Before my third child was born, I had just completed my ninth year of teaching college freshmen. Eighteen, nineteen, and twenty-year-olds were my people. They were young, energetic, creative, and excited to learn. These older teenagers were embarking on an exciting adventure, and I was honored to be part of it.
I mistakenly believed that my college teaching experience had prepared me to raise my own teenagers. However, I quickly discovered that there’s a huge difference between a 13-year-old, who is my own child, and one of my students. Some of the teen stereotypes are on point. There’s loads of eye-rolling, door-slamming, mood-changing, and limit-testing.
Like any good writer, I have responded to these teen challenges by “hitting the books.” I have been devouring resources, from actual books, to podcasts, to virtual conferences. Not only do I have one teen, but I’ll have a second this year, and two more kids to follow. I’m learning how to respond to my teen — and two tweens — when they clap back at me with a disrespectful comment.
Thankfully, I also have the expertise of Dr. Rachel Goldman, a clinical psychologist, speaker, and consultant in NYC, who is also a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
Remember, It’s Rarely Personal
Teens are gonna teen, parents. A teenager’s dramatic sigh, eye roll, and snarky comment is going to happen — many times. Dr. Goldman empathizes with parents and reminds us that “it can be tough to not jump to the conclusion that this is about you, but in most cases, it’s not.” Teens are learning to be independent as they evolve from childhood to adulthood. They’re also developing individuality, identity, and self-esteem, points out Dr. Goldman, which is a daunting, arduous, ongoing task. Buckle up, parents. Take a deep breath and say to yourself, “This is not personal. What my teen is doing is normal and even healthy.”
Honestly, our teens can act so completely ridiculous, from our adult perspective, that our inclination may be to laugh. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! According to Dr. Goldman, “Humor can be a great coping tool for both you and your teen.” Humor is helping “make light” of the situation, providing a bit of relief from the seriousness and stress of any parent-teen interaction. Just remember that there’s a fine line between humor and teasing. Teasing can escalate a situation. Humor provides parent-child connection. As you bring humor into your conversations with your teens, gauge their body language and verbal responses. And don’t forget to allow them to be funny, too.
Empathy First, Always
My husband and I are trained in connective and gentle parenting, and the first response we should have (though we don’t always succeed) when interacting with any of our children, no matter the age, is empathy. We get down on their level, lower our voices, make sure our facial expression is relaxed, and offer empathy for whatever they are feeling about a particular situation. This is highly successful. A child who is dysregulated cannot learn, so disciplining a kiddo for anything when their brain is offline is completely ineffective.
Dr. Goldman reminds us that being a teen is tough, and parents need to remember what it was like. Many times, she says, “Our teens just want to be heard.” Instead of going on the attack or jump to trying to solve the issue, parents can share a story about their own teen years which will provide the teen with the validation they crave.
As teens progress from being children to adults, they need to practice and learn many skills. One of the most important is learning to problem-solve. After you allow your teen to vent and you offer empathy and perhaps a dose of humor (if warranted), ask your teen what they think should be done next. What is the solution to the problem? Your teen may propose ideas that aren’t the best, and that’s OK; the goal is to get them to “live and learn.” Their proposed solution may surprise you and be an excellent idea. Dr. Goldman says that for teens, problem-solving is empowering and helps them practice being independent. If your child is struggling, you can always take a team approach, says Dr. Goldman. Come up with possible solutions together.
Let Them Fail
Teens are supposed to make mistakes. This life stage means more freedoms, and more room to succeed — as well as mess up. Every teen is going to make their fair share of poor decisions, and this doesn’t meant the parent or teen is “bad.” Dr. Goldman reminds parents, “Nobody is perfect, so don’t expect your teen to be, either.” When your child messes up — and they will — your job is to be there to support them as best you can. Furthermore, parents can remind their teens that making mistakes can be an opportunity for growth.
Parenting teens can be incredibly difficult — but also rewarding, a time of significant growth for both parent and teenager. However, if you find yourself struggling beyond your capacity, Dr. Goldman encourages parents to seek professional help. Sometimes what appears to be normal teen behavior is something more serious — perhaps a lack of proper diagnosis or support.
No matter the challenges that your teen’s attitude presents, remember that there is hope. This is a normal (if unpleasant) part of having a teenager, and — just like the teen years — this, too, shall pass.
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