There are many horror stories surrounding raising teenagers based on the challenges that come with this period of growth and development in the life of a child. While it is true that it can be a wild journey filled with many ups and downs, there are also some key things that can help parents understand what’s going on with their teens (mind, body, and behaviors) and how to help them survive and thrive during the minefield of adolescence.
Teens: What Makes Them Tick?
The challenges of being a teen are often entirely, and, quite incorrectly, blamed on those old crazy raging hormones. While this is one piece of the puzzle, the real underlying reason for all the ups and downs of adolescence is that the brain is going through an entire restructuring during this time. The great news is that at the end of all this, your child will have a fully functioning prefrontal cortex allowing them to think more deeply, complexly, and logically. The not so great news is that this process isn’t fully complete until the early 20s.
Being a teen is confusing, exhausting, and often overwhelming. And teens these days are more stressed than ever. It’s easy for adults to discredit such things, thinking, “Well, they don’t have to deal with the real world of full-time jobs, taxes, or raising a family.” While this may be true, it doesn’t change the fact that teens are often under a ton of pressure related to trying to please their parents, making friends, forming their identity, performing at school, balancing extracurriculars, getting first jobs, helping with siblings, learning to drive, applying for college and scholarships, and preparing to launch as young adults. And this is all while their brains and bodies are going haywire on them.
It is very important for teens to have downtime. Unstructured downtime is essential for relaxation and recharging. It is easy for this to get missed with all the responsibilities and planned activities teens have on their plate. Often grades and school performance are stressed as the main priority of teens to the detriment of other valuable and essential needs (including downtime, adequate sleep, social interaction, and family time). This often leads to burnout, increased stress and anxiety, and a loss of motivation (which will not be fixed by increasing pressure or punishing the teen but, rather, will make it worse!)
Teens are straddling a challenging line between being kids and being adults, and it’s particularly important that during this time they have both increased freedoms and responsibilities. Hands-off/under-involved and helicopter parents are both reflections of a lack of balance in this area. The teens I work with most frequently come in with the complaint that they have the responsibilities/expectations of an adult but are still being treated as a child in terms of making their own choices and having their own voice in the family. This leads to a lot of frustration, resentment, and withdrawal. Teens need to have more space, more trust, more room to make mistakes, and more freedom. While your teen may mess up and disappoint you, this is part of the learning process…and they just might surprise you!
Raising Teenagers in Society
Your teen’s friends (and boyfriends/girlfriends) will frequently be viewed and treated as more important than family. This is part of the differentiation process that prepares teens to launch as independent adults. Much of being an adult is being able to navigate and manage social interactions, so building social skills and having time to invest in friendships is in line with things teens are learning in school in terms of preparing them to tackle the adult world successfully.
Fitting in with peers becomes a top priority and can cause a lot of stress for your teen. This can lead to silly and risky decisions, less desire to be seen with parents, and increased emotional distance. Almost all teens are walking around with a fear of not being liked or being judged negatively by their peers and will do almost anything to avoid embarrassment or perceived rejection.
Increased boundary-pushing, arguments, and questioning rules are to be expected. This is teens testing out their wings and preparing to fly from the nest in the future. As a result, adult comments like “because I’m the parent and I say so” will particularly not work. It’s important for teens to feel like you hear them, care about what they have to say, and have valid reasons for your decisions.
Identity formation is a key task of this time of life, so don’t be surprised if your teen regularly experiments with their image (i.e. clothing/makeup/hair color/friend group/interests/belief system/etc). This will eventually settle down.
Sexual activity and experimentation around drugs and alcohol often start during the teen years. This can be connected to peer pressure, impulsivity/risk-taking (due to feelings of invulnerability and a poorly developed logic center in the brain), and struggles with long-term thinking skills around long-term consequences
Sleep patterns change, pushing teens to fall asleep about 3 hours later than they did in the past and to require about 9-10 hours of sleep nightly (to allow for all the major growth and development their brains and bodies are doing during this time). Teens running on low sleep struggle with concentration, learning and retaining information, increased moodiness and irritability, and are more prone to sickness.
Adults and teens interpret emotional expression very differently. Adults use the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that thinks, analyzes, and considers consequences). Teens use the amygdala (the part of the brain that reacts, is emotion-driven, and is impulsive). This leads to a lot of fight or flight reactions whenever faced with something potentially threatening to their sense of self, growing independence, or happiness.
Parents: How Can I Help My Teen?
So…now that you understand the normal developmental process and needs of your teen, what can you do to help them (and yourself) navigate this exciting and challenging time of life?
Avoid being judgmental or critical: this is the quickest way to make your teen shut down and stop coming to you for support, guidance, and help. If they think you will judge them, they will not talk to you. Period. Instead, they will go to their friends, who also don’t have the brain structures necessary to make safe and healthy choices. So no ultimatums, no “I told you so’s,” no “you should know better’s.”
Avoid immediately giving them the answer or telling them what to do (as this often triggers immediate rebellion); instead, listen and give them information without lecturing, help them sort through the situation in a non-biased way, and, if they ask for it, give advice. They will be more invested in a decision if they were part of the process of making it.
Don’t take their need for independence or space personally. It isn’t about you, even if it feels like a rejection in the moment. It’s natural, it’s healthy, and it’s vital to development. The more you fight against this, the more conflict is likely in the relationship. You have to relinquish some control, as hard as this can be.
Rules and expectations need to be clear, straightforward, and consistent. In a time that’s already highly chaotic, it’s infuriating to teens for things to constantly be changing in terms of the target they are trying to hit at home. If they feel you are unfair, vague, or wishy-washy, they will often feel trying is no use and give up.
Let your teen know you are there for them whenever they need you and that you will always love and care for them regardless of any mistakes or poor choices they may make. Teens often worry that parents won’t love them or accept them if they mess up, which leads to hiding things and going to friends rather than parents for help. Remove barriers for them coming to you whenever possible. And be their cheerleader whenever possible!
Focus on the behavior, not the person: Teens need to know you love them even when you disapprove of or are upset by choices they made. And your words really stick, especially the negative ones. Teens frequently bring up incidents from months or years ago where a parent called them “lazy” or “worthless” or “stupid.” If these things do come out of your mouth during a time of anger, don’t forget to apologize! This will make them respect you more, not less, and models the correct way to make amends.
Realize that social media and phones are very important to your teens. Teens communicate in an entirely different way than older generations. Notice I did not say “better” or “worse,” but different. Encouraging them not to use these mediums will just make them think you are old-fashioned and outdated. Instead, focus on teaching safe strategies for navigating these mediums. Another note: Snooping on your teen’s device will be viewed as a privacy violation and will likely lead to them telling you less and being more sneaky as a result. This is definitely a “you’ve won the battle but lost the war” situation.
Set aside special time for you and your teen each week. Even though they are pushing for independence, they still need you and want a connection with you desperately. Go out to coffee, cook together, read and talk about a book, play games, go for a walk, etc. Make it a priority (do not cancel!!!) and allow room for your teen to talk (or not talk) about whatever they’d like.
Model what you want to see from your teens. They are hyper-aware of perceived hypocrisy. If you want your teen to react calmly, engage respectfully, and problem-solve thoughtfully, you have to hold yourself as the adult to that same standard. You lose any credibility with your teen if you tell them to do one thing and the do the opposite.
Let them know that, if they get themselves into a bad situation, you are available to come help them, no questions asked. Teens often know they need help but are afraid to reach out due to fear of consequences, which can lead to staying in unsafe situations.
Help your teen look at the pros and cons of situations when they make a request. Be willing to listen, even if you have a strong opinion on the topic. Frequently some sort of compromise is possible. This will help your teen feel validated and respected, even if ultimately you have to say no. They need to know that you “get” it and them and are open-minded. If you need some extra help, consider counseling for teens.
I want to make sure to credit some articles that I utilized in creating this list: “What Your Teens Need You to Know” and “Phew! It’s Normal: An Age By Age Guide For What to Expect From Kids and Teens-And What They Need From Us.” Both are by psychologist Karen Young and are posted, along with many other awesome articles, on her blog “Hey Sigmund.”