Teenagers!! What you need to know (And what you need to know if you were ever once a teen)

The children now love luxury
They have bad manners, contempt for authority.
They show disrespect for elders, and
They love chatter in the place of exercise!

Sound familiar?

Would you be surprised if I told you that quote was written by Socrates over 2000 years ago?

Needless to say, what you are experiencing with your teen is nothing new. If you have a teenager, you probably have been met with disrespect, talking back, risky behaviour, defiance, apparent laziness…

And the list goes on, right?!

So what can you do about this?

Let’s start with a few informative facts about teens.
(Adapted from Sarah-Jayne Blakemore)

  1. The teenage brain begins a remodeling process from about the age of 12.
  2. Through the restructuring process, the teenage brain is emotionally raw, driven to make decisions based on emotion over rational thought (your teens brain is much like that of a 2 year old’s).
  3. Your teens ability to cognitively reason (to think through something before making a decision) will be significantly compromised for years to come.
  4. The primary purpose of your teenager is to discover who they are including a drive for sensation seeking, looking for novelty, and taking risks.
  5. School for your teen is not about learning reading, writing, and arithmetic. School is about learning how to fit in to the social structure of society.
  6. The teenage brain is sensation seeking, looking for novelty and taking risks, for the purpose of becoming an independent adult.

To clarify, let me start with the last point first. When you think “risks” your mind possibly wanders to the worst case scenarios. Ie. Sex, drugs, alcohol, potential for physical danger.

We do that! We go to the worst case scenario because we want to anticipate and protect ourselves from pain. But risk here just means expansion. Your teen is on a trajectory to becoming an independent adult. They are designed to try on new things to
become a grown up.

Think back to when your child was 5 years old and was playing house or digging in some dirt with a Tonka excavator. That was more than just play. They were acting out behaviours they had witnessed in adults, all for the purpose of trying on different ways of being an adult.

Only now, the kitchenettes and Tonka trucks are less “cute” as your teen experiments with more, shall we say, “hands on” adult behaviours! 😉

It’s hard. Raising a teenager is really, really hard.

Impromptu Parenting Phone Call

Believe it or not, while writing this, I decided to pick up a phone call coming in from New York. I rarely answer my phone as it is often best for me to respond to a voicemail. But for some reason, I took this call.

Turns out it was a consultant from an investment firm enticing me to sign up with his company to make some quick cash. Little did he know that I am a salesperson’s nightmare!

I swim in the sea of understanding the human psyche. I could hear him go through the flow chart of what to say depending on how I responded to his questions!

He proceeded to use all his tactics and his finest covert persuasiveness, even though I had at least 3 times shared that I am not interested. I finally told him that I work in the field of psychology, and the tone of the conversation changed.

He launched into a request of how to reconnect with his 18 year-old, who had gotten into drugs and was now living outside of the home (possibly on the street).

Here is how the conversation unfolded.

I shared with the father that the first step in reconnecting with his son was to check in
with himself first. He needed to make sure that he can handle the emotions that come up for him, especially in regards to his son.

This brave man then shared the following.

I believe my son’s behaviour changed when his mother cheated on me. I was angry, and I took my anger out on him. I took the approach my father took, telling my son that he needed to ‘man up’, to ‘grow some balls’. But that didn’t work for him.

It apparently didn’t work for the dad either, as he claimed to be the offspring of “unsympathetic parents”.

There are so many topics in here that could be discussed. But lets keep it simple.

If you are under stress, your teen will feel it. If you struggle to manage your stress, chances are, some of that will be projected onto your teen. This often comes across as feeling disappointed/angry/unhappy with their choices (ie. doing their chores, school work expectations, curfews). 

So, you decide to have a talk with your teen (which they hear as an insensitive lecture). 

And they either appear to not be listening, or they talk back. Which is actually not talking back but speaking up. They are trying to have a conversation with you, which usually includes the message that you need to check-in with yourself or take responsibility for how you’re acting. 

Unfortunately, most parents hear it as attitude. Because, it’s basically the worst parts of you talking right back atcha! You know, like looking in a mirror. 

Yikes!! 

That doesn’t feel good. But instead of owning it, instead of really hearing what is going on inside of you, and how that affects your child, you make them the perpetrator. 

(Ever wonder why your teen won’t talk to you!?) 

Because this feels so awful, you try to control and manage your teens behaviour. And the more you do that, the more they push back (because they are programmed to become more independent every day). 

The more they push back, the more out of control you feel (because you are trying to get a grasp on your own emotion by controlling them, instead of checking in with yourself, AND listening to them) and the more you get angry at them. 

And the cycle continues. 

For the greatest success in raising your teen, you have to be able to manage how you feel inside. You can not let your anger, disappointment, or stress transfer in their direction. 

Naturally, the reason you want to convey how you feel is the hope that they will take ownership of how you feel and subsequently, change their behaviour. 

It’s not gonna happen! 

And that is where your frustration lies. So, the first hurdle is to get over that realization, that they are not going to change what they are doing because of how you feel. 

Because pleasing you is nowhere on their radar. 

They are not programmed to please you.

They are programmed to fit in.

It’s all about survival. 

Pleasing you is not a motivator for their action! 

But upsetting you will make them feel even more of a failure, reinforcing all those negative feelings of shame, self-doubt, and hatred, which they will want to get away from. As far away as possible!!! and right into the arms of people that make them feel accepted and wanted. And all that takes is engaging in the behaviours of the ‘group’. 

Feeling exhausted yet?!?! 

What To Do?

In order to play chess, you have to know the moves of all the pieces. Here are some of the moves when raising your teen. 

1. Manage your emotions and don’t put them on your teen. 

Telling your teen that you are angry/sad/scared is telling your teen that you do not like the way that you are feeling, and that you want your teen to fix it. This won’t work. In fact, it will only make matters worse. 

2. Own your…”crap”. Take ownership for your own behaviour. We, as parents, 

ALWAYS! mess up. We don’t like to admit it. Even worse, we really like to make it look like it was the teens fault. Make them own up, right!? 

When you have had a rough day and your extra cranky, demanding, standoffish,…own it! 

I have countless examples from teens that I can share to shed light on this subject. To maintain confidentiality, I will use one of my own. 

I had worked all day and came home to a countertop full of dishes. My son had not done his job. I opened the door to his room and started my lecture. He put his hand up in the air like a stop sign and said, “Mom, I’m happy to have this conversation with you, but with you using a different tone!” (I significantly shortened that story as this blog could go on forever!) 

Did I get upset? 

No! Because he was right. I had modeled that we don’t talk with emotion, anger, hurt, sadness. Instead, we check-in with ourself and then express what is going on for us, without blasting the emotion onto another person. 

When you model behaviour, and then take ownership when you fall short, it is a powerful tool for connection between you and your child. They actually start to see you as a kind of hero!! 

Why? 

Because you were able to do something that they are desperately struggling with. You showed them that you can be responsible for how you feel. And that how you feel is a part of you but does not have to dictate what you do. This creates a sense of safety that your teen CRAVES. 

This is the gold. This is what makes you great. 

There is nothing more powerful than our adolescent to conjure up incredibly uncomfortable emotion inside of us. If your child is engaged in behaviours that are concerning you, your best bet to help them is to first, get ahold of your own emotions. 

It is not their job to make your uncomfortable feelings go away or to make you feel better. They are dealing with their own harrowing emotions on a daily basis. The adolescent brain is the epicentre of anxiety, fear, concern, worry, every single second of the day. For ALL of them!! They have enough going on and need your support by way of you managing your own emotions. 

That is your job. And in doing your job, you help them grow in resilience. You help them want to be closer to you because you are strong. 

This is how they develop the ability to say ‘No’ in the situations where they might otherwise say ‘Yes’. You know, those situations that cause you sleepless nights? 

Telling them what you don’t want them to do won’t work. Telling them that you know they will make their own decisions and that there is nothing you can do about it is a good place to start. Letting them know that they will make choices that you won’t be happy with but you will still be there to love and support them is a start. 

Don’t worry, that is not an invitation for your child to do all those things that scare you. It’s reverse psychology. You are communicating that they have a choice, that you’re not going to choose it for them. 

This kick-starts their brain into being responsible for their own decisions. And the brain really doesn’t like to mess-up. When it’s you telling them, you take away their own system of growing responsibility, shifting the decision to a place of establishing independence by saying, ‘No! I won’t do what you tell me to do.” 

So take away that power. Stop telling them what to do!!! 

Most importantly, be their strong-hold. Get your anger/frustration/disappointment in them under wraps. Even when they do something that will drive you crazy. Because then, you are displaying one of the things that our developmental system, and your teen, craves the most, which is maturation. 

And the tell-tale sign of maturation is that your emotion does not dictate your decisions (protecting you from poor decision making). 

The hardest part is, it all starts with you! 

Post a comment below if you have a teen that you have struggled with and what you did to get through the hard times. 

The Royal Institution (YouTube, August 22, 2018). The Neuroscience of the Teenage Brain – with Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.

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