Why is raising a teenager so difficult? Well, there are some things we've learned through family therapy throughout the years.
The adolescent years have a reputation for being stressful on parents. You may feel like you don’t know your kid anymore, or there is so much tension, you don’t know how to go about fixing it. There are good reasons for this!
Developmentally, the teen years are a time when kids pull away from their parents in order to create their own identity (hopefully a mature, adult-like identity). This 'pulling away' is emotionally difficult for parents, because we spend so many years attached to our children. We hope to protect them and remain close as they grow into adulthood.
This process is important and necessary for adolescents to grow into fully functioning adults.
Cognitively, in humans, there are significant changes that happen in the brain during the teenage years. These changes continue until people are in their mid-20s. It is not just “hormones” or impulsivity (although those play a small role). The brain actually goes through a process of deep structural change. There are many reasons for this, but these changes prepare adolescents to eventually leave home. Add to all this the external factors and pressures teens deal with at school, with peers, online, and from other sources, and it creates a complex picture. Between the developmental ‘pulling away’ and the cognitive and social factors affecting teens, it creates a perfect storm leading to troubled relationships with parents and family. (See this short video by renowned neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel for details on understanding the teenage brain.)
What’s a parent to do?
Here are some go-to tips for handling the teenage years successfully:
1. See Teenagers as People - This is true for children of any age, but it’s especially important during teenage years. Your adolescent is a unique person with their own personality, interests, and opinions. That’s a good thing! In the end, we want our kids to grow up and have strong self-worth and confidence, not just be a clone of us or other adults. Their opinions or interests may not always make sense to you, but they are learning and growing to figure out who they are. They have a right to be their own person.
2. Listen Well - It’s hard to listen sometimes, especially when we see how things could be different, better, or easier for our teens. Listening well takes practice, because it's a skill that involves empathy. As a therapist, I listen empathetically to people all day long, but I still struggle at times to really listen to my own family! When we find the energy and patience to listen to our teens and empathize with them, our relationships improve drastically. Teens feel heard and understood. They begin to trust us more, have increased self-worth and self-confidence, and sometimes even listen to what we have to say! Teenagers rarely listen to adults, unless the adult is willing to listen to them. Even if it’s hard and you’d prefer to do the talking, or you think that what they’re saying is ridiculous, begin by trying to hear what they have to say. Pause and listen first.
3. Be Honest - Lying to a teenager is the best way to drive them away. Don’t lie, ‘stretch the truth’, or conceal information they should know. Teens have radar for adults who try to bulls**t them. And, when you break trust with a teenager, it takes a long time to rebuild it. If it’s your own teen, you need them to trust you, or they simply won’t respect you anymore. They’re watching to see if you’re a hypocrite, if you’re trustworthy, and if you have your own integrity. Then, they respond to you accordingly. At this stage of the game, you can’t get away with “because I’m the parent” as a reason for them to listen and behave how you’d like. You’re now teaching them how to function as an adult in the world, which includes watching others’ behavior and responding accordingly. They deserve your honesty, integrity, and valid reasoning.
4. Give Them Boundaries - As our children grow into adolescents and adults, we teach them how to be adults, giving them more freedom with age and responsibility. Yet, teenagers still need boundaries. It helps them feel loved, feel safe, and make better decisions (even if they disagree with all of those reasons.) They are not yet capable of making fully adult decisions, and they need boundaries to help provide guidance of what is acceptable and what is not. Examples of appropriate boundaries with teenagers include implementing curfews, limiting ’screen time’, encouraging accountability with responsibilities (school work, household chores, jobs, etc.), and assisting in positive decision-making about friends and activities. These boundaries look different for each teen, based on their individual level of maturity and self-control, but clear and stable boundaries are essential for all teenagers.
5. Help Launch and Let Go - Remember, your job as a parent is to eventually launch your adolescent into the world as a fully functional adult. The older they get, the more skills and knowledge they need to have. Having regular conversations with your teenager about becoming an adult can be helpful. It’s okay to explain to them how and why the decisions you make will help them grow into a better adult.
6. Hang in There - Don’t underestimate what a challenge it is to parent a child into adulthood! Remember that at any age, your child will still need you. Even as adults, it can often be helpful to call mom or dad and ask for advice. What will change is how you relate to one another, and how they need you. Each stage of life changes this, and we need to roll with the changes. Hang in there, and remember, this too will pass.
7. Get help if you need it - Parenting a teenager is hard! Please excuse the tired cliche, but relationships with teenagers really do feel like a roller coaster ride with ups, downs, and lots of unexpected turns. Sometimes, it feels like it’s more than we can handle and this is the time we need to reach out to others. It can be helpful to find a friend, a family member, or a professional to help sort things out. Reach out if you need a few tips, or a little time to work directly on improving communication and connectedness with your teen. A little family therapy goes a long way! (Check out this article for more on improving your relationship.)
I’m here if you want to talk. Take care!