Parenting an Adolescent: 11 Insights That Will Make a Difference

Parenting an Adolescent: 11 Insights That Will Make a Difference

I’m almost nearing the end of my gig parenting an adolescent. It’s been an adventure – a brilliant, trying, beautiful, confusing, crazy adventure – but we’ve made it. I would love to wave a strong goodbye to the whole adolescent phase but I have a daughter who is about to walk into its wide woolly arms. (I’m warmed up and ready beautiful girl so we’ll be fine.)

The job of all adolescents is to establish themselves as their own person – separate to but part of a family, connected to but independent from their parents. It’s not easy but there are ways to make sure that your relationship with the flourishing young adult in your midst is close, strong and everything else you both want it to be. In many ways, it requires us to be completely different to the parents we were when they were younger, but that’s the thing about adolescence – it’s a time of learning and growth for all of us.

[bctt tweet=”Teens will use the line between childhood and adulthood as a jumprope and really, it can be no other way. “]

I’ve learnt a few things along the way. Some of them were shared by those wiser and further down the track than me. Some of them came from psychology. Some of them were learned through monumental stuff-ups and a desperation for things to change (but isn’t that how the best things come to be!) All of them have made the difference.

  1. Fighting with them (for them) sometimes means standing still.

    As with anything, fighting for what you believe sometimes has less to do with pushing forward and everything to do with standing still – not in acquiescence, but to hold firm. Sometimes it’s about letting the arguments and high emotion wash over to somewhere behind you, so that you can see the issues for what they are, free from the noise and clamour that goes with needing to be right.

  2. Being heard is more important than being right.

    Being right counts for little if you’re not being heard. Hearing them – and making sure they feel heard – is critical if you want them to consider your advice. Hear what they think, what they want and why it’s important to them. Don’t be afraid to change your mind once you’ve heard everything they have to say. Sometimes of course, you’ll stand even more sure that your decision is the right one. When they feel fully heard, it’s more likely that they’ll be able to trust that whatever decision you’re making, you’re making it fully informed and with all of their needs considered. And we all need that.

  3. Understand that they’ll use the line between childhood and adulthood as a jumprope. 

    They’ll use the line between childhood and adulthood as a jumprope for a while and really, it can be no other way. Problems crop up when there’s disagreement about which side of the line they should be acting from. They’ll want their independence – we’ll want some control. We’ll want to see them to start taking responsibility – they won’t be ready to take it on yet. See – so confusing! Be patient and give them what they need – information, guidance, support – to feel confident enough to do what they need to do. Sometimes things look easy and obvious to us but from the midst of the adolescent jungle, it might not be that simple.

  4. Separate them from their behaviour. It’s not a package deal.

    They are more than their questionable behaviour. We all are. The behaviour and the person aren’t a package deal. Love one. Reject the other. The critical mistake is believing that to reject bad behaviour, we have to reject them too. We don’t, and believing this is the best way to push them away.

    Separate them from their behaviour (‘I don’t understand what you’re getting out of doing that but I know you’ve probably got a good reason. What I also know is there’s a safer/better/more appropriate way to get what you need. But first you have to figure out what it is that you need.’)

    [irp posts=”1203″ name=”Proven Ways to Strengthen the Connection with Your Teen”]

  5. It’s your job to give them freedom. It’s their job to prove they can be trusted with it.

    It’s up to us as parents to support their move towards independence by granting them more and more freedom. It’s their job though, to prove to us that they can be trusted with that freedom. The more you can trust them, the more freedom you can give them, so it’s in their interest to do the right thing. There are a few ways they can do this. Ask them to:

    •   Aways be where they say they’re going to be. If the plan changes, they have to let you know. If they let you know, be grateful and if it’s not going to hurt them, be okay with it.

    •   Make sure they are always contactable. Leave their phone on and if you call or text they have to respond as soon as they can. In return, agree to only contact them if you need to. Give them space.

    •   Be honest, even if it could potentially get them into trouble. In return, be understanding and if they’ve been honest, let the reward for that be a lighter punishment, or perhaps no punishment at all. Knowing they’ve disappointed you will be enough. One of the most important things for your relationship, and for their safety is that they are honest and open with you. This is less likely to happen if there are harsh consequences when they tell the truth or when they open up. They can often learn the lesson more by talking with you than by anything you can measure out. Discipline is about teaching (as in ‘disciple’), not punishing.

  6. Understand the need they are trying to meet through their behaviour.

    This is a big one. The biggest. Let me explain.

    During adolescence, teens can be defiant, test the limits, experiment, engage in risky behaviour, withdraw, show hostility and the list goes on. It might seem like the obvious response is to come down heavy on the behaviour, and many times that’s what is deserved, but it’s not necessarily what will work. 

    What we, as parents, need to understand is that people only do what works. You, me, everyone on the planet – everything we do is to meet a need on some level. That doesn’t mean it always works well – many times it doesn’t.

    Dealing with the behaviour without understanding the need the behaviour is feeding (albeit badly perhaps) leaves a gaping hole in the form of an unmet need that will continue to press for fulfilment.

    Perhaps your teen is spending too much time on the computer and not enough on schoolwork. Perhaps you’ve caught them experimenting with drugs or alcohol. Perhaps they arc up every time you disagree with them. All of this behaviour is less than ideal, but it’s all meeting a need.

    The behaviour might be dysfunctional but the need never is.

    Some common needs and the way they might be meet are:

    •   the need to escape from the world for a while  (they might try to meet this need by spending too much time online, in their room, avoiding homework and responsibility);

    •   the need for approval (this can lead to being seduced by a crowd who gives them somewhere to belong, makes them feel important, helps establish an identity or independence from the family);

    •   the need to feel independent from you (arguing, hostility, defiance).

    These are all valid needs, even if they are calling on outstandingly messy ways to meet them.

    When your teen is behaving badly, look at the need it’s meeting. Teens don’t go out of their way to upset you though it can feel like that sometimes. They’re not stupid and they know it’s not in their interest to alienate you. Sometimes though, the need they are trying to meet will feel bigger than their need for approval for you. That’s why they’re doing what they’re doing, even if they know that it will get them into a red hot mess with you. 

    Let them know that while you don’t approve of their behaviour, or that their behaviour has disappointed you, you suspect they have a really good reason for doing what they’ve done. If you have some ideas, throw them out there, but also make it clear that they don’t have to agree with your assessment of the problem. Make way for them to figure it out for themselves, but the most important thing is to make it safe for them to come to you along the way.

  7. Don’t ask why. Ask what.

    You want to know what they’re getting from doing the crazy stuff they’re doing. Asking ‘why’ can lead to a fruitless ‘I don’t know,’ – because they probably don’t even know themselves. If, on the other hand, you ask them what happens to them or for them when they do what they do, you’re on track to getting answers. What happens to them – physically, emotionally. What do they think about? What do they stop thinking about? Try and flesh this out. This is where you’ll find your answer.

  8. Remove the shame.

    The potential for teens to feel shame during adolescence is enormous. They’re trying to figure out who they are in the world and where they fit in. They’ll explore and they’ll experiment. Some of it will work beautifully and they will love what they see, and some of it, well, not so much.

    One of the reasons we behave in socially acceptable ways is to avoid shame so a little bit helps to keep us all on track. If you need to redirect their behaviour, try as much as you can to do it without shaming them. Whatever you do, don’t do it in public.  Let them know they’re doing okay, that we’re proud of them, that we think they’re awesome – and why. At least then they’ll know that when the world is feeling like a tough place to be, home will be their safety net.

    [irp posts=”771″ name=”The Way to Thrive: Emotional Intelligence – What, Why, How”]

     

  9. Validate the need. Reject the Behaviour.

     Validate their need – because under even the most bewildering, infuriating behaviour is a need that deserves to be met. ‘I get that the world is asking a lot of you right now and it’s probably really tempting to want to hide away from it. I really get that. But spending hours in your room on the internet isn’t the way to do it. Let’s talk about ways you can get what you need in ways that will work better for you.’

  10. Find a different way to meet the need.

    They might need your help with this and it might take a while and a few discussions to sort this out. You’re trying to replace a behaviour that isn’t working, not the need that it’s meeting. Be patient. The answer is there but they might need time and some help from you to flesh it out.

  11. Decide the values you want to teach

    This is sometimes even more important than the behaviours you want to teach. For me, the important values are respect, honesty, openness, kindness and integrity. Get the values right, and the right behaviour will eventually follow. Part of our job as parents is to make sure we make it safe and easy for them to learn the lessons they need to learn. They won’t learn respect from you if you yell and direct more than you listen.  They won’t be honest with you if it always gets them into trouble. They won’t be kind and compassionate if they always feel judged. They won’t be open to being wrong sometimes if you never acknowledge when you are. Let them know when they’re getting it right because whether they let you know it or not, your approval means a lot to them. 

As you continue to navigate your teen through adolescence, know that whatever you’re experiencing, you’re not alone. Your relationship with your teen won’t be the same when you both come out of it as it was when you both went into it, but that’s the thing about adolescence – they’ll learn from you, you’ll learn from them, and at the end of it all, two different people will emerge. By understanding the changes and by being a strong, nurturing, loving presence, your teen will thrive and the adult that emerges will be an amazing one.

 

11 Comments

Jeannette

Thanks so mucho for this information, its very handy when we don’t know how to respond to certain behaviors! I have two teenagers ? That are driving me crazy!

Reply
Lawrence

Thank you very much, you’ve just relieved me of the trouble I’m currently facing with my 17 years old son.

Reply
Sherrie

This article is perfect. I am going to make a summarized version so I can keep it in my purse, drawer, anywhere to pull it out when I need a quick reminder!

Reply
Venetta

Great insight and information for my teen and I to use and communicate about together as a family. Thank you!

Reply
darcy

I am a parent of two teens and a counselor. Love your insights and the way you frame the subjects and discussions. A friend forwarded this to me and I am so glad to be able to receive more of your posts!

Reply
heysigmund

I’m so pleased the article found it’s way to you. Plenty more posts to come. Thank you for taking the time to get in touch.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or 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 makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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