Why Nobody Understands Teenagers
Updated: Sep 7, 2021
It's no surprise that raising and caring for a teen is confusing. Along with critical and rapid brain development, the teen stage is a newer phenomena. For most of human history, we were children and then... we were adults. This sudden transformation in a child's personal and communal responsibility was possible because humans lived in cultural enclaves where there were prescribed rituals and traditions to guide coming of age.
Now that we live in the world of social media and digital technology, the way we define community has expanded. Though there are people groups who continue to facilitate coming of age rituals, many of us living in the U.S. are far removed from this practice. Sure, we have grade school promotions and high school graduations, but the focus is on an intellectual and economic change - which is very different from what occurs in relationships and families when a child becomes an adolescent.
"It's like being an adult in child's body. Or maybe like being a child in an adult body. Actually it's both." Once a teen said these words to me, it really clicked. Families who previously lived in a curious state of relational bliss would turn to me doe-eyed and wonder aloud "What the heck is going on?" No matter the temperament of your child growing up, shy, outspoken, passionate, easygoing, the teen years brings every parent to an unforeseen halt.
And by that time, you've probably given up on the parenting books and the blogs. What could anyone say to make sense of why your child, who you knew the ins and outs of, is a stranger. So many parents ask me, "what do I say?"
How do I let them know I'm worried without pushing them away?
How do I let them know I can trust them if we communicate openly?
And in what world did the question "How are you?" become so polarizing?
I really love supporting teens for this very reason. It takes creative communication and fearlessness when it comes to saying the right or wrong thing. In fact, black & white thinking tends to be the common misstep I see parents slip into, because teens are not either/or thinkers by design. They focus on what's true for them emotionally and logically right now. That means anything goes.
So this is why we're so confused. It's like your child is wearing an invisibility cloak, overwhelmed by emotions that change by the minute and their actions follow suit. Their emotional reality is what's most important and this is because their prefrontal cortex is still developing.
Teens are the bridges between childhood and adulthood, and can teach us adults valuable lessons about relationships and communication, if we let them. Once our adult brains are developed, it can be difficult to access empathy for such immediacy-driven behavior and yet it's helpful for us to look back and remember that we also learned primarily through risk-taking and experimentation as mini adults.
The next time your teen says or does something that totally baffles you, try these.
Looking back, what did you learn? Would you have done anything differently?
This question helps your teen reflect on their actions without dismissing their attempt to solve the situation on their own. This is a great question to ask instead of "What were you thinking?" They weren't thinking. That's how the teen brain works. But they can learn something from what happened and try another solution in the future.
I'm wondering if you're feeling ______ in this moment. What decision will you probably make based off of what you feel right now?
Using key phrases like right now or in this moment tells your teen that you're more interested in how they process before they act than the behavior itself. Think of it like a "teach how to fish" instead of giving a fish type of lesson. If you can support them identifying feelings that influence decisions, then your teen will gradually understand that they don't need to follow all of their impulses.
This is essentially asking "What are you really going to do?" and teens typically answer honestly. And if they really are going to keep coming home late without telling you, then you can move onto the next question.
Tell me more about what would happen if you did (insert behavior here). What would happen if you didn't do (insert behavior here)?
It's really important to ask this question on both sides - to Do or not to Do. Keep your tone calm and curious. And not in the "I'm your parent try me" curious. Really wonder with them as if you're talking about someone else's kid.
What would happen if they keep smoking weed? And what would happen if they didn't? You can try this on with a number of topics - homework, dating, college applications - you name it. The priority here is to develop decision-making skills that are based on internal values, not only emotions. Feelings fade but what you value remains.
Share what you are really feeling and that you are figuring this out too.
When I give this encouragement, I mean it. Be a real person. Life is stressful and your teen is no stranger to that. Show them that you get confused sometimes too and don't always know what choice is the best one. And that's because it really is okay to keep experimenting as an adult about what works for you. They are still learning who they are and what they value, and frankly so are we. You can let your guard down a little bit while balancing the responsibility of being their guide. Teens appreciate the real because they thrive when they can learn by experience, and when adults let go of blaming or shaming them for trying something - Hell, we might even start doing that for ourselves.
Disclaimer: This article is not a replacement for mental health treatment. If you are concerned about your child’s safety or wellbeing, get help immediately.
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