“I hate you!” your daughter screams, as she slams her bedroom door.
“Whatever.” Your teenage son’s look broadcasts his utter contempt for your geezerhood.
You think, “Who took my lovely child, the one who respected me and hung onto my every word, and left this surly questioner of everything I do or say? Even worse, often all I get are eye rolls, shrugs, and sneers. Where did I go wrong?”
Yes. Parenting a teen is tough.
The Turmoil of Adolescence
First of all, put the problem into perspective.
Recent studies indicate that adolescent turmoil affects a minority of teens (about 20%). Most adolescents have enjoyable relationships with families and friends and don’t have trouble with social and cultural values.
When your adolescent child does have a meltdown or a hissy fit, your impulse as a parent may be: a) blow it off, b) give advice, or c) get angry. None of these responses are particularly helpful.
Instead, try a little empathy.
Reasons for Teen Turmoil
Though most adolescents stop short of the turmoil stage that indicates a mental health problem, many of them behave unpredictably, are highly emotional, and confess to feeling depressed or anxious. Some reasons for these characteristics are:
Rapid physical and mental changes
The years between age 11 and 19 bring with them massive changes in a person’s body, mind, and emotions. Physically, they change from child to adult. They grow in height, their voices change, and their minds take in new ideas. They learn new skills and their bodies develop sexually. They become, in many ways, completely different people.
Mentally and emotionally, they are bombarded with hormones. They carry deep emotions. They feel pressure to separate from parents and, at the same time, they are driven to fit in with peers. And all the time, they doubt themselves, because they don’t yet know themselves.
They must cope with all this while living in our fast-paced, information overloaded, highly stimulating world. It’s a lot to expect.
Teenage brain development
Research shows that adolescent and adult brains process information differently. Teen traits, like poor judgment, impulsiveness, and anxiety over small things, may happen because the teenager’s frontal cortex (where we do most of our logical thinking) isn’t fully developed.
Thus, a teen may use bad judgment because their brain doesn’t process information efficiently.
Social anxiety may also be related to brain development. The part of the brain associated with emotions, particularly fear, reacts differently in teens than adults.
Teens fear being left out more than adults do. They are developing the ability to think outside of themselves—to see themselves as others see them. This makes them feel more self-conscious, as though they’re on stage or being judged.
No question, teens feel stressed these days. Everyday events like school, social life, and experiencing the physical changes their bodies and brains are going through are cause enough. Add family problems, physical or mental abuse, accidents, sickness, or the death of a family member or friend, and you have an overwhelming load.
And then there’s the issue of romantic relationships. No boyfriend! No date to the prom! Does she like me? Will he laugh at me? Not to mention peer pressure to experiment with sex or drugs.
Contrary to what you might expect, teenagers don’t really like change. They’re worse at it than adults. A move to a new school or new house or new town can be bad enough. Imagine how a new step-parent and step-siblings will increase the pressure.
Poor self-esteem, bad time management, not getting enough sleep or physical activity, and poor diet can make the mix more toxic. No wonder your kids blow off steam or lose it occasionally.
How Your Empathy Can Help Your Adolescent Cope
Empathy helps us connect with how another person is feeling. The kind called “cognitive empathy” helps us understand another person’s perspective, even when we feel differently. Both kinds are important, but modeling cognitive empathy when parenting a teen is particularly important.
You may be tempted to use your experience to give direction: “When I was your age…” But that may just convince your teen that you don’t understand them. Share your feelings instead: “In high school, I was confused, too.”
Walking a mile in your adolescent child’s moccasins—or cool sneakers—can do more good than giving them advice or trying to solve their problems for them. Showing affection, listening, and making a real effort relate to your teen’s feelings, are crucial factors when parenting a teen. That’s because those actions are more likely to lead to connection and better communication.
Empathizing with Adolescent Turmoil
Parental empathy is a great help for any teen, but especially for a teen in turmoil. Talking with your teen about looking at both sides of an issue helps them to control their emotions, improve their listening skills, and better tolerate conflict.
Empathizing isn’t easy. There’s even some evidence that being an emotionally nurturing parent is bad for your health. But it’s an important part of parenting a teen. Though it may increase your stress, it’s worth the effort to learn to empathize with the turmoil of adolescence.