“What do I do? I don’t know what to do with him anymore!” This is one of the many scenarios of a frantic parent knocking on the therapist’s door. Teenage years are tough, let’s not kid ourselves. We have been there, we remember.
In my practice I’ve consulted numerous parents on teens’ presenting problems such as: indifference, apathy, resistance, verbal/physical aggressiveness, destructive behavior, mood swings and a complete emotional shutdown expressed by their teenage sons and daughters.
“Where did my child go?” I would hear the parent ask during our consultations. “He was happy, balanced, easy going, comfortable in his skin, fast on his feet and easy to talk to!” This kind of pleading is a frequent case in the relationship frame “parent-teenager”.
What are some of the most common parental expectations from their teenage sons/daughters? Being respectful, responsible, independent, a good student, loyal friend and a loving child to his parents. What do many parents see in return when their children enter puberty? They see resistance, non-conformity, demand for absolute autonomy and freedom of self-expression, moodiness, agitation, indifference (i.e, “I don’t care” or “whatever”) and sometimes, aggressiveness (verbal or physical).
What are some of the worst parental fears in dealing with their teenage offsprings? Some of them are: depressed or anxious mood, aggression towards others, self-mutilating behavior (self cutting), constant lying, shoplifting, drug/alcohol addiction and promiscuity. My feeling and professional experience show that none is protected from some of these scary issues! Teenage years and puberty are under a higher risk of developing some of these symptoms due to the hormonal chaos that originates in the young body, complete lack of understanding and ill preparedness to battle these symptoms and, of course, lack of needed understanding and empathetic presence coming from us, parents. In such delicate, hypersensitive, tumultuous age it is very easy for a young person to get lost in his own thoughts, internal processes, chaotic, confusing feelings, urges, developing passions, denial of the values and standards they once held dear.
Can we, as parents, help our teens figure things out and bring about greater balance into their exhausted/overworked minds? We absolutely can and should, but in doing so we must tread very carefully and lightly as to not shake or destroy their new developing world, their new emerging sides of personality, their search for a real identity. Teens are always thinking and deciding between right and wrong actions, lies and honesty, responding to sexual urges or remaining pure, pushing the limits in relationships with people whom they hold very dear. We absolutely can assist them and ease this transition into adulthood they’re trying to overcome but, if we push too hard or impose our decisions and actions on them too much, we are bound to meet the raging, non-complying, unhappy person in our teenager.
We do have a choice, but we just need to choose wisely. We can make a very good friend in our maturing child, who will be willing to have open communication lines with us or we can inherit a repressed, angry or depressed teen, who rarely shares his experiences with us, is embarrassed of us and would rather spend most of his time outside of his home. We need to choose carefully! The choices we make with our children at this sensitive age can show its reflection many years later, when they reach adulthood and find themselves at the crossroads where a particular kind of decision needs to be made. Our choices can also reflect in our grownup child’s own mental processes and decisions with their own kids, in whose presence they will unwittingly imitate the behavior which they observed and absorbed in communication with us (parents).
So, what are some healthy, useful and positive things/techniques we can utilize in relationships with our teens? One of the major therapeutic skills we can utilize is empathy! A little empathy goes a long way. Providing more empathy and reflective listening to our children can show many advantages in the quality of the relationship and communication style we can build with them.
Listen first, try to imagine yourself in their shoes, try to feel what it must feel like for them to be in a certain situation that they are describing or struggling with. Next, think how this situation would make you feel, process what you’re going to say — do not rush with impulsive reactions/thoughts. Then, respond in a kind, understanding way, showing your caring and concerned attitude. A good example would be: “I can imagine how difficult that must have been for you” or “That seems like a tough nut to crack, I bet that makes you upset, let’s talk some more about it” or “I’m trying to understand how that makes you feel, please know I’m here for you if you need me”.
Many teenagers need space and time to think and process. We need to give them this space because it allows them to grow emotionally and mentally when they have freedom to process their thoughts and emotions. Do not pry but listen instead if they come to you with their problems. By listening first we encourage our children to open up to us voluntarily and freely. We reserve the right for them to start the conversation, give them more freedom to self-express.
We, as parents, do not want to clip their wings, but we want to encourage them to spread them. Let us try to make small compromises with them on a continuous basis. This will give our teens a feeling that the ball is in their court, which in turn can give their self esteem a boost, decrease the rejection, resistance and rebellion they may be feeling towards us (or the world!). This positive parental behavior will further empower our maturing children to exercise more patience, self-regulation and decrease impulsiveness and non-conformity. After all, what is our role in our teens’ life? It is not to oppress them, govern them or make them our possession! Our role is to guide them, teach them, help them set proper goals, encourage them to strive and achieve, and of course, to model the best behavior and life’s lessons, which they can and will learn from us. We teach them to love by expressing our love towards them. We show them how to be patient and loyal by exercising this type of behavior towards them. We are their role models!
Here is to us, parents, for being the most patient and empathetic role models we can be!
Here is to our teens, for working hard on figuring out this complex, ever changing, beautiful, challenging and self-balancing matter called LIFE!