Talk to almost anyone about teenagers, and you’re likely to get an eye-roll. The common rant about adolescents is that they are selfish, annoying, and dangerous. Many parents who have adult children talk about their kids’ teenage years with jokes about how difficult it was to have teenagers in the house. Most parents who have young children hear horror stories about how their sweet little angels will turn into monsters when they enter adolescence.
In our society, it is common to use the word “teenagers” as an insult, and very few people question this assumption. Many parents talk about just holding on and “getting through” their kids’ adolescence. They roll their eyes and make jokes about their kids’ emotional outbursts, moodiness, and general behavior.
As parents, we must ask why we criticize our teenagers for the very behaviors that they must practice in order to become fully-formed adults. Our teenagers are desperately trying to identify who they are separate from their parents, which leads to sometimes difficult behavior, but they are not diabolical monsters. Adolescence is a time during which our kids find out who they are while still in the safety of our homes. Their behavior is biologically driven. It is not a conscious attempt to annoy us. Our teens are not trying to drive us crazy – they are trying to grow up.
As our teens battle hormones, emotions, and a strong drive to rebel, we can welcome their growing selves even as we keep them safe and loved in our care. Here are three tips to handling teenagers.
1. Don’t ignore
Some parents find that adolescence is too difficult, and conclude that the best way to handle it is to ignore the difficult behavior that comes during these years. Ignoring a teenager’s rudeness, risk-taking and moodiness can lead to dangerous consequences.
The fact is that even as our teens act like they don’t want us in their lives, they desperately want our attention. As they explore the world, they want to feel safe at home. No, they will not say this to us directly, but as parents we must believe that it’s true.
It is common for teens to make “cries for help” if their parents are ignoring them during this time. These cries may include eating disorders, self harm, suicidality, substance abuse and risky sexual behavior. Cries for help quickly become serious and chronic if not attended to.
Adolescence is also a time when anxiety disorders and depression can negatively impact natural development. Anxiety and depression can be managed, but the sooner they are addressed, the better for your child’s long-term prognosis. Both anxiety and depression are frequent precursors to many other mental disorders, including eating disorders, substance abuse and other maladaptive coping behaviors.
Pay attention to your teen and watch for problematic behaviors – the sooner you catch one, the better your child’s chances of emerging from adolescence without major scars.
2. Don’t reject
One of the hallmarks of being a teenager is rejecting your parents. It is very common for our kids to begin criticizing our clothes, homes, cars, voices, and entire state of being during adolescence. Many parents take this criticism personally, and feel rejected by their kids. When we take our teenagers’ rejection to heart, we may feel compelled to reject them in return.
Teenagers have a way of pushing all of our buttons. All of the soft spots we have left over from our own adolescence can come to the surface and cause us to revert to our immature selves. As a result, many parents reject their teenagers at a time when their teens desperately need them.
Rejection doesn’t always look straight forward. It may include making jokes about your teen’s behavior, rolling your eyes when you talk about your teenager, or dismissing your teen as overly dramatic.
These are defense mechanisms that you’re using to cope with your teen’s behavior, but they are very damaging to your relationship with your teen. Get some help so that you can learn to stay in your adult, parent role rather than slip into a defensive role that takes your teen’s behavior personally and strikes back in pain and anger.
3. Do set boundaries
Teenagers are designed to push against boundaries. They are learning new ways of being and it is entirely healthy for them to test rules and expectations. The safest place for them to explore their power is within the home. This is why so many parents of adolescents become exasperated. It can feel as if every single request we make becomes a battle. Even simple, seemingly reasonable requests can become a debate with a teenager.
The first thing to know is that we mustn’t take these battles personally. Our teenagers are practicing their adult skills. It is natural and normal to test out what we can get away with. But no matter how difficult it is, we must still maintain our boundaries. Even as a teen rants about curfew, we must hold firm and state our boundary explicitly and without wavering.
Think ahead ten years – our teens will be in the workplace, and they need to understand that not all rules are flexible. This can be exhausting and requires a high level of resilience and commitment on our part.
The best way to handle boundaries is to repeat the same non-negotiable statement, no matter what your teen says or does to try and change your mind. For example, “I expect you home tonight at 10.” Your teen may yell at you, tell you that other people don’t have to be home until midnight, beg you to reconsider, etc. Stand firm on your boundary as you originally set it. “That may be so, but I expect you home tonight at 10.”
Perhaps you will consider changing the boundary during a calm conversation at another time, but you should not change the boundary on the fly just because your teen is throwing a tantrum.
Of course there are times that you realize your boundary isn’t that important. It’s OK to have some flexibility, but make sure you keep some firm boundaries about which you will not debate, and try to avoid debating in the heat of the battle. State your boundary and stick to it. If it needs to be changed in the future, have a reasonable discussion the following day when everyone is calmer.