For parents, having a child enter adolescence can feel like both a loss and a journey of discovery: As the child they knew changes in profound ways, they are faced with the idea of “letting go” of their baby; at the same time, watching a unique adult emerge before their eyes is a magical experience.
While the extreme nature of this transitional period is usually blamed on hormones, the changes that young people experience during adolescence actually have more to do with rapid brain development than abrupt hormonal shifts. As such, understanding not only how your teen feels, but also how she thinks, is integral to forging and maintaining a strong connection.
Building A Connection With Your Teen
Think back to your own adolescence: You likely experienced extreme anxiety about fitting in with others and about your future; you probably had your first real heartaches and disappointments. At the same time, you discovered the foundation of what makes you, “you”: Your core strengths and abilities, your interests and passions, and your own powerfully individual voice and take on the world. Though you still needed your parents, you were so preoccupied with carving out your own niche that you probably inadvertently began to distance from them.
The first step to forging a nourishing connection with your teen lies in understanding that she’s going through much the same trials and victories that you went through on your own journey to adulthood. The more you can empathize with her experience, the better able you will be to support her. If, on the other hand, you see her changes as unfathomable and alienating, you will probably end up pushing against them and damaging your connection to your teen. The more you reject your adolescent’s natural progress towards maturity, the more likely it becomes that your relationship will be marred by conflict, secrecy, and feelings of isolation on both sides.
As a parent, you need to healthily process your natural grief and feelings of loss while keeping in mind the fact that your teen does absolutely still require a loving relationship with you, even if that’s not always readily apparent. Though your child is becoming her own person, she still lacks experience; she needs your wisdom, your guidance, and above all, your acceptance. To build the kind of trusting connection needed for your teen to benefit fully from all you have to offer, try implementing the strategies outlined below:
1. Work to understand your teen’s brain.
While drawing on your own adolescent experiences is a good way to begin building empathy and understanding, the best method for coming to grips with your teen’s behaviour lies in studying the changes happening in her brain. Your teen probably isn’t being contradictory or difficult on purpose; instead, as her brain grows, she is coping with heightened emotional intensity (hence seeming moody and withdrawn one day and warm and bubbly the next), an increased need for peer relationships, and an impulsive curiosity that’s persistently prompting her to seek out new and novel experiences (even if they aren’t always completely safe or sensible). Her capacity for imaginative and abstract thinking has also suddenly blossomed, leaving her with a profound need to express herself.
Your teen’s emotional, erratic thoughts and behaviours result from her brain pushing her toward independence; as such, each of these behaviours is filling a very real, valid need in your teen’s mind. While you may feel like a helpless bystander in this maelstrom at times, if you can understand what’s driving your teen to act in the ways she does (through looking at the deeper need she is trying to fill rather than her apparent motives), you’ll be well-poised to both give her the kind of objective advice she needs and assess when to be there for her and when to give her space to grow.
2. Accept your teen’s need to separate herself from you.
As painful as it may be at times, your teen absolutely must move away from both of her parents and establish her own identity. If she is not allowed to do so, her self-esteem and self-image will be deeply marred, leaving her ill-equipped to handle the challenges of adult life.
Remember that your teen’s separation from you is, in many ways, not permanent. Though your teen will grow up and live her own life, most teens who have supportive, nurturing parents return to them, seeking emotional closeness and guidance as they tackle the adult world.
3. Allow your teen to have her privacy.
Your teen needs to feel safe to explore her own individuality; if you “pry” into her life inappropriately (e.g., checking her social media, looking through her things), she’ll soon feel as though she isn’t free to be herself and this will create anger and resentment. Additionally, when you invade your teen’s privacy, you risk seriously damaging the trust she has in you—leading to even more secrecy in the future.
If you want to know what’s going on in your teen’s life, the best approach you can take is to nurture, rather than poison, her trust. Give her the freedom she needs and accept it when she doesn’t seem to want you involved in a given situation (so long as said situation is not outright dangerous, of course), but let her know that you’re available any time she needs your help. If you do so, she’ll probably come to you of her own accord when she can’t find a peer confidante who appears as trustworthy as you do.
4. Support your teen’s need to experiment in a social setting.
You may not always adore your teen’s choice of friends, but you can’t “control” who your teen hangs out with; as long as she is going to the same school, she’s going to be able to see the same people—and that’s okay. Offer guidance and advice when it’s asked for, but don’t place yourself in between your teen and her peer group; she needs to learn how to make up her own mind about people. (And, whatever you do, don’t try to take away your teen’s access to social media; teens without reasonable social media access feel ostracized and immediately work much harder to gain peer acceptance.)
Likewise, you should focus on giving your teen the space and resources she needs to experiment safely. Your teen’s brain is hungry for risk and challenge in addition to peer validation, so try to provide what it requires in a controlled setting, e.g., through allowing your teen to pursue sports even if they seem aggressive to you, unconventional hobbies, clubs, activist organizations, etc.
5. Validate and accept your teen’s emotions, even if they’re intense.
Don’t minimize what your teen is feeling, such as by saying, “That’s irrational,” or, “It seems bad today, but in a few weeks, you’ll probably have forgotten all about it.” Instead, practice compassionate curiosity and active listening, even when your teen is behaving badly. By remaining calm and asking her why she is feeling pain or frustration, you will not only help her to feel “seen” and cared about, you will assist her in processing and disambiguating her overwhelming feelings.
In the same vein, you should respect your teen’s opinions and beliefs, even if they seem unconventional or like they exist solely for the purpose of questioning the status quo. Allow your teen to healthily test boundaries and explore new horizons by challenging your own belief systems—defining her ideas against yours is an essential part of her journey toward self-understanding.
6. Permit your teen to mess up.
Teens have to make a lot of very grown-up choices about their future while in possession of a very childlike mind; as such, they’re apt to make mistakes, and they almost always feel terrible about doing so. When your teen makes bad choices, try to remember that her pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain needed to make sound decisions and solve complex problems) will not fully mature until she is an adult; in the meantime, her impulsive, reactive amygdala is more or less running the show. She’s going to make stupid and even completely baffling mistakes sometimes. This will probably scare her a lot more than it scares you, so it’s essential that you provide her with a “safe space” where she can retreat from the world and recuperate, knowing that she’s loved, forgiven, and accepted.
Once your teen has recovered from the shock of her poor decision, involve her in coming up with a solution to the problem she has created. This will not only help to rebuild her self-esteem, it will prompt activity in her pre-frontal cortex, causing it to build new connections and develop more quickly. In simpler terms, she’ll be less likely to make the same mistake twice if she’s involved in devising a better plan of action.
7. Nurture your teen’s self-esteem.
Teens tend to lug around a heavy burden of shame and self-consciousness, and parents are absolutely essential in deconstructing this burden. Your teen is likely to fear social rejection (“No one at school really likes me”), have self-image and confidence issues (“I hate my body/my face” or “I’m stupid/untalented”), be unsure as to her identity (“I don’t belong anywhere”), and feel alienated from her family at times (“I’m a disappointment”). Ergo, the more you make the effort to mention everything that’s wonderful about who your teen is, how she looks, and what she’s doing, the better off your child will be. Remember, even if she hasn’t directly voiced many of her concerns, they absolutely do exist, and she’ll appreciate the reminder that she’s loved by you even if she doesn’t immediately internalize your compliments.
As you and your teen progress through the journey of her adolescence, remember to take time to enjoy your teen: Though the road may be rocky at times, there is immeasurable potential for both you and your child to grow and learn as you walk it. Above all else, you need to step back and let the transition from childhood to adulthood happen; don’t resist it, don’t judge it, and don’t take it personally—embrace it for being the adventure that it is while offering your guidance, patience, and compassion.