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.

Reply

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When you can’t cut out (their worries), add in (what they need for felt safety). 

Rather than focusing on what we need them to do, shift the focus to what we can do. Make the environment as safe as we can (add in another safe adult), and have so much certainty that they can do this, they can borrow what they need and wrap it around themselves again and again and again.

You already do this when they have to do things that don’t want to do, but which you know are important - brushing their teeth, going to the dentist, not eating ice cream for dinner (too often). The key for living bravely is to also recognise that so many of the things that drive anxiety are equally important. 

We also need to ask, as their important adults - ‘Is this scary safe or scary dangerous?’ ‘Do I move them forward into this or protect them from it?’♥️
The need to feel connected to, and seen by our people is instinctive. 

THE FIX: Add in micro-connections to let them feel you seeing them, loving them, connecting with them, enjoying them:

‘I love being your mum.’
‘I love being your dad.’
‘I missed you today.’
‘I can’t wait to hang out with you at bedtime 
and read a story together.’

Or smiling at them, playing with them, 
sharing something funny, noticing something about them, ‘remembering when...’ with them.

And our adult loves need the same, as we need the same from them.♥️
Our kids need the same thing we do: to feel safe and loved through all feelings not just the convenient ones.

Gosh it’s hard though. I’ve never lost my (thinking) mind as much at anyone as I have with the people I love most in this world.

We’re human, not bricks, and even though we’re parents we still feel it big sometimes. Sometimes these feelings make it hard for us to be the people we want to be for our loves.

That’s the truth of it, and that’s the duality of being a parent. We love and we fury. We want to connect and we want to pull away. We hold it all together and sometimes we can’t.

None of this is about perfection. It’s about being human, and the best humans feel, argue, fight, reconnect, own our ‘stuff’. We keep working on growing and being more of our everythingness, just in kinder ways.

If we get it wrong, which we will, that’s okay. What’s important is the repair - as soon as we can and not selling it as their fault. Our reaction is our responsibility, not theirs. This might sound like, ‘I’m really sorry I yelled. You didn’t deserve that. I really want to hear what you have to say. Can we try again?’

Of course, none of this means ‘no boundaries’. What it means is adding warmth to the boundary. One without the other will feel unsafe - for them, us, and others.

This means making sure that we’ve claimed responsibility- the ability to respond to what’s happening. It doesn’t mean blame. It means recognising that when a young person is feeling big, they don’t have the resources to lead out of the turmoil, so we have to lead them out - not push them out.

Rather than focusing on what we want them to do, shift the focus to what we can do to bring felt safety and calm back into the space.

THEN when they’re calm talk about what’s happened, the repair, and what to do next time.

Discipline means ‘to teach’, not to punish. They will learn best when they are connected to you. Maybe there is a need for consequences, but these must be about repair and restoration. Punishment is pointless, harmful, and outdated.

Hold the boundary, add warmth. Don’t ask them to do WHEN they can’t do. Wait until they can hear you and work on what’s needed. There’s no hurry.♥️
Recently I chatted with @rebeccasparrow72 , host of ABC Listen’s brilliant podcast, ‘Parental as Anything: Teens’. I loved this chat. Bec asked all the questions that let us crack the topic right open. Our conversation was in response to a listener’s question, that I expect will be familiar to many parents in many homes. Have a listen here:
https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/parental-as-anything-with-maggie-dent/how-can-i-help-my-anxious-teen/104035562
School refusal is escalating. Something that’s troubling me is the use of the word ‘school can’t’ when talking about kids.

Stay with me.

First, let’s be clear: school refusal isn’t about won’t. It’s about can’t. Not truly can’t but felt can’t. It’s about anxiety making school feel so unsafe for a child, avoidance feels like the only option.

Here’s the problem. Language is powerful, and when we put ‘can’t’ onto a child, it tells a deficiency story about the child.

But school refusal isn’t about the child.
It’s about the environment not feeling safe enough right now, or separation from a parent not feeling safe enough right now. The ‘can’t’ isn’t about the child. It’s about an environment that can’t support the need for felt safety - yet.

This can happen in even the most loving, supportive schools. All schools are full of anxiety triggers. They need to be because anything new, hard, brave, growthful will always come with potential threats - maybe failure, judgement, shame. Even if these are so unlikely, the brain won’t care. All it will read is ‘danger’.

Of course sometimes school actually isn’t safe. Maybe peer relationships are tricky. Maybe teachers are shouty and still using outdated ways to manage behaviour. Maybe sensory needs aren’t met.

Most of the time though it’s not actual threat but ’felt threat’.

The deficiency isn’t with the child. It’s with the environment. The question isn’t how do we get rid of their anxiety. It’s how do we make the environment feel safe enough so they can feel supported enough to handle the discomfort of their anxiety.

We can throw all the resources we want at the child, but:

- if the parent doesn’t believe the child is safe enough, cared for enough, capable enough; or

- if school can’t provide enough felt safety for the child (sensory accommodations, safe peer relationships, at least one predictable adult the child feels safe with and cared for by),

that child will not feel safe enough.

To help kids feel safe and happy at school, we have to recognise that it’s the environment that needs changing, not the child. This doesn’t mean the environment is wrong. It’s about making it feel more right for this child.♥️

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