There’s something you need to know about adolescents that will change your relationship with them. It’s no secret that the changes they go through are phenomenal. If you live with one, you’ll probably be familiar with the tears, the fighting, the yelling and the angst – yours and theirs. You might also have felt the distance, so vast some days a small planet could get lost in the space between you, no problem at all. Then there are the times they are completely wonderful – hilarious, affectionate, creative, protective. The ups can be amazing, the downs can be awful and the way they get from one to the other so quickly some days can be mindblowing.
For a long time, we put the baffling behaviour of adolescence down to a fierce surging of hormones. Though hormones play a role, the main thing driving their behaviour is the massive brain changes they’re going through. The things that can send us, and them, into a tailspin are actually a really normal, healthy part of adolescence and an important part of the adventure they’re on to figure out who they are and where they fit in to the world.
The more you can see things through their eyes, the more what they do will make sense, and the stronger your relationship will be at the end of it.
What Your Teens Need You to Know
We don’t want to disconnect from you.
The emotional centres of our brains are on fire. Our highs are brilliant, our lows are excruciating, and we can flip between the two without warning. Sometimes you’ll get caught in the crossfire. Our fight or flight response can be triggered really easily and when this happens, we might yell, shout, swear, say awful things (fight) or shut down to you (flee). We don’t like how this feels and we don’t want to disconnect from you, even thought that’s the vibe we might send out. You matter to us. What you think and the way you see us is really important. There are so many reasons we do the crazy stuff we do, but wanting to disconnect from you is never one of them.
When you push against us, you make it easy for us to pull away.
You won’t agree with all of our decisions but we won’t always agree with yours either. When you push against us without taking the time to understand, you push us away from you and towards our friends. They make being with them easy because they understand everything about us. Absolutely everything.
If you have to say ‘no’, let us know that you get it.
We’re pretty sure that when you say no to something it’s because you don’t understand why it’s so important to us. Of course you’ll need to say no sometimes, but if you do, let us know that you understand the importance of whatever it is we’re asking for. It will make your ‘no’ much easier to accept. We need to know that you get it. Listen to what we have to say and ask questions to understand, not to prove us wrong. We’re not trying to control you or manipulate you. Some things might not seem important to you but if we’re asking, they’re really important to us.
No more ‘I told you so’s.’
We’re going to make mistakes – no doubt about it. It’s how we learn and grow and if you shame us for the fall, you keep us from the lessons. Saying ‘I told you so’ might make you feel clever but it will make us feel like rubbish. Yes, you did tell us so, and yes, we should have listened but we didn’t. We can’t turn back time and we can’t disappear the bruises that came with whatever stupid decision we made, but we can learn from it. Help us with that by making it safe enough to own what we’ve done and figure out what it means. Listen to us, let us know that it’s okay, and help us uncover the lesson. That’s what makes you different to everyone else in our lives – your patience, your energy, your support and your wisdom. There are things we learn from the fall that we wouldn’t have learned otherwise. It’s our job to try lots of things, fail some things and figure it out along the way. It’s how we get ready for life. If it wasn’t meant to be that way, adolescence would have come with more arrows and less blind bends.
We don’t have it figured out yet, but that will come.
Be patient. We don’t know what we want to do or who we want to be. That feels really bad sometimes. Just keep reminding us that it’s okay that we don’t have it all figured out yet, and maybe remind yourself sometimes too.
We aren’t you.
There will be things you were great at that we suck at and will always suck at. But then there will be things that take us to full flight. We might have found our thing or it might still be coming, but we all have the makings of something great in us. Don’t stop us from trying out new things, even if they seem silly or useless. We’re looking for the thing that lights us up and it might come from somewhere unexpected. Great things often do. Be patient and let us surprise you.
We’re starting to think differently. Sometimes that means ‘different to you’.
The part of our brain that thinks about things creatively is sparking like never before. We’re thinking about the world in different ways and experimenting with who we are and where we fit in. As a healthy, normal part of that, we’ll question the status quo and we’ll question you. Don’t shut us down, even if you disagree. The only way we’ll listen to your point of view is if you respect ours. That might feel unfair, because we won’t always respect yours. Remind us that you want to hear what we have to say but that we need to be respectful while we say it. We can tend to forget that sometimes. It’s just that what we have to say is really important and we’re worried you won’t get it.
If you want us to act like adults, remember not to treat us like kids.
We’re experimenting with being adults. It’s important for us and it’s important for you so don’t treat us like kids. We’re stuck in this in between space and it’s really confusing some days. We’re starting to have the responsibilities of adults, but with limits of children. Start trusting us with more freedom, more space, and more room to make our mistakes. Sometimes we’ll disappoint you and sometimes we’ll surprise you. We’re letting go of the rail, and we’re going to wobble a bit before we stand tall.
We need to find out who we are without you. Don’t take it personally.
You might wonder why things are a bit distant between us. Sometimes we feel it too. We love you as much as ever but we’re experimenting with needing you less. Needing you less doesn’t mean loving you less. If we’re ever going to stand in the world as independent adults, learning how to do that needs to start now. We’re trying to find out who we are and where we fit in to the world and that’s something we need to do on our own. It might feel like we’re pushing you away, and I suppose we kind of are, but it’s only temporary. When we figure it out, we’ll be back. Don’t worry if it takes a while.
We still want you there – you’re important – but it kind of has to be on our terms for a while.
When the world gets tough, nobody can make things feels safer or better the way you can, but if we have more bad conversations than good ones it makes it really hard for us to draw on that when we need it. We’ll take in more of your wisdom when you’re loving us than when you’re lecturing, criticising or judging us. It probably feels like it’s all on our terms, and for a while it will be. We need you there when we need you but we also need to be able to stand without you. We don’t know what that looks like and sometimes we’ll go too far. We don’t mean to hurt you or make you feel as though you don’t matter. You do. You really do. Sometimes this adolescence thing feels bad for us too.
We will live up to your expectations or down to them.
The greatest reason we have to do the right thing is to preserve our relationship with you. We want to keep your respect, your trust and the connection we have with you. When it’s not there we have nothing to lose, and that’s not good for anyone. It means everything to know that you believe in us.
Our friends are everything. But moving towards them doesn’t mean we’re rejecting you.
We need comfort, visibility and security. We’ve always needed it and we’ll need it for the rest of our lives. It’s a human thing, not an adolescent thing. It’s why we humans love groups – it’s how we feel safest and strongest and it’s been that way for thousands of years. Up to now, our group – our tribe – has been with you, our family, but it’s not good for us or you if we stay dependant. We’re experimenting with other groups who can meet our needs when we step into the world as adults. These groups are our friends and if we’re disconnected from them, it feels like death. This isn’t dramatic, it’s evolution. We’re wired to be in packs. There would have been a time when humans who were disconnected from a pack would have died. That’s why we hassle you when it comes to being with our friends. They’re our tribe and we feel disconnected from them if we’re not a part of what they’re doing. We need to feel close to them – it’s how we feel strong, safe and secure. It’s normal and it’s healthy. Being part of a group is what has kept humans alive all this time. These friendships are that important. We need to know you understand that. That doesn’t mean you have to let us do everything we want with them, but understand why we might unravel when you get between us.
If you don’t approve, don’t keep bringing it up.
The more you try to pull us away from our friends, the more you’ll push us towards them. Nobody wants to be criticized and if you criticize our friendship choices, we’ll work really hard to prove that you’re wrong. We’ll focus on the good in them and the bad in you and that will bring a distance between us. Don’t be critical. Don’t be judgemental. Don’t give us ultimatums. You might not like them but they’re our tribe and they’re important to us – so important that we would sacrifice membership of our family tribe for membership of theirs if you make it hard for us to be in both. That means we might lie to be with them, lie about seeing them or ignore any rules or boundaries you try to put up. We don’t want to, but if we’re backed into a corner, it will feel like the only choice we have. If you don’t like our friends talk to us about it, but don’t keep talking about it. The truth is that you have no control over what we do unless we decide to listen to you. If you want influence, you have to be someone we respect and trust, and someone we don’t feel judged by. Give us the space and support to figure it out for ourselves and make it easy for us to acknowledge that we might have made a mistake.
It will go wrong sometimes. Be the one we can come to.
Sometimes in a group we might lead each other astray. Be the one that we can come to – without judgement, preaching or heavy direction – when those groups don’t feel good to be in.
Social media is really important. Don’t take it away.
A lot of adults say that we’ve lost the ability to connect because of social media. The truth is that we still connect, we just do it differently to you. We always know what’s happening and who is in trouble. We can be there for each other whenever one of us needs it. Yes there’s a dark side, but when the light shines heavily on one side of something there’s always going to be a dark side. Talk to us about the risks but don’t assume we’re all falling into the hole. We have to learn to navigate this because it’s not going anywhere.
We need information, not rules.
Nobody ever got into trouble because they had too much information. Talking to us about things like sex, drugs and drinking won’t make us go out there and try it. We already know more about most things than you think we do. Talk to us about the risks, and trust that we will use the information well.
Understand why we need to try new things.
We crave the high that comes from trying out new things. It means we’ll engage with the world in really great ways, but it can also mean that we take risks. There’s a good reason for this and it’s to do with the dopamine in our brains. Dopamine is what makes us feel alive and it’s released when we try new or unfamiliar things. We all have it and we’re all driven to get more of it. This is a good thing. It’s what makes us explore the world and experiment with our place in it, otherwise we’d be living with you forever – we wouldn’t experiment with other relationships, jobs or activities. We wouldn’t contribute to the world and we wouldn’t explore it. Our dopamine levels are lower than yours, which is why we might seem bored sometimes. When we do things that are new or exciting (or risky – it can be a fine line), its release is higher that it is in you. As well as this, the part of our brain that thinks about consequences and helps make good decisions isn’t fully online yet. See the problem? We’re looking for the ‘high’ that comes with trying new things but new things can also be risky things and we don’t have all the stop signs in place yet. Support us in finding ways to get the ‘high’ that won’t get us dead, injured or in jail. Sport, new activities or hobbies or anything that pushes us against the edges of ourselves might do it.
We’re as smart as we’ve ever been, but sometimes our decisions won’t be.
In our brains, the part that decides whether something is a good idea or a bad one is changing. During adolescence, our brain will start to focus on the potential positives of a decision and weigh them more heavily than the negatives. This is why we’ll do risky things sometimes. We’ll really push against the edges of ourselves. Sometimes we’ll reach full flight, and sometimes we’ll fall out of the sky with a thud. Talk to us about the risks, but don’t lecture us. You’ll want to, but you’ll lose us if you do. Let it be easy for us to come to you, and when we do something stupid, listen to us, but don’t preach to us. There’s probably nothing at the point that you can say that we wouldn’t have figured out on the fall back to earth. We need to feel as though we’re still okay. Disapprove of the stupid things we do, but know that it’s when we’ve done those stupid things that we need to hear more than ever the reasons you think we’re great.
Let us know we can come to you with anything, but understand if we don’t come to you for very much at all.
We’re trying to find our own way. We love you, and we know you have wisdom that would really help us along but this growing up thing is something we have to do a lot of on our own. Be there when we need you, but understand that there will be a lot we’ll want to figure out without you.
We don’t sleep in because we’re lazy.
Our body clock is different to yours. We’re least awake in the morning and we come alive in the afternoon. It’s why we’re often up late and in the mornings seem to be in energy saving mode.
We love you. We seriously love you. We don’t always show it, and sometimes it will feel like we’re pushing you away. The distance isn’t because you don’t matter anymore, it’s because we need to know who we are without you. Adolescence is complicated and there will be plenty of bumps along the way. Probably some yelling, tears and feisty words too. Know that it’s all part of what we have to do to get to where we’re going, and know how much we want you there when we find our way through.
This article is fantastic. I have a 12 year old beautiful boy, my only child, and we are just heading into these waters! I suffer with anxiety and am trying so hard to keep a lid on that while trying to navigate these tricky times. It really helps to see it from their point of view. I’m finding it so hard to “let go” already, still feels like my baby but I know I don’t have a choice. Not looking forward to this ride but i know in the end it’ll all be ok. He’s a good boy and I’m so proud of him 🙂 not used to the mood swings and upset and I’m pre
tty rubbish at handling it, I always feel like I need to fix things because I hurt so bad when he’s feeling upset. I know i need to let him feel these human emotions and how to deal with them. Thanks for a great read!
I have 2 teen boys and twin boys about to be teens. I forwarded this to my friend with 4 teenagers…including triplets. The hard part is the “I told you so” part.
Well… It feels like if you were hidden somewhere in our house looking at us and taking notes of what we need to know from each other. Me, my 16 years old boy and my 11 years old girl are learning how to survive this process of “love them when they deserve it the less and need it the most”…Now we need a “10 things you need to know from your parents if you are a teeneger “..
Thank you so much for your article…
You’re so welcome Aida. It’s good to know the adolescent adventure has similar threads for all of us!
I love this. So much out there for parents with babies and toddlers…but not so much for this age, which is so crucially important. More like this would be great.
So pleased you liked the article! Plenty more about teens on this link https://www.heysigmund.com/category/with-kids/adolescents/. You’re so right – understanding what they’re going through at this age can make such a difference.
Wow great article and insight. Just entering this with an 11 y/o boy. Not aweful, but starting the changes. I’m curious, with you tube, the internet and friends with less electronic restrictions; advice for navigating when your son has been exposed to sex videos and now we have the hormones of adolescence and the much more aggressive nature of girls than there was in our day. If we shouldn’t take away social media for the connections and the brain wants to see more, and they are trying to be independent and act out, what’s the best way to keep them safe and the girls too? Scary Waters for this mama.
Lora I know how scary this can be. Conversation is key. Talk to your son about what it means and looks like to respect women. Let him know that the videos aren’t the way the real world works. If he has been exposed to sex videos, I’m assuming he has had the sex talk. If he hasn’t, it would be important so that he can understand that there is a difference between the type of sex he sees in videos and the way he would be expected to treat girls. At this stage, you’ll need to be pretty black and white about things. Put strict boundaries around your son’s internet use. Let him know what’s okay and what’s not. Talk to him regularly about respecting girls and what this means. It might be easier to talk about this sort of thing while you are doing something else and perhaps ‘sideways’ to your son, such as while you are driving in the car or going for a walk together. The main thing is to build up a clear idea for your son about respecting and relating to girls and separating this out from what he may have been exposed to by watching the sex videos.
Thank you so much. Reading this article felt like having the conversation that I so desperately want to have with my teenage daughter but of course, can’t. Thanks for letting me have via Hey, Sigmind. Now I understand so much better.
You’re welcome Amanda. If can be a tricky conversation to have. I’m pleased this has helped.
Thank you, just thank you.
Came across this article at hopefully the right time.
I’m at a loss of where to go next with my teen.
Although a great girl deep down, she is driving me to breaking point with her hatefulness, meanness and general distaste and disregard for the rest of her family.
You’re so welcome. Adolescence can be a crazy time for everyone can’t it. I completely understand where you’re coming from. The push away that comes from them feels awful, but try not to take it personally. I know how hard that is – I’ve been through it myself. Just keep reminding yourself that she’s finding her way through to adulthood and that this is all part of it. It’s a really normal part of adolescence, but it would be so much easier if they could find a nicer way to do it! Keep loving her and doing whatever you can to stay connected to her and remind her gently that you’re open to whatever she has to say as long as she says it respectfully. You sound as though you’re really open to her and able to see through her behaviour to the great girl she is – that’s exactly what she needs from you.
LOVE this! Thank you for writing this piece from our teens perspective. I often think about how we are encouraged to bond and attach to our children from the moment they are born. Then all to soon, we are asked to start letting go. Any tips on the letting go process? It’s painful & yet at the same time there is comfort in that this is the way it’s supposed to be. Thank you for writing, again.
You’re so right! We bond, we attach and then we have to let go. I’m going through the letting go process myself so I really understand about the ups and downs that come with that. I’m constantly reminding myself that it’s okay, that it’s growth and flourishing – a beginning for them and a new way of being with them, not the end. We spent a long time settling in to the old normal and growing with them as little people, so it will take time to adjust to the new normal with them as adults. We all get there though. Follow their lead and open up to what comes next.
Once again you have written something I can completely relate to and gain insight from! The Loving Someone with Depression piece was also ‘spot -on ‘ . Thank you so much.
You’re so welcome Trisha. I’m so pleased they’ve helped to make sense of things.
A beautifully crafted snapshot into the mind of an adolescent. Thank you for helping to bring many of these relatively new understandings of the adolescent development into the mainstream.
Thank so much Jac.
This should be a weekly read for me as I am currently mothering several teens all at once. Great reminders for me when my emotional brain is lit up rather than the more rational, thoughtful piece. Thanks for the well written, spot on article!
You’re so welcome. Gosh what a ride you’ll have over the next little while. With several teens at once you’ll have different things coming from different directions! I hope this helps to steady the ground for you when you need it.
Adolescent till 24? Absolutely agree! My son is just 24 and has literally just ‘grown up’ and become the wonderful person I always knew he’d be but which I seemed to lose sight of in his latter teen years. Everything you said makes perfect sense – just wish I’d known all this years ago! Would have saved a lot of stress! 🙂
I know – 24! It must be a great feeling when you’ve entered adolescence with a child, to come through the other side with an adult whose spirit, self and relationship with you is strong and intact. I love hearing these stories.
Wow,this made so much sense to me,very helpful for 2 teen girls(17 &13) and boy to come(age 5!) thanks for reminding me that they’re doing what science says they’re meant to and how we can work’with’ that not ‘against’ it.
You’re very welcome. I love it when science makes sense of things – I’m so pleased you’ll be able to use the information!
Tears are running down my face as I read this – someone gets it and has the skill to craft it so beautifully.
My gorgeous, non-compliant 19 yr old, who only just survived his HSC year, is just back from his gap year in Europe. Though no longer an adolescent so many of these wise words ring true still. It’s tough letting them go – physically and emotionally – but has to be done for both them and us.
Thanks so much for your very wise counsel. Looking forward to the young adult sequel.
Thank you for your beautiful words. What a lot of people don’t realise is that adolescence lasts until about age 24, so their brain changes steer them (and us, the adults in their lives who love them!) for a while. Your son has a few more years to go, so don’t worry if things still feel unsettled for a while. It’s really tough letting them go – I really get it, it’s something I’m wrestling with myself. You sound as though you are doing this with great love and strength. You are giving him a wonderful thing.
This article is very clear and helpful. I will be using it in my work and personal life! Thanks so much!
You’re so welcome Megan. I’m really pleased it’s helpful for you.
Brilliant article. So reassuring to be reminded of the reasons behind the behaviours! Now I am going to get my husband to read this …..
Thank you. I know what you mean – the science is reassuring isn’t it. I have two teens myself and it’s comforting to know that they’re just doing what teenagers are meant to do.
“Needing you less doesn’t mean loving you less.” – this to me is the rudder will help me help my kids navigate the rough waters of their teen years. – thank you for this gift.
You’re very welcome. It has become my mantra too.
brought tears to my eyes..so very true and profound
Maybe should be follow up by a carer/parent speaking to a teenager
Thank you. We are parenting different teens – all amazing and unique in their own way – but there are so many things about adolescence that are a shared experience for all of us. (And yes, the things we would like them to know. That’s the next one that needs to be written.)