In the name of full transparency, I need to let you know that I have yet to parent a teen. However, I've earned my credibility on the front lines:
My Masters Thesis explored therapy with teens and how to work with their “resistance”. (Coles notes version: teens won’t engage in new behaviors just because we want them to. It’s our job as the adult – therapist or parent – to understand where teens are coming from FIRST and then help them understand the benefit of a different way of relating)
I’ve been providing therapy to teens for two decades and I genuinely love their angst and anguish trying to figure the world out and where they fit in. I remember my own thoughts and feelings as a teenager in vivid technicolor.
My 12.5y old has perfected the sigh, the eye roll, and is a solid two inches taller than me so I’m getting a feel for having a teen right in my own home.
There are discipline programs for unruly dogs where you drop off beloved Rex for a few weeks at a trainer’s who will whip them into shape (not literally with a whip). After the successful reform program, the trainer teaches you how to maintain the gains and you have a lovely, well behaved, furry family member. I often sense that some parents would like me to offer the same service, but for their teenagers. Leave them with me for six weeks, I’ll teach them to be a respectful, responsible member of society and hand them back to you. To be clear: I do not offer any such service.
I have a way to conceptualize teenage behavior that may help reconnect you to feelings of empathy and patience. Your teen is actually an overgrown toddler - the similarities are striking. Just like in this scene from Father of the Bride where Steve Martin’s character sees his adult daughter as a four year old. Imagine your child as they used to be, all chubby, wide-eyed toddler adorableness and remember when you did when they had a mid-afternoon meltdown. As Mammas, we get good at thinking though our checklist – are they hungry? Did they sleep? Have they burned off energy at the park? Did they have some quiet time? We do the exact same thing with babies – Are they wet? Do they need a diaper change? Gassy? Hungry? Tired?
For teens, our checklist is a little more extensive, but it’s always good to begin with the basics. Time for a quick psychology lesson or refresher. In 1943, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper where he outlined a Theory of Human Motivation. He argued that until our basic physical needs were met (food, water, sleep), we wouldn’t be able to move up the ladder to more sophisticated needs (safety, security, friendship). When we’re scanning through the list of what our kids need, we’re actually working our way up Maslow’s theory to see where they’ve become derailed. Scan through their physical needs and address those first. Next we move on to other areas; how is school going? Friends? Self-image? Once you can identify which area (or areas) your teen is struggling with, you can help them through it.
Or try to help them through it. This is where it gets more sticky and turbulent than with your cherubic toddler. You may try to help and they’ll figuratively (or literally) slam the door in your face. Repeatedly. Even worse – you may feel yourself slipping down into the muck, donning your own boxing gloves, and entering the ring to square off.
Don’t do it.
A friend of mine with two kids now in university offered a warning years ago, “Just wait until your kids are teens, they’ll tell you everything that’s wrong with you”. It’s true; teens are masters at pushing our buttons. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently. Take a breath. Label the behavior and walk away to cool off. Look at your own needs in the moment. None of us are at our best when we’re tired, hungry, stressed from a long day. Meeting a tantruming teen with your own tantrum, screaming, or sarcasm won’t fix the situation or help your teen learn to manage. Toddlers are social creatures, they want to connect, and cuddle and feel important. They can’t always identify and articulate what they’re feeling. Ditto for teens. When they’re feeling insecure and confused, they can’t identify or articulate their emotions. Teens also want to connect and feeling important, but they’re too big and too cool to crawl into your lap and let you soothe them.
Before pulling out your hair or making empty threats, find your patience. If you’re going to successfully guide your teen through these young adult years, you will need to summon the most mature version of yourself. Be the adult. Do your research. For a great list of books and resources that will help you understand what’s going on in your teen’s brain, take a look at my Pinterest board on parenting teens. Try, try, and try again to connect with them. Go heavy on the praise, and crystal clear on boundaries. If you want to have a better, more respectful relationship with your teen, it needs to start with you. Help them to feel connected, respected, and understood. Put in the effort now, and you’ll both reap the rewards later.