How to Parent a Teenager or Tween
Raising a teenager is inherently crazy-making. If you look at a teenager on some psychological tests, they will actually score as psychotic! A healthy teenager’s emotional intensity and fluctuations actually mirror a crazy person’s. The complete rewiring of the brain that occurs throughout the teenage years leads to a lot of emotional sensitivity and thus very dramatic reactions.
For us as parents, to deal with this is really difficult, but today I want to give you seven things that will support you to be able to make it through these years and maintain your connection. Our kids need us as much as ever when they are teenagers, so it’s really important to not back away and say, “Oh well, they are a teenager now.” The reality is these can be some of the best years of your experience of being a parent.
#1 Be the Swimming Pool
The primary developmental task of a teenager is to develop their own autonomy. This can be really painful as the parent that has held them so consciously for so long. It really helps me to think of myself as a swimming pool for my daughter. Kids want to swim out from the edge of the pool and explore life, but then they get tired or a little scared then they come back to the edge for a break. They come back and hold onto us and get the emotional support that they need.
But then when they go back out into the pool, they have to kick us. They have to kick away from the edge of the pool to get back into life. That kick literally hurts. As a parent of a teenager, we experience that over and over again because our kids are alternating between being a dependent child, and starting to be young adults that don’t need us nearly as much. In order to move back into being an adult, they have to reject childhood and thus us at the same time. This is obviously really difficult to tolerate as the parent.
Far too many of us end up damaging their children’s development at this point. We can hurt our kids if we let our own neediness and desire for contact come into play. If when they are kicking us away, we are subtly guilt tripping them for going away or hurting us, then they can get really messed up in their head. If we can check our own neediness and get our emotional needs met from somewhere else so that we are not pulling on our kids, then our kids will be safe to kick off for us, go off into their life, and come back to us when they need us.
If we don’t let them easily go, then they are also less likely to come back to us for emotional support because they don’t want to feel the bind our neediness. Kids that don’t have parents that allow for this rejection often end up either being pleasers in their future intimate relationships or avoiding relationships altogether in an attempt to not have to compromise themselves. So watch how you might be complaining to your kid about the amount of contact they are having with you or saying how great it used to be when they were young and cute and cuddly. Such statements make our kids want to get further from us and they thus lose the adult emotional support they need at this crucial time.
I learned this really helpful metaphor from Lisa Damour’s great book on raising teenage girls titled Untangled.
#2 Give Them Respect
It is really important as a parent of a teenager to give them respect, or more importantly, notice how we do not. Notice how you treat them still like they are a little kid. Perhaps how you talk down to them, and attempt to control them. Around the age of 11, kids stop accepting the typical unsubstantiated justifications that so many of us use. When they ask why they have to go to bed, it no longer works to simply say, “Because I said so.”
They no longer simply accept our authority. They need a reason behind it, and they should. If we are just perpetuating boundaries and controlling them in a way that does not make sense, then they should be upset with us. No one deserves being arbitrarily controlled and teenagers have less tolerance than even adults for such behavior. They now have the intelligence to counter us, as well as a stronger sense of themselves, so they realize they do not have to just do whatever we tell them.
Notice how you talk to your kid. Notice the tone. Notice the frustration. Notice the arbitrary boundaries. Notice how you are not treating them in a way that you would want to be treated. We think that kids should be controlled, but none of us like to be controlled, and they are even less capable of tolerating it than we are. We, with our more developed nervous systems, can handle our bosses to some extent when they speak down to us, but it’s still really difficult. For kids it is even harder because they are more reactive as a result of the brain rewiring that is happening during those years. They cannot tolerate us speaking to them in rude, disrespectful terms, and therefore they get really upset and this leads to all kinds of fights. If we can respect them as young adults and talk to them in this way, they will feel respected. They will respond back in kind and be more likely to want to be around us.
#3 Check the Rudeness
At the same time, it’s important to expect but not demand respect from them. To be a parent is to be treated rudely by your kids. They’re experimenting with their power and their voice. If we get caught too much in trying to prevent them from being rude at all, we will end up in a struggle with them constantly.
But if we just let it all go, then they learn that it is okay to treat adults and other people disrespectfully. The reality is that they can’t stop themselves from rolling their eyes. The aforementioned emotional reactivity due to the biological transformations they are undergoing makes it really difficult for them to stop themselves from speaking in the harsh ways typical of teenagers. Yes, we can stop it by being an authoritarian parent and inducing a lot of fear and control, but that does not support them to learn how to inhabit themselves as a young adult. And mainly they will find a way to rebel even stronger as protecting their autonomy is incredibly important at this stage of life.
So point out when they are being rude, but don’t be a jerk about it. Check your own reactivity and make a more lighthearted comment like, “Wow, you’re being really impolite right now and I am willing to help you, but only when you are ready to speak nicer to me,” or, “I get that you can’t stop yourself from rolling your eyes, but I just want to point out that it is really hard when I am trying to help you and you are rolling your eyes at me.”
By hearing how their actions impact us negatively without being shamed by us, they come to gain self-awareness and learn to stop them, thus maintaining their autonomy.
#4 From Boundaries to Agreements
Since teenagers no longer just accept our boundaries, it is important to create the boundaries together. When they are younger, we can just dictate the boundaries and they have to deal. As mentioned above, this no longer flies at this age.
Obviously boundaries are still important as they are not mature enough to realize the consequences of their actions and thus still need our guardrails. If you incorporate them into the development of the boundaries and create agreements together, then they will more likely inhabit those agreements and won’t fight with them so much.
These conversations help them to really understand the reasoning behind the agreements and thus be more conscientious of their actions. This type of engagement also gives you a really good thing to work on with your teenager, and they can learn how to negotiate with you. It is great how my daughter, wife and I have a lot of conversations about when she’s allowed to use her iPad and what she is allowed to use it for. She is always wanting more and she is always having to negotiate with us in order to gain those privileges. We create the agreements together through these regular conversations and we write them down in a way that she feels good about.
I cannot tell you how much better this works than just coming in and dictating a boundary that they’ll figure a way to get around. They have got the intelligence now to do loops around you and figure out how to break your boundaries if they don’t actually agree with them.
#5 Remember to Have Fun
If all the points of contact become about nagging our kids to put away their clothes, clean their room, and do their homework, they are not going to want to interact with us. They are going to get more and more rebellious, and more and more irritable with us. It becomes a real fight.
If, on the other hand, we find time to play with them and enjoy them, then there is a way in which they want to come to us and they won’t just go off to their room to hide and be with their friends, because they’ll actually enjoy the connection. Of course it gets harder and harder as they get older to find those points of enjoyable contact, but find them in whatever way you can. Whether it is watching a certain TV show together or dancing or going ice skating. Whatever it is that your kids still really enjoy, make the effort to learn about it and connect with them around it.
They really need us as parents. If we simply let go of them and allow them to primarily have connections with their peers, then they are going to learn social skills from people that are similarly immature. More than anything, they need our connection, our good values and our love as they develop the ability to be an adult.
#6 Get Support
Being a parent of any age kid is hard. Being a parent of a teenager can be crazy making. It really helps to have some support for yourself though this time. There are going to be moments when we are profoundly challenged and question our goodness as a parent. We are likely to hate our kids at times. If we have somebody to go to and express our anger and hurt, then we can come back to our kids with more ease and overt ability to love them.
If, on the other hand, we are just grinding it out on our own, we are far more likely to be naggy and upset with them and have the relationship fall apart. Ideally, this person can be a partner, but sometimes it is better to have a uninvolved friend, particularly if they have a teenager as well and you can get together and discuss the whole difficult experience.
#7 Prepare to be Destroyed
I cannot emphasize enough that our kids need us more than ever when they are teenagers. The idea that they are going off to be adults and we should just step back and give up is a really mistaken and detrimental idea. But it is really difficult to stay in there with all of their aggressive energy and need for autonomy when they know so little about life.
Ideally we will provide them a safe world where they can come to experience the full range of being a human. To develop this maturity, they need to go through the stage of being somewhat cavalier in their actions. As they learn to navigate their emotions and their relationships with others, they will inevitably hurt and even destroy us in moments. By destroy, I mean they will cause us to question our identities and sense of goodness.
These profound moments are crucial to their development. If our reaction to our destruction is to retaliate or retreat, then they come to learn that they need to protect those around them from their inner aggressions and impulses. Of course they do need to ultimately learn appropriate ways to manage their feelings, but such learning is actually facilitated by the experience of knowing that they aren’t going to lose their intimate relationships if they accidentally hurt those around them.
When our reaction to their destruction is to be able to stay with them and give them the love that they need, then they learn that they can live a life with more confidence in the stability of their relationships. As I mentioned above, I am not saying we just take it and don’t tell them how it impacts us, as this is where they learn to treat those around them with care. If we can continue to respond to their mood swings and then return with our attention and care, then they’ll come to trust us and are able to develop more easily into the adult that they are becoming.
Thank you for joining me for another episode of Full Frontal Fatherhood. I would love to hear your thoughts on this difficult subject. Please join the conversation below, and I will see you next time for another episode.