and the most fierce of protectors. But it can also give us the strength and the courage to do things we never thought we could – like standing back far enough to let our children fall so they can learn to walk, and eventually fly – but close enough to be in reaching distance when they need us.

Why we need to let go of control. 

For their sake and ours, we have to surrender our need for control and put the connection with them above everything. It’s the most powerful way to expand our influence. In fact, it’s the only way. Our attempts to control that path of theirs will often play out as attempts to control them. The harder we push to control them, the more we risk losing them. When we attempt to control them, we are pushing against thousands of years of evolution and their drive to establish their independence. They can’t make the transition from childhood to adulthood without establishing some sort of separation from us.

In doing this, they might push against us. Sometimes this will feel fierce. This is not to push us away, but to loosen themselves from under our wing. Sometimes the closer they are, the harder they might feel they have to push. Sometimes in their experimentation with separation and independence, our connection with them will suffer, but this isn’t what they want. What they want is to feel connected to us, without feeling controlled by us. We can do this by letting go of control, and keeping the point of connection open and ready for whenever they need it. 

But independence does not mean disconnection.

Our teens will be driven to find their independence from us, not disconnection from us. Sometimes of course, this is exactly how it will feel, for us and for them.  Our adolescents have important work to do. They’re letting go of the guard rail they’ve been holding on to since the beginning of them. They can’t find their way through to adulthood unless they do. 

Letting go of the guard rail will mean letting go of us – the dependence on us, not the connection. Sometimes though, for them, it will feel as though the only way for them to find that independence is with an almighty swipe of the table, and our connection with them might get caught up in that swipe. This is nothing to fear, and it’s a sign that your gorgeous adolescent is working his or her way through adolescence exactly as they need to. At the time though, it might feel awful and confusing. It will likely feel that way for them too. Know that this is just part of the wobbling and falling that comes before they fly.

In the meantime, one of the best things we can do for them is to stand still and keep the connection open so it’s there whenever they need it. It’s takes two people to have a connection, but it only takes one to hold the door open.

Think of it like standing with them on the inside of a stretchy rubber band. Our job is to stand still, no matter how hard or how far they pull away from us – and they will pull. Sometimes this will come with yelling and tears and ugly fighting words. They might defy us, disagree with us, ignore us and resent us. This isn’t who they are, it’s what adolescence is. It’s the beautiful expanding of them as humans who are separate to us. It might feel awful sometimes, but we don’t need to change it and we don’t need to control it. We couldn’t if we wanted to. In the meantime, they need us to stand still and hold on through the fighting, the pushing, the pulling, the resentment, the defiance. They need us to be bigger than all of it, and ready with the warmth and safety of us. 

None of this struggle changes how much they love you and need you. It just changes how much they show it. They might stretch that rubber band with full force, and the distance between the both of you might feel vast and frightening, but if we stand still, without chasing, without running, they will always have somewhere solid and safe to come back to, and in the times they need it most, they’ll know it. 

We have no control, but we can have something better …

The more we try to control our adolescents, the more we squander those precious opportunities to influence them. They are less likely to come to us for advice or guidance if lectures or preaching are on offer. They are also less likely to come to us when things to wrong if they expect shame, judgement or harsh consequences. 

Our best opportunities to influence them will come from making it safe for them to come to us when they need to won’t come from offering advice when we need to, but making it safe for them to come to us when they need to. We want them to do this. We can’t influence them if we don’t know what they need. They will lock us out of the opportunities to listen and guide them if they expect that we will stand over them, more than we stand beside them or behind them. When we let go of control, we open up the way for our influence. We will feel safer for them, more approachable, and more open to them. We will feel more like a place of warmth and wisdom, than one of shame and guilt.

How do we open up our influence?

We can widen our influence by stripping shame, judgement, criticism, and control from our interactions with them. We can make it safe for them to come to us by asking their opinions, being flexible, listening more than we talk, showing them that we trust them to make the right decisions for them and that we have no desire to control them. We can explore their decisions and the consequences of those decisions with them, rather than making their decisions for them. 

For us to be more emotionally available to our teens, it will be important to resist the temptation to take their decisions and their behaviour personally. Adolescence is their time of growth and learning, and they have the right to get it wrong as many times as it takes. Of course whenever we can, we want to steer them away from trouble, but even with our very best efforts, we won’t always be able to do this.

If we take their behaviour personally, we’re more likely to fall into our own shame trap – ‘I should have …’ ‘I shouldn’t have …’ ‘I wish I was better at this … ‘ Stop! Just stop. Shame is a useless, crippling thing to feel and it will only get in the way of our capacity to be there for our teens the way they need us to. Shame makes us defensive. It closes us down. It swipes at our power and our connection with them. 

As parents, we are all doing the very best we can. It’s important to be open to what we can do differently, but sometimes this won’t show itself until things have unravelled. Adolescence is a big learning adventure for all of us. We’ll be better for ourselves and our teens if we can embrace this, and see every sweaty, messy, uphill climb as an opportunity for a better, richer view. 

So wait … does this mean no boundaries?

Absolutely we need our boundaries! Our teens will get things wrong, with or without us. What we want is for them to learn and grow through the mistakes they make. Sometimes there will be consequences for their bad decisions, but it’s important that those consequences don’t lock us out and slam the door on our influence.

Consequences work best when they come with lessons that make sense. Discipline comes from the word ‘disciple’, as in, ‘to teach’. It was never meant to be about punishment. Our children will always get more from having us explore their decisions with them, including the consequences of those decisions and what they can do differently in the future, than any punishment we can hand out. A consequence might therefore look like sitting with you, delving into the mess, being honest with you about what they’ve done as they work to make sense of it, and figure out what they can do differently next time.

And when they get it wrong?

Our teens will make mistakes. Sometimes these will be breathtaking. Sometimes it will be despite our very best efforts to steer them away from trouble. The falls will be inevitable. It’s how life lessons are learned, but strict rules and attempts to control them won’t change this. All it will do is fuel their need to avoid shame and to cover their mistakes with secrets and lies. 

We can strengthen our influence by stripping the shame from their mistakes and making it safe for them to come to us, either before or after things go wrong. When we respond to their slips, we need to remember that everything we humans do – even the tangled, unfathomable things we do – are driven by needs. The needs are always valid, even if the behaviour is disastrous. When our teens get it wrong, or when they have a tough decision to make, the key is to speak to the need rather than the behaviour. If we respond to the behaviour without exploring the need behind it, the need will continue to drive their behaviour from the dark. Think of it like being a dark room full of furniture. You’re going to bump into things, fall and scrape. When you switch on the light, everything that was in your way will still be there, but you’re more able to find a way through. We want to switch on the light for our teens so they don’t keep stumbling as they try to meet their important needs. 

To uncover the need, first make it safe for them to talk to you. A way to do this is by validating them – not their behaviour, them. Love them big, and let them know that you even though the behaviour might not make sense to you, you expect they had a good reason for doing it – even if the behaviour wasn’t the best idea. This will strip the shame and remove their need to defend their behaviour. They will be more likely to open up to our conversation and influence. Asking ‘why’ will often lead to, ‘I don’t know’. Asking ‘what’ will start to build the picture.

An example.

Say, for example, your teen comes home drunk from a party where there was alcohol instead of parents. We can punish them for drinking, but this runs the risk of us not finding out about the next party that might have alcohol. If they don’t want us to know, they can find ways to work around it – they’ll sleep over at a friend’s house so you won’t know they’ve been drinking; the ‘party’ will become a ‘study sleepover’ – they’ll find a way, same as we would have when it was our turn at adolescence. The point is, punishing them for drinking wastes the opportunity to influence them towards behaving differently next time.

Rather than asking ‘why’, which might invite something like, ‘because everyone else was’, ask ‘what’ – as in, ‘What I know for certain is that you’re a great kid. This wasn’t a great decision, but I know you wouldn’t have done this unless it felt right at the time. I get that. It’s okay. I’m not going to stop you from going to parties if you’re open and honest with me. I want to understand what’s happened. I expect you do too. What happened in the lead up? What made it feel like a good idea? What do you imagine would have happened if you didn’t drink? What stopped it feeling risky? What do you feel about it now? What would you do if this happened again?’ Of course you don’t want to bombard them with questions, but these are conversation starters. It’s also a way to let them see that you can cope with anything they tell you. When you speak about this, you might both learn that the need driving the behaviour was the need to feel a part of the group. The fear might have been exclusion and the longer term consequences of that. That fear is real, and it makes sense. If they can see that we get it, it opens the way for a conversation that will strengthen and empower them so they can be ready for the next time they find themselves in a similar situation. 

And finally …

It’s important to remember that influence and conversation isn’t a magic fix. They’ll still make mistakes. This is all part of adolescence, not ‘bad parenting’ and definitely not ‘bad kids’. 

By adolescence, our teens will likely know the way we feel about everything. They will know what we stand for, what we don’t, what’s okay by us and what isn’t. We’ve given them the information we can about the world. Now is their time to experience that world for themselves. Our very important job as their parents is to give them the space and the support to do this. They need connection, without control. We want this too, because it is through our connection with them that we can have influence.

Ultimately, the amount of influence we have will be up to them, so we will need to do things more their way for a while. But we’re asking for that. We’re asking them to make their way in the world their way. We’re asking them to make grown-up decisions and to start experiencing the world as adults – driving, jobs, studying, responsibility, moving away from home. When the connection with them is there, hopefully, sometimes, they will let us take the precious and privileged place beside them as they edge towards these grown-up decisions, and grown-up experiences. Sometimes our greatest parenting moments will happen in the middle of the mess, but first we want them to offer us a seat at the table. 

Learning how to be an adult is one of the hardest things we humans will do, and it will take time. Most of all it will take experience – good ones and not so good ones. We won’t have the control but we can have influence – but only if they let us. The greatest conduit for this will be our connection with them. When we have the connection, they will be more likely to seek out the safety and warmth of us when they need to. This is when we will be more able to nurture the rich, beautiful and wanted expanding of them. 

4 Comments

Ashima

Thank you Karen for the amazing read. Your content inspires us to be a better parents! Thank you for your wisdom!

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alcohol helpline

Thanks Karen. Good and interesting story. I agree that the education of adolescents needs to be paid more attention than it seems. If we talk about physiology, first of all, a person becomes an adult matured person, this causes a lot of changes in the body, and the sensations are not always comfortable. At this time, the state of health often worsens, immunity decreases, hormonal status jumps, the load on internal organs increases, because the body grows. There is also neurophysiology – the teenager undergoes a rather serious brain restructuring, rejection of unnecessary connections that were not previously used, activation other connections. In a sense, we can say that during adolescence there are periods when the brain is in a “disassembled” state – it was disassembled and not yet assembled in a new way. Parenting is a very long and complicated process. Thanks you!

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KS

Very well written and I appreciate the concrete examples you provide of ways to handle situation. Thank you for the thoughtfulness and keeping it real. We parents need all the support and suggestions we can get and yours are great.

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Melissa Benaroya

Beautifully written Karen! The struggle of parenting a teen is all too real. I know for myself my heart tears every time my teen pushes me away, even though I know this is what she is supposed to do. It is almost like dealing with a loss – the loss of their childhood that went faster than anticipated. Everything you shared in this article is a great reminder of the shifts we all have to make as our children grow into young adults. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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