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.

 

10 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!

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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!

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Venetta

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

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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!

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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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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