teen standing with feet

Why is Adolescence so Emotionally Challenging for Parents?

Many parents find the transition to adolescence with their children to be emotionally daunting as their teens begin the process of deindividuation. As children enter the teen years, this is the beginning of establishing their own identities and pulling away from their dependence on parents. This transition can be very difficult for parents as they feel a strong connection with their children. Parents may be wondering who hijacked my child who showed enthusiasm and affection and replaced her with a doppelgänger twin who is more distant, irritable, and doesn't want to be seen with mom or dad in public. Even though a parent’s primary responsibility is to be supportive to their children, parents are human too and this distancing can be painful.

What are Some of the Characteristics of Adolescent Change?

There are many aspects of this journey which become challenging and perplexing for those of you who are parents with teens. Let's acknowledge it, even though you intellectually know the changes were coming, adapting to the shift in the relationship can be very challenging. First, the child who used to hang on your every word now doesn't want to hear what you have to say. The child that wanted to tell you everything now has moved into the "one-word response zone.” “Fine,” “good,” and “no’ become the most often used responses in their lexicon. The child that wanted to spend time with you all the time is now embarrassed by you, your cloths, your mannerisms, and your Facebook posts. In their minds, beginning at 12 years old, your intelligence level as a parent starts to dip from their perspective and reaches its lowest when they are 17 or 18 years old. Fortunately, your IQ will make a rebound in their minds when they're in their 20s. Furthermore, teens can become more resistant to direction. You may offer what you believe is a “helpful” suggestion and get the response, "I know, I can do it myself, I'm not a moron." These changes can, even in well-adjusted children, seem like quite a contrast from their disposition at younger ages.

How do Adolescent Changes Effect Parents?

All parents during their child’s adolescence will become discouraged, frustrated, and may even become depressed at times, especially when the changes are accompanied by academic struggles, deviant behavior, or social-emotional problems. This can be compounded further when there's multiple teens in the home. Other stressors for parents during this stage may be taking care of their aging parents, conflict in their marriages or romantic relationships, or extremely difficult transitions, like divorce. Some may begin to experience anxiety about these situations and their children's future. Others may become depressed because it "all feels so overwhelming." Parent’s need support and helpful strategies during this time.

What are Helpful Strategies for Parents with Adolescents?

I’d like to offer five strategies to assist parents navigating their children's adolescence. First, begin the process of letting go. Imagine their preparation for adulthood as a track meet and you have been carrying the baton for them. Adolescence is the transition of beginning to hand off the baton to your teens in a graduated manner so that they may eventually take it and bound forward into adulthood independently. Parents who try to give their teen the baton too quickly by letting them do just about whatever they want, run into impulse-control problems with their teens. On the contrary, hanging on too long and not allowing them to experiment with managing themselves and making decisions gradually will cripple them and maintain an unhealthy dependence on you which will stifle their launch into adulthood. The handoff needs to be gradual, affording them growing opportunities to experience decision-making and to handle the responsibility that accompanies increased autonomy.

Second, stay in adult-mode with your parenting. As your teenagers seek more independence and test your boundaries and guidelines, it can be tempting out of frustration to relate to them in one of two ways. The first is the “lecturing parent-mode” mode which uses continuous criticism of the teen to get them to change. The second is “child-mode” which consists of regressing to childlike behaviors as a parent, such as having fits or angry outbursts, using sarcasm, and cajoling them into doing what you want. If you treat your adolescent like a child as either a critical parent or an irrational child yourself, they will continue to act like a child. “Adult-mode” consists of calmly and consistently communicating your position and expectations. Psychologically, an adolescent will feel more heard and respected with this approach and will automatically be more prone to emulate the posture that you are modeling for them. This can result in more mutually respectful and productive interactions with your teen.

Third, use a consistent and proven parenting philosophy that you both can agree on as parents, such as the gold standard, "Parenting with Love and Logic" (Fay and Cline). This consists of allowing your adolescent to experience natural consequences for their behaviors while simultaneously demonstrating empathy when they experience the consequences. Doing things for your adolescent that they are capable of doing, like getting them out of bed on time, doing their homework for them, or communicating with other adults on their behalf like teachers, keeps them in a dependent child mode and retards the handoff of the adult baton. Rescuing them from natural consequences also retards their maturity, such as paying their traffic ticket, or minimizing it when they take things that do not belong to them.

Fourth, when they are ready to talk be ready to listen. Unlike early childhood, adolescents may not say much at all about their lives for many days. Then, unexpectedly at some of the most inopportune times, they are ready to talk and will dive right into what's important to them. It is crucial to stop what you're doing, if at all possible, and listen. If they feel listened to without too much interjection or advice, unless asked for, they'll be more likely to seek you out the next time they have need. The opposite is true.  If they receive too much criticism or correction when they are vulnerable, they may determine that you are not a safe person to talk with about things.

Fifth, take care of yourself and your own life. Adolescents pay way more attention to how you live than what you tell them. It is crucial that you, as a parent, have your own interests, hobbies, and an approach to self-care that is viable. If you focus all your attention on your children and tell them positive messages, such as "eat right, work hard, exercise," but you don't model these principles in your own life, your words will ring hollow. Even though most teens won't admit it, they are often watching you to learn how to live and function effectively in life. They are proud of you when you accomplish things, have hobbies, exercise, and take care of yourself. Regardless, do it for yourself.

Lastly, don't be afraid to seek professional help. As a psychologist, I see situations where parents run into difficulties during this adolescent stage and do not seek professional help for various reasons, including fear of stigma. This can result in the family problems compounding. When professional assistance is eventually sought, the situation can be much more daunting to resolve. It’s better to seek the assistance of a psychologist when your teen is a freshman or sophomore when problems arise so that you have time to work on the situation. This can be better than waiting until their senior year when the problems have compounded and they are on the brink of launching. In this era, there is no longer a stigma to seeking therapy or coaching. Most people have a counselor or life coach to assist them to proactively address obstacles in their lives in order to thrive. Preventative mental health care, similar to preventative physical/medical care, can spare us from the additional grief and cost of procrastination. It is better to be proactive rather than reactive in addressing the crucial matter of managing adolescence and launching our teens into adulthood.