September 14, 2021
By: Dr. Geneviève LaRoche, Clinical Psychologist
Adolescence is recognized as a time of change and unpredictability and is often viewed as a particularly challenging period for parents (Harvey & Rathbone, 2015). Some of parents’ apprehension about adolescence stems from stereotypes that describe adolescents as moody and difficult (Steinberg & Silk, 2002). Another unfortunate stereotype about adolescence is that adolescents want very little to do with their parents. Alas, my experience as an adolescent therapist has shown me that nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, despite their increasing need for individuation, most adolescents want and need to feel connected to their parents.
The following is a list of simple reminders that can help parents (re)connect with their children during this transitional and critical phase of development:
Be curious rather than critical
I recently met a couple who described their adolescent as stubborn and oppositional. They explained that getting their child to leave her room had become nearly impossible. These parents described feeling quite frustrated with their child who had previously been quite compliant. When this adolescent was asked to describe her challenges, she shared that, since the start of the pandemic, she felt a tightness in her chest every time she tried to leave the house. She added that the only place where she didn’t feel this way was at home, particularly in her room. She reported feeling ashamed and confused as this feeling often got in the way of simple tasks such as walking the family dog. Upon learning this, both parents’ fell silent. They realized that they had misinterpreted their child’s avoidance as opposition. “We didn’t see it that way. We thought she was just being difficult”. Being curious, rather than critical, allowed these parents to empathize with their daughter and better support her through her difficulties.
Validate the emotion…without trying to fix the problem
A teenager recently confided that, after learning he had been cyberbullied, his parents forced him to delete all his social media apps. As I thought of these parents, I imagined how difficult it must have been for them to learn about their child’s suffering. I also imagined that their choice to limit his online activity was done in an effort to protect him from feeling rejected. Sadly, by limiting his access to social media, these parents inadvertently created the situation they were trying to avoid: their son felt left out of his peer group.
When we witness the pain of someone we love, many of us are quick to jump in to offer solutions and try to “fix” the problem. This is particularly the case for adolescents or children who are often seen as less capable due to their age. Unfortunately, taking on the role of “fixer” in an adolescent’s life can indirectly (or directly) convey the message that they can’t be trusted to handle their emotions or find solutions to their problems. Instead of imposing a solution, consider expressing to your adolescent that you are confident in their ability to figure things out. You might try “I trust that you will be able to figure this out, but I am here if you need help.” or “That sounds hard. How would you like to handle this situation?” Validating their emotions and allowing them to come up with creative solutions to their problems will enhance their self-confidence and help them develop the problem-solving skills they will need as they transition into adulthood.
Focus on the underlying need or emotion, not the behaviour
I often tell parents that my work as an adolescent therapist is very similar to that of a translator because despite speaking the same language, parents and adolescents often misunderstand each other. I have found that the main culprit behind this misunderstanding is that we, as adults, tend to focus on adolescents’ behaviours rather than on the needs or emotions that underlie these behaviours.
Imagine a teenager who, when asked by his parent how his school day went, yells harshly that he wants to be left alone… right before slamming his bedroom door. It might be tempting for the parent to yell out a quick retort about respect (specifically the lack thereof) but doing so would most likely make the adolescent even less likely to open up.
Anger is an emotion that often disguises other emotions that make us feel more vulnerable, such as rejection, shame or anxiety. That being said, sometimes anger is just anger. No matter the case, it is often helpful to take a step back and try to visualize “unwanted behaviours” as the tip of an iceberg. Demonstrating curiosity and patience in these harder moments allows parents to gain a better understanding of what is going on underneath the surface.
“People sometimes worry that if we offer comfort when children are upset, we are saying I accept your behaviour. What we are really saying is I accept your emotions.” – J. Milburn
Adolescents don’t need perfect parents; they need real parents
Most parents breathe a sigh of relief when they are reminded that there is no such thing as a perfect parent as this suggests that, despite being adults who are raising children, they are still growing and learning. Allowing adolescents to witness their parents making “errors” is an important modeling experience. When children do not witness their parents making mistakes, they feel ashamed when they make mistakes of their own. Conversely, children who witness their parents berate themselves after making a mistake will likely inflict the same harsh treatment onto themselves. Practising self-compassion in these moments is therefore essential, particularly during adolescence when children venture out into the world and start making choices (and mistakes) of their own.
If you enjoyed this blog post, you’ll also enjoy:
(1) Harvey, P. & Rathbone, B. H. (2015). Teens, Emotions, and Behaviors. Jean Blomquist (Eds.), Parenting a Teen Who Has Intense Emotions (pp.9-29). New Harbinger Publications.
(2) Steinberg, L. & Silk, J. S. (2002). Parenting Adolescents. Marc H. Bornstein (Eds.), Handbook of Parenting Volume 1: Children and Parenting (103-135). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publications.