Lately I have had an influx of teenage clients, and I have heard some common themes that I will not forget as my kids grow toward those often difficult years. So here is my top 5 things teens want their parents to know
1. They desperately want closeness with you
even though they behave otherwise.
Every single teenage client I have spoken with in the past few months has expressed the exact same thing. It is the idea that even though they continue to push their parents away with their words, their tone, and their attitude, they do not want their parents to give up! This makes no sense from an adult perspective, and the truth is we all somewhat forget what those years in puberty really feel like. However, each of my clients has said that they wish that their parents would just keep trying to connect; trying to be there. When our kids are in the terrible twos and they are behaving badly, we don’t ever withdraw from them, but that is exactly what we so often do to teenagers. We think they should know better, and so their bad behavior feels more personal. It hurts more. I’m not saying this teenage “attitude” is right and that we should just ignore it, but if you had a good foundation of a relationship with that kid, and he woke up one day and you didn’t even recognize him, then it is not about you. It is about the difficult transition through these teenage years that include not just chemical and hormonal changes, but also a huge developmental shift toward adulthood. It is scary, and overwhelming. It makes them a little crazy. So don’t withdraw. Call out the bad behavior/attitudes when needed, but stay engaged, stay close. It is what they truly want.
2. Do not tell them they are overreacting
when they are in the middle of overreacting.
I see and hear parents doing this all the time. Let’s face it, the teenage (and pre-teen years) are FULL of overreacting. Seriously the number of times that a teenage client is melting down in my office about something that I think is just so stupid would astound you. Or if you have a teenager at home, it probably won’t. Here’s the thing – and please please hear this – WE ALL OVERREACT!! It maybe isn’t about the same things that feel so trivial to us as adults because our problems tend to only grown in severity as we age, but we still do it. I can probably even bet you that in the last month you have thrown at least one “temper tantrum” at your spouse that he or she didn’t deserve, or you did it to your kids because it’s summer break and they are driving you crazy, or you did it in your head when you boss did something that you thought was totally stupid. Now let me ask you this: when you are overreacting to something you spouse did, do you ever respond well when they point it out in the moment? NO!!! I don’t know anyone who is in the middle of a meltdown who responds well to being told to calm down, but that is what we do to our teens all the time. They are flipping out over something that we think is so inconsequential, and instead of showing them compassion, we tell them that they have no idea what real stress/real problems look like. When you belittle someone’s feelings the most likely outcome is a fueling of those feelings.
There is a time and place to point out the overreaction, in fact I do it in my office with those clients all the time, but only – ONLY – after they know that I have truly listened, validated their feelings, and empathized with them. Because showing compassion in that way is like removing oxygen from the fire – it starts to fade, and once the overreaction is done, you have earned the right to gently tell them that they just might be overreacting.
3. Sometimes they are not overreacting.
Ha! I just spent quite a few sentences preparing you to deal with their overreactions, but here is the thing: it seems like overreacting to us, because the truth is that for most people, their adult problems vastly outweigh teenage problems in their severity and level of stress. But this is important to remember – THEY ARE NOT ADULTS! Their problems are big to them! They are still kids in so many ways, and although they are flirting with adulthood, they are not there yet. So their problems are big to them, and that is not wrong. At least once in almost every session with a teenage client, I have to stop and purposefully to try bring back memories from my teenage years when I sobbed on my bed over a boy, or friend, or not making the volleyball team. Where whether or not someone talked to me in the hall felt like life or death. Those memories are there, and although the feelings can be difficult to connect with now, I have just enough of them to help me shut my mouth those times when I want to roll my eyes and say, “Really!? You think that’s a problem?! Let me tell you about adulthood!!”
So in number two I told you to show compassion before telling them their overreacting. I’m going to tweak that a little bit now. Don’t tell them their overreacting ever, but instead bring perspective. Not adult perspective that tells them their feelings are wrong, but adult perspective that tells them they won’t always feel this way. That their feelings won’t always feel so out of control, and life won’t feel so black, and white, or life, and death. That these teenage years will not last forever!
4. They really are a little crazy.
Now this is not something that I have learned from my teenage clients, but it is something I teach them. We are learning so much about the brain right now, and there is still so much that we don’t understand. I feel like it is pretty common knowledge that our frontal lobes don’t fully develop until we are in our twenties (mid-twenties for most boys). Now the problem is that our frontal lobes are the part of our brain where reason resides. This is the part of our brain where we are able to think through the consequences of our actions, recognize danger, and make rational decisions. So you can see why this part of our brain is important! Recently I learned that it is not simply a linear development. Toddlers and preschoolers have very low functioning frontal lobes. It is why they throw the kinds of tantrums that they do. It is hard for them to reason out solutions to things. They are all emotion all the time. Research is now showing that the frontal lobe has a little bit of a hay day in mid to late elementary school ages. That is why kids become a little less crazy, and a little more fun as they go through elementary school. They still do dumb things, but they are a little more thoughtful about their behavior. Now here’s the bad news – once puberty hits and all those hormones start rushing through the body the frontal lobe goes “dark” for a little bit. It stops working as effectively until you get into those twenties again. Can you see the problem with this?? Basically it is like your teenager becomes a toddler on hormones. I can’t think of a worse possible combination. Oh you’ll see glimpses of the old Johnny in there, but they might be fleeting, and they might make the rough moments even harder to take. The expert that I heard this from at a training said, “It is literally like they go insane for a few years.” (If you have a teen at home, you are probably vigorously nodding right about now.) So it is miserable to live with, but it is also not super fun to experience. Remember you don’t fully remember what it feels like, so try to have compassion. This is also a supporting reason for why your teen needs you to help set boundaries for them. They are not going to make the best choices of their life during this developmental stage, and the stakes are high. This is the time they are most likely to first be introduced to things that can alter their future adulthood forever – pornography, drugs, alcohol, sex. They might not love you for those boundaries now, but they may just thank you for them later.
5. Getting some outside help can be a good thing.
I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I am very helpful to the teenage clients that I see. Why is that? Because I AM NOT THEIR PARENT, but I am a mature adult. So I’m not going to give them bad advice, which their friends may inadvertently do because they are also crazy, but I’m also not going to overreact. I don’t have the same kind of skin in the game that their parents do, so when they tell me how they are truly feeling, or what they are truly doing, I don’t freak out. Their parents do. I would too if they were my kid!! So if your teen is struggling, and you just can’t seem to get through to them, finding them a mature adult, whether that person is a therapist or not, to talk to will be so helpful! I take my role in the lives of these kids very seriously, and I weigh my words carefully each time I speak to them. I will always listen with an open heart, but will also point them in the direction of better health, and greater maturity. I will always commiserate with them over the way their parent handled a situation, but will also help them see the perspective of that parent. I can provide a balance that is often too hard to achieve when you love that kid with your whole heart.
Now handing your teen over to someone else for counsel is a decision to be made wisely. The parents of my teens are often nervous about what we are talking about in there, and I would be too! So interviewing that person beforehand, and sharing your fears, and hopes with them will help you know if they are someone who is going to point your child down a path you can agree with.
So there you have it! My list to parents of teenagers now, and future teenagers. Those years are coming, and they can feel like a battle. It is so important to note that these teens I’m working with right now are having real issues, and real pain, but they come from fairly intact families. None of them have experienced significant abuse from the people who were supposed to love and protect them the most. They are pretty representative of teens who have had a fairly healthy foundation, of teens whose parents have at least been trying their best as they grew even though they made some big mistakes sometimes. These rules are a foundation, but they don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes there has been so much pain, neglect, or dysfunction that these rules aren’t enough. If you didn’t have a solid relationship with your kids in those pre-puberty years then enacting some of these things might not be enough. In fact, you may not even be capable of doing it. Some families are also dealing with real mental illnesses, or addictions that are ripping their families apart, listening better is just not going to be enough. Please know that my heart hurts for what you are going through, and in those cases especially you need help not just for you child, but also for you. For mental illness issues NAMI can be a great resource, and if you live in the Phoenix area I would recommend a PALS group to help support you through addiction issues with your child.
No parent should walk these teenage years alone, whether the issues you are dealing with are “typical” teenage drama, or something more serious. Find other parents to walk this road with you. Other parents you can get advice from, cry to, pray with, and maybe most importantly vent to!! You’re going to need it! 🙂