Embrace Your Crazy Teenager

This Was Me

Middle school and early high school stand out in my mind as one of the most difficult times in my life. I had no idea what a challenging time it was for my parents as well! I have been curious as an adult, about what was going on in my brain that made me a different person for those four years of my life.  Fortunately, now we know that brain development and re-wiring, particularly in the pre-frontal cortex, goes through a turbulent growth spurt that coincides with the onset of adolescence.

Just Do It!

For many, adolescence is a time for risk taking, social reward seeking, and novelty seeking (Yeager, Fong, Lee, & Espelage, 2015). It is also a time of expanding processing and decision-making skills, creativity, exploration, and optimism about one’s role in the world. In adults, the pre-frontal cortex can process or moderate reactions or impulses of the limbic system.  In teens, thought and reactions can outrace judgement. The drive for immediate reward can lead to risk-taking and poor judgement.  My strange and erratic behavior during that part of my life now makes sense.

“Crazy”? “Normal”?

For parents, knowing this we realize that crazy behavior might be “normal” during adolescence, but it doesn’t help in establishing a sense of safety.  There is also the problem that, developmentally, teens are seeking individuation and separation from their parents. As Michael Bradley said, “loss of privacy and autonomy for an adolescent can feel so bad that death can look good by comparison” (Bradley, 2003).  The teen’s need for autonomy, coupled with an inherent mistrust of adults, makes parenting challenging. This puts the period of Covid lock-down in perspective. 

And Then We Were Home

I cannot imagine being forced to stay in the house with them for months on end. Teenage is a critical period when separation from my parents was of primary importance. During Covid, the natural and appropriate sense of control and power as an adolescent was taken away. A parent might think that having a teen constantly under their roof might be a protection from the dangers of the world.  Instead, it just gives them more time on the internet, and less ability to work through problems in the physical world. No matter the circumstances, we cannot keep the madness of the world today out of our teenagers’ lives. The best we can do is help them become strong, confident, and resilient. The only way is to allow them to experience the world and make mistakes. In this way our teens learn the natural and logical consequences of their own behavior in a supportive environment.

What’s a parent to do?

Embrace your teen’s changing brain with dispassionate calm and curiosity.  In Imago therapy, we call this “crossing the bridge”. We cannot expect our teens to see the world as a rational adult. We do our best to not react to irrational behavior. Anger, judgement, and punishment are not helpful. Try compassion and curiosity.

Listen. This means saying as little as possible. Set your own thoughts and feelings aside. Let them talk as much as possible, even when they’re shouting. The more you talk, the less they listen! If they finally are opening up about their feelings, listen more.  This should be a priority, no matter how inconvenient it might be at the moment. Listen, mirror what you hear, and guess at their feelings. Doing this helps a maturing teen get a grasp of their own emotions and feel safe expressing them.

Let go of your pride, and illusion of control. Grumpiness and rebellion from your teen are to be expected.  Your kids are not your employees, and you cannot demand or expect immediate compliance.  Be humble and apologize whenever you have the opportunity.

Honor your child’s identity.  Your teen needs to experiment in a safe, supportive environment.  It’s a tricky balance, and I know you want to protect your child, but if you just clamp down, they will become more oppositional. Identity experimentation and formation is a crucial step toward maturity, and it looks different for everyone.

Problem solve and create mutual agreements. Collaborate with your teen on responsibilities, limits, and agreements.  It is essential to have their buy-in, and it won’t be completely on your terms. It helps to remember that they will soon be out of the house, so the goal is for them to develop self-control, and not dependency.

Model your values.  Children learn to navigate the world and their emotions by watching us. In the end, your offspring’s values, morals, and ethics come more from you than anyone else. 

It takes a village

Talk to other parents, teachers, and professionals. It’s okay to question what may be normal and what is not. It’s not easy sometimes to distinguish whether acting-out behaviors, moodiness and anxiety is that of typical adolescence or something more serious.  As a parent, anxiety can cloud perspective, and talking to a therapist helps make sense of what feels scary.

Contact Tory Joseph