Adolescence is upon us. I’m officially the mother of a teenager. Everyone says it, but when you’re a brand new mother with a newborn, you can’t possibly imagine that it really will fly by so fast. “The days are long but the years are short,” they say.
They are right.
I never thought I’d be excited about my children reaching the teen years, but I really am. I have truly loved every stage of development, from infancy to toddlerhood, into the “school years” where our conversations have gotten so deep and so fun. Each stage brings its own challenges and its own rewards. I expect the teen years to be the same way.
I have some friends who feel similarly, and others who are terrified of having teenagers. Often, adults are not shy about sharing their opinions on teenagers and most of the time the opinions are not positive. I find this to be such a missed opportunity.
Adolescence is a huge period of brain growth in human development. Teenagers are capable of so much creative thought. With our support, they can do amazing things and come up with incredible ideas.
It’s also a period of hormone shifts that can wreak havoc on their once-sweet personalities. Their bodies are changing and they often don’t handle their new feelings well. They may lash out, speak rudely, slam doors, etc. I believe the way we respond to these difficult behaviors will have a huge impact on the way these years feel both for our teens, and for us as well.
In his book Brainstorm, Dr. Dan Siegel explains that the adolescent brain experiences more intense emotion than the brains of either younger children or adults. This is part of the changes happening that will prepare the adolescent to be ready to separate from the family and leave home. These changes can cause them to have major mood swings – literally “evoking motion” – and it’s completely normal but if we don’t understand what’s going on, it’s easy to get offended or frustrated as a parent. Even just our facial expressions are received much more intensely during this time – a neutral facial expression may be received as negative and evoke a sharp negative response. It’s fascinating.
It started happening!
When my son was approaching 12, I started to notice mood swings and volatile emotions. I realized that his behavior was pushing some buttons in me, reminding me of when I was his age. This hadn’t happened to me in quite a while, but since I was familiar with the feeling from the past, it wasn’t hard to identify. I took some time to think about what I needed when I was his age. How could I respond in a way that would help him to feel understood, validated, and normal, while also reminding him that being respectful and at least making an effort to be considerate of others is appreciated?
In addition to our talks about the physical changes he would soon be experiencing in his body, I gave explanations about what was happening in his brain. I shared with him that it’s such an exciting time, but also about how the changing hormones can have crazy effects, but it doesn’t mean he’s going crazy and he can’t even really control it. It was important to me that he understood that I know he isn’t doing this on purpose.
Actionable Tools We Can Use
I also wanted to come up with some tools we could use to help facilitate more harmony as we move through these years together. I’ve asked him to try to communicate with me when he needs something, starting out with, “I need” and verbalizing it if possible. I also frequently ask the question, “What do you need right now?” and it seems to remind him that I’m here for him, I just need to know what it is that he needs. I promised that I would try really hard not to get offended if he snapped at me. Above all, I reminded him that we’re on the same team here. Sharing that my feelings about his behaviors are about me – not personal, not about him – has opened up so much room for understanding and connection.
I want to look back on these years – these 18 short years – and know that, while I may not have cherished every moment along the way, I really didn’t wish away the time or opt out of opportunities for connection. I want my son to know that even when I get frustrated, I still like him.
While parenting adolescents is obviously much different from parenting toddlers, there are also many of the same principles that hold true. Pause before acting. Take a breath before responding.
Some of the questions I asked myself then, that I still ask, are:
- Is this about me, or is this about him? Who owns this problem?
- How can I choose connection in this moment?
- What did I need when I was his age? How would I have wanted my mom to respond to me?
- Is there a physical need I can help meet right now? (Teenagers get hungry early and often, much like newborns and toddlers!)
- Is this a battle worth fighting?
- After emotions take over, how can we reconnect?
- How can I encourage him to make it right when he’s made a mistake?
Despite having done “this” for 13 years and finding myself in Unconscious Competence the majority of the time, things still happen. I make mistakes. Feelings get hurt – his and mine. I run out of space and don’t always respond the way I like to. There are opportunities to repair and reconnect, and those moments are often so precious.
The relationship is most important
Keeping in mind that the relationship is what matters most, more than any behavior intervention, consequence, or punishment (Consciously Parenting Principle #2) is still important with adolescents – maybe even more important. I’ve been building this relationship for 13 years, and I can truly see the benefits of having focused on the relationship early so that we can continue building it now and moving forward.
Even though my kids are no longer toddlers, and a lot of tools from my parenting toolbox have been retired, so many are still around, and the reality is that they aren’t just for parenting. This is how I have learned to respond to conflicts and issues with other adults, too, including my husband. After all, with a long-term view of parenting, I’m trying to raise good people here, not just obedient children. Keeping the long-term view is just as important when parenting adolescents as it is when they are toddlers.