Talk to almost anyone about teenagers, and you’re likely to get an eye-roll. Teenage angst is a joke, something to be laughed at. But parents would do better if they looked at teenage angst as a sign of pain, especially if your teen has an eating disorder.
Parenting teenagers isn’t easy. But adolescence is a critical time during which teens can adopt maladaptive coping behaviors that can stay with them for life. Teenage angst can be an early sign of disorders and addictions, and early intervention can really help.
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It seems like nobody likes teenagers
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, they still need our unconditional love. The ultimate parenting challenge is to love your child through their teenage angst.
What is teenage angst?
Teenage angst can take several different forms. Some common ones include:
Mood swings are a normal part of life for people of all ages, but they are more extreme in adolescence. These ups and downs are a natural part of growth and development.
Many teens are oriented towards their peers rather than their parents. This means that they seek peer approval, not that of their parents, which means it is harder for parents to influence teens.
Dangerous behaviors including self-harm, substance abuse, eating disorders, and suicidality can all show up in teens. Dangerous behaviors are often linked to the teenage belief that they will live forever or, alternatively, that their life doesn’t mean much. They can also be a cry for help, a way to seek attention and care.
Anxiety and depression
Teenage angst can also be a sign of the most common and very serious mental health disorders: anxiety and depression. Both anxiety and depression are on the rise in our society. Anxiety and depression can negatively impact a teenager’s 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 and substance abuse.
Don’t ignore teenage angst
Some parents find that adolescence the most difficult parenting stage. They decide that the best way to handle it is to ignore teenage angst. But ignoring your teenager’s withdrawal, 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 need our attention. As they explore the world, they need to feel safe at home. They will not say this to us directly. Instead they will act it out with behavior.
Pay attention to your teen and watch for problematic behaviors. Early intervention can help your child get back on track. It can also save your relationship with your child and make parenting easier.
Don’t reject your teen
It is very common for our kids to criticize our clothes, homes, cars, voices, and the 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 their acceptance.
Parental rejection is devastating for a child of any age. And even things like making jokes about your teen’s behavior, rolling your eyes when you talk about your teenager, or dismissing your teen as overly dramatic can feel like rejection.
Set boundaries with your teen
Some teenage angst is not dangerous or worrisome. It’s just annoying. Teenagers are designed to push against boundaries. 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.
Helping your teen grow
Our job as parents is to help our kids grow, and that doesn’t end when they hit puberty. The human brain isn’t fully formed until the mid- to late-twenties. And no human ever stops needing their parents’ approval and love. If you’re frustrated by teenage angst, it’s completely normal. But it’s also really important that you find a way to relate to your child so you can help them through this difficult transition in life. This is especially important if your teenager has an eating disorder. Your guidance and support through recovery will make all the difference.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate their kid’s eating disorder recovery.
Ginny has been researching, writing about, and supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.
Ginny’s most recent project is Recovery, a newsletter for deeply-feeling people in recovery from diet culture, negative body image, and eating disorders.
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