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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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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