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. 

2 Comments

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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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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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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Anxiety has a way of demanding ALL of the attention. It shifts the focus to what feels scary, or too big, or impossible, or what needs to be avoided, or what feels bad, or what our kiddos can’t do. As the grown ups who love them, we know they are capable of greatness, even if that greatness is made up of lots of tiny steps, (as great things tend to be).
Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
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Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.

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