Teens can be tough and relationships with them can be turbulent. Freud said adolescents are children with adult drives. Spot on. Ultimately, they want to know that they are loved and cared for; that if they lose everything in this world they can come home to a safe blanket of a hug while they cry an oceans worth of tears of bitter disillusionment. Time and time again with me, parents have identified their child as the “problem” and upon closer exploration came to discover that the family system was faulty at best with many communication breakdowns that caused a cyclical systematic eroding of the family connection.
Children are socialized at home first. Think back to when you were a child. How did your house smell? How did your parents talk to each other? Where was dinner eaten? These are unique to you. The first time you ate dinner at a friend’s house you were probably saying, “Holy crap. This is different.” I know I did. Your children can pick up on what’s going on between you no matter how old they are. Let me say that again, no matter how old they are. Children’s intuition is almost perfect. They can sense danger, discern a friendly person, and connect with others on pure levels. Fact about babies, they can fake a smile – otherwise known as the polite smile, the one you do when you’re feigning interest in the story about how the fireplace kept going out at your friend’s rental cabin – to strangers and reserve real smiles for their mothers.
Margaret Mahler, a prominent 20th century psychiatrist, brilliantly theorized the separation-individuation phase of infant development. Without getting too technical the basic breakdown is: Hatching takes place from 5-9 months and the infant becomes interested in the world around them and uses its mother as a reference point. Kind of like a ‘You Are Here’ point on a mall directory. Next, in the practicing phase, your child crawled and walked and became more active and independent; there is still an identification of “oneness” with the mother. The last phase, and most important for our purposes, is Rapprochement. This is happens around 15 months. Your son or daughter “differentiated” from you. They understood that their physical ability was interrelated to a psychological separateness i.e. I can move on my own, I guess I can think and feel on my own too. The child may hesitate and usually wants the mother in view so they can explore their surroundings while every so often making eye contact with the mother. If you want to read more about theory you can go to this link.
You can already see how this brief lesson in Human Behavior and Development illustrates that socialization starts with parents and the teenage need to explore while having the constant of a vigilant parent. Many types of parents have sat with me e.g. happily married, unhappily married, widowed, divorced, vindictive and divorced, blended families, etc. Your situation calls for a tailored approach to the developmental stage of your child. Warning: This does not always correspond to age. I’ve worked with 16 year-olds that act like 2 year-olds and 55 year-olds that think their teenagers.
Since most parents have difficulty with their children in their teenage years, here are some quick tips to communicate with them.
- Comparisons are a no-no for you and a yes-yes for them. Classic example: “Jenny’s mom lets her stay out until 10.” Teens are in a stage where they are constantly seeking peer approval and using a form of healthy social comparison. Unhealthy social comparison is an issue for another time. It is all right if they compare themselves to others, but if you do it, God help you. In this situation, your job without comparing your daughter to Jenny or her mom, a delicate line, is to let your child know that your rules are the family rules. It may help to explain why the rule is in place and it always always always helps to have the adults giving the same message. Teenagers actually desire the boundary and want to be parented. They will fight you, they will be angry, and they may be silent, but you are teaching them valuable lessons in emotional and behavioral management.
- Separate them from the behavior. One young man I worked with was a strong, intelligent, creative student. His parents placed high standards on him when it came to his grades without understanding his substance use and anxiety issues. They came down on him for any slip in his marks and it lead to a cycle of failing, disappointment, feeling ashamed, back to failing. Your kid fails a class. They probably already feel like shit. Then you say something like, “You should have studied more instead of playing videogames with Joe all night.” Or, “You’ll never get into college if you don’t pass.” Or even worse, “I’m so disappointed in you.” These all give your teen that negative trait. Try something like this, “It’s not all right that you failed. I want the best for you and love you and you’re also capable of more. Because you failed does not make you a failure. It’s what you do next that matters.” Maybe it’s cheesy, but it’s honest. Tailor your response to suit you. This type of response opens up room for a conversation regarding the situation, and then you can even set the firm and compassionate boundaries. “Just because we talked doesn’t mean there are no consequences. You need to study your math notes every night for a half hour at the kitchen table where I can see you.” This also takes commitment from you and will make it likely for them to abide because you have tied an action you need to take into the consequence that may be perceived as added interest. Keep in mind though that it is their consequence not yours. DO NOT punish yourself.
- Acceptance. Go back to your adolescent years. Walk down your high school hallway. See your crush, your bully/the person you bullied, the kids you wanted to be friends with but weren’t. Think of those times when you felt like the whole world did not understand you. No one knew how hard it was to be you. The anxiety, sadness, and tornadoes of emotions, the dread of trying to fit in. Your child is going through that. This is the time that they need your acceptance more than ever. Learn their love language and show them affection. For instance, if their love language is quality time, set aside some time, even if its 15 minutes to sit with them and be fully present. Tell them what they’re doing right and where they can improve. Give praise before critiquing. Let them know how much they mean to you. “I Love You” is 8 letters, 3 words, 1 phrase, and extremely powerful.
- They know your every move. Your child has studied you for as long as they have been alive. They know your every move. They know how you react, they can expect that reaction, and they will use this to their advantage. If you have not set boundaries and limits as in number 1 above, this is going to be tough. You will need to change your reactions. If your go-to is “you’re grounded, or leave your iPhone with me” they probably mouth it before you even think to say it. This is where creativity comes into play and the help of a professional is suggested, so that your reactions are customized to the nuances of your family and child. Your intuition about your child is finely tuned. You know when something is amiss or wrong, you may rationalize the feeling away, but you always know. In a way you also have valuable reconnaissance because you can pick up on things that others probably cannot. Use that to your advantage in connecting.
5. Speak their language. No. Do not burst into the room saying things like “that’s dope” or “that chick cray.” My father had this habit of saying, “Yo, yo, yo. What’s up? What’s up? What’s up?” to my friends and my cheeks would get hot with embarrassment. Speaking their language means the fundamentals. Male brains and female brains are different (an article on that is coming). Males tend to process things better when performing an action or having a distraction. Females tend to enjoy direct contact with language. The statistic is on average women use ~50,000 words per day whereas men use ~15,000. Men also use objects as points of focus. Try this: If you know your male child is having a hard time and just keeps saying, “Everything’s fine. Things are fine.” Take a piece of paper and draw a line or picture of how you’re day felt. You can say, “This is how my day felt.” Then ask them to draw theirs and have a discussion about the events. For your female child, if she’s stuck in the “Everything’s fine” loop, having an honest discussion about what you think is going on may help. You can say to her in a safe and private moment, “Honey, I see something’s going on. I remember when I liked a boy who didn’t like me back…” or “I fought with my girlfriends about….” You’re going to have to reveal something to get something. There are many more interventions for situations like this.
These 5 tips are just starters to get you thinking, feeling, and hopefully understanding your teenager. As a parent, you have done one of the coolest and, what I believe is the, most significant things on the planet. You brought a life into this world and are nurturing and caring for it. You are protecting and guiding and loving and scared to death. But you persevere and face every challenge. There are no days off when you’re a mom or dad. It’s not easy. Chances are your child wants to reconnect and understand you as well. Like Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince says, “Grown-ups are certainly very strange.” Remember.
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