Bridging the Divide:
Maintaining Relationship with your Teenagers
For some reason I have this vivid memory from late childhood that stands out on the timeline of my life.
One evening on the way home from a church function, I remember telling my parents, “so instead of playing outside tonight, my friends and I just stood around and talked and it was…. kind of fun.”
In that very moment, I was already brutally aware of a distinct shift happening in myself. I harbored part excitement and part disappointment at the realization that such an adult type of activity of just talking had proven enjoyable for me.
Why that memory stuck with me all of these years is baffling. But I often point to it as the moment I began waving goodbye to childhood and setting my sights on adolescence.
As adults, we easily forget how those adolescent watershed moments, all piled on top of each other, feel when they are happening. It is disorienting how quickly our brains and bodies change in a few short months (or weeks, perhaps) during that time of life.
What can feel almost more disorienting is watching a person we love enter adolescence.
When I taught 7th grade we endearingly called this time of life a mutant stage: There is constant transformation and unrecognizable behaviors and emotions just oozing out of a person. They are no longer who they were, and are still on the way to who they are becoming. It is a wildly dichotomous time of life.
The adolescent years are marked by a combination of risk-taking, emotional upheaval, burgeoning autonomy and independence, intense focus on relationship building and peer connections, exploration, and novelty seeking.
Whew. That is a lot.
But thankfully, as mental health professionals, we know that adolescence does not just have to be a season of life to endure, but a season of life in which to thrive.
I know, I know: If you are a parent of a teen you just threw something at me. Your house does not feel like it is thriving. I get it.
But hear me out.
The way you interact with your adolescent through this stage (which spans from the ages of 12-24, by the way), will in part determine how he or she learns to manage themselves into adulthood . It feels shaky and disjointed. But it is supposed to; this is the training ground, not the race.
Think about it this way. Remember when your child was fresh and little and squishy and newly mobile (and didn’t talk back to you yet)? In new situations or unfamiliar play places he would probably inquisitively crawl away a little bit, but always keep an eye on where you were in the room. He would explore more confidently when he knew that your anchor of safety was still there for him.
In an ideal scenario, the same thing is happening in his teenage years. He is venturing further away with the understanding that you are still available for him to fall back on. He is proverbially looking over his shoulder toward the safety of his home, which gives him the confidence to continue to try out new elements of adulthood.
When we think of the shaky autonomy and independence of adolescence in this way it makes a little more sense, right? It is a way of practicing adulthood within safe parameters.
Risk-taking, in its various forms, is inevitably going to be a mark of the teenage years. It will feel tumultuous. But teens who have attuned parents willing to ride the waves of this season of life with them are going to be far more prepared for the treacherous waters of adulthood.
Two of my favorite resources for parents whose children are entering this stage of life are the following books:
Brainstorm by Daniel J. Siegel
How to talk so Teens will Listen and Listen so Teens will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
Brainstorm gives an easy-to-read overview of the neuroscience and practical wisdom of the adolescent stage. In re-skimming it this week I realized how calming of a tone Siegel has in speaking to both teens and their adults, alike. If you especially enjoyed The Whole Brain Child, the adolescent version Brainstorm will be a fantastic resource for you.
How to Talk so Teens will Listen is based off of the authors’ decades of work with families and offers practical, real-life examples of ways to begin conversations with your teens. This book helps you model basic communication skills and conflict resolution for and with your child. A chunk of the book is even depicted in cartoon form for a lighthearted touch.
I have a teenager. Now what? Tips for thriving in the adolescent stage.
1. Own your own “stuff.”
One of my favorite types of counseling relationships is when I get to work with a parent whose child is also attending their own counseling. These are parents who are dedicated to modeling healthy relationship patterns for their child.
You see, it is easy for a parent to point toward the stage of adolescence as the sole contributor of relational troubles in a family.
The teen is, after all, the one who is in a tumultuous developmental stage and overtly learning to regulate emotions and manage relationships.
But a wise parent recognizes that his or her half of the relationship could be strengthened, too. It is often possible that certain teenage behaviors are triggering deep-seeded hurts for a parent that need to be addressed. Jumping to put a teen in therapy without self-reflection on a parent’s part only drives home the message that adolescence is a problem to be fixed.
Imagine how powerful of a message it would be if a parent says, “this is a hard time for both of us. I am going to see a counselor, myself, so I can be the best version for you right now.”
2. Consider the nuances of this unique developmental stage.
One of the major neurological aspects of the adolescent stage is the increase in the brain’s drive for reward. The neurotransmitter lovingly referred to as the “feel good hormone,” dopamine, which spikes when we experience pleasure, is working overtime in the brain of a teen. This leaves him or her frequently seeking stimulation and sometimes ignoring the potential risks of seeking these pleasurable experiences.
Siegel explains in Brainstorm that “this enhanced natural dopamine release can give adolescents a powerful sense of being alive when they are engaged in life” [p. 67].
Meanwhile, an adolescent is also experiencing great leaps in cognitive development, emotional intelligence, and capability for abstract thought. He or she is learning to think and process information in new ways, which eventually will assist in balancing out that natural excess of dopamine. But until that balance pans out, these new cognitive skills, juxtaposed with an intense drive to seek new and enjoyable experiences, results in the stereotypical picture of a teenager that we know and love: part adult, part child, figuring out who they are along the way.
And somewhere nearby, there stands a confused parent watching their child exist as a walking set of contradictions.
At the end of the day, know that your teen most likely craves to know that you recognize their growing cognitions and understanding of the world, and not just their impulsiveness. Ask them what they think about things: big topics, varying worldviews, the family discipline system, or frustrations with local government. Invite them into your adult world, however shakily they may toddle through it at first. Your job is to coach them through it, but coaching is hard to do if you do not allow them to play.
3. Do not avoid difficult conversations.
Be a safe space for open conversation before your child ever becomes a teen. You want them to come to YOU about difficult and sensitive topics, not Google or the locker room. Ignoring topics will not make them disappear, but will instead ensure that your child learns about them from peers and media instead of in a safe, nurturing space guided by your family principles.
Meanwhile, make time to connect with your teen without an agenda, too. If the only time you spend one-on-one time with your teen is when you are trying to have a semi-awkward conversation about the dangers of sex or drugs or rock-n-roll, they may begin to bristle when you ask to spend time with them.
I love how the authors of How to Talk to Teens say in their forward that “Teenagers need to be able to express their doubts, confide their fears, and explore options with a grownup who will listen to them nonjudgmentally and help them make responsible decisions.” .
4. Value the growing autonomy and independence
One of the biggest frustrations between teens and their parents that I see in the counseling room is the tension between a teen’s developmentally normal desire for autonomy, and a parent’s view of this growing autonomy as a direct attack on their role as a parent.
One major way to value this growing independence is to make space for your teen’s voice to matter in the management of the family. Obviously, you are still the adult in the room and you make the rules for your house. But that does not mean you cannot have open discussions with your teens about aspects of your parenting style or ways of operating. Maybe ask your child what they think an appropriate punishment is for something. Hear them out. You may not agree with what your teen says, but holding space for their voice to be heard allows them an opportunity to practice decision-making and problem-solving skills in real-time.
Also, avoid disciplining from your emotions. Your teen will notice if the consequences for their behavior vary according to your mood of the day and not the behavior itself.
I highly recommend chapter 3 of How to Talk to Teens, titled To Punish or not to Punish.
5. Do not parent in a void.
Dr. Siegel says it best in Brainstorm when he discusses how our single-family-centric, modern culture can sometimes provide a disservice for parents and teens alike.
When it comes to village life for the teen, during the time he or she is pushing against parents, there would be other adults in the tribe to whom the teen could turn for security and connection. But when the only close adult is your parent, the natural way to go in adolescence is entirely toward other adolescents (p 35).
Finding like-minded families to grow alongside can feel like a difficult feat in our modern lives. But the benefits for our children in growing up in a community are huge. Who are the people who will pick your kids up from somewhere they’re uncomfortable being on a Friday night? Who will feed them soup and listen to their breakup story when they’re embarrassed to tell you about it directly? Who will uphold your family values when you are not around because they want your children to succeed just as much as you do? Find that family. Be that family. Surround your teens with the adults you want them to emulate.
1. Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (2016). How to talk so teens will listen & listen so teens will talk. William Morrow.
2. Siegel, D. J. (2013). Brainstorm. the power and purpose of the teenage brain. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.
3. Wahlstrom, D., Collins, P., White, T., & Luciana, M. (2011, February 1). Developmental changes in dopamine neurotransmission in adolescence: Behavioral implications and issues in assessment. Brain and cognition. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2815132/