If you’re the parent or caregiver of an adolescent right now, you may be wondering how to support them emotionally during this time of confusion and unpredictability. Check out my latest video for some ideas and information about how the adolescent brain experiences prolonged anxiety.
Even if your family isn’t under a shelter-in-place order, if you live in most parts of the world, your teens and tweens are home and trying to navigate online school and a really different schedule. While it’s a difficult scenario for everyone in the family, it can be especially challenging for adolescents to manage right now because of the social and neurological attributes of this period in life. So how can you help?
- Understand that their brains are reacting to this ambiguity by retreating to the most primitive tools human beings have: fight/flight/fear. (heck, we all are on some level). Adolescents process most of the information they get through their emotion centers, and it can trigger a response that turns their logic center off. When there is a specific threat, and they have learned to let emotions rise and fall, it’s manageable, but now, when the threat is largely invisible and there is no real understanding of how long this will last, how bad it will get, and whom it will affect, the trigger just keeps getting pulled over and over again. This makes it hard to settle down and focus on school work. It also makes it hard to access the parts of the brain that store memory, so forgetting to do their chores is to be expected right now.
- Help them find ways to turn off the fight/flight/fear response. One really effective way to do this is for them to do something physical – yoga, shooting baskets, going for a walk. Another great tool is guided meditation. Listening to someone else direct their mind in a specific way can help calm the physiological reaction to stress. Creativity is another way to tap into a different part of the brain – doing a puzzle, playing an instrument, coloring or drawing or painting or baking require a different kind of attention that can calm the nervous system.
- Encourage play. Laughter stimulates the vagus nerve and calms the nervous system. It also boosts the immune system to help keep them healthy. Card or board games, MadLibs, scavenger hunts, laundry basket basketball – do something absurd and silly at least once a day.
- Give them a measure of control. We all feel helpless, to some degree, and it is important for us to find ways to have agency over some aspects of our lives. If they can set their own schedule, let them. If it’s possible for them to add specific things they like to the grocery list (even if it’s junk you don’t normally let them eat), let them. Even small amounts of control can feel like an anchor during a time of uncertainty.
- Cut them lots of slack. Lots. Many kids will struggle to adjust to being home all the time, to learning online, to being away from friends. Adolescents are incredibly social, so if they need more time on their phones to stay connected with friends, it’s understandable. If it takes them a couple weeks to get in to a rhythm with classes, allow them the time to adjust. If they seem cranky with siblings or resistant to your plea to take the garbage out, remember, we are all in low-key panic mode right now and that doesn’t make for a very open and friendly demeanor.
- Model and be honest. Let them know how you’re feeling. If you feel unsure and frustrated, you can be certain they do, too. If you snap at someone, apologize. If your mental health requires a period of time during the day where nobody asks you for anything at all, communicate that clearly so they know what to expect. Teens don’t often see their parents as human beings or think that we have an inner life, so the more we can let them know that we are struggling with this new arrangement, the more likely they are to feel like it’s ok for them to struggle, too. And while you’re at it, do steps 2-5 for yourself.
Most of us would have a ready answer if asked about the stories that are told about us in our families. Many of us wouldn’t even question those stories, given that we grew up with them and heard them over and over again. Maybe we were anointed the “driven” one, or the jock or the one who makes Mom craziest. Often, these stories are told in jest, to other parents or teachers as a short-hand way to describe a child, and they often conjure up certain attributes that may be accurate in many ways. But it is also important to understand how limiting and potentially harmful they can be over time. I recently had two experiences that reminded me of this that I’d like to share.
Last weekend I was at a gathering where I knew almost nobody. The room was full of people my age with a similar interest, and while many of them knew each other, there were also many pockets of conversations going on where strangers were getting to know each other. It was a lively group and I was enjoying hearing about people’s lives and finding some common ground. In one instance, I was speaking with someone who has grown children and, as my oldest daughter moved far away from home for college, I inquired whether the children lived in our area or farther away. In describing each child, I learned about where they’d gone to college and what they were interested in, and then it happened:
“My oldest child – he’s the f*#k up of the family.” It was said with a laugh and a certain tone of affection, but it felt stunning to me nonetheless. The way the phrase so casually rolled off to a stranger led me to believe that this child is often described this way.
The second instance was a couple months ago when I had occasion to reconnect with a young person I deeply admire. I had a stack of my recently-published book One Teenager at a Time sitting on the kitchen table and I opened it to the acknowledgments page and showed this amazing young person that their name appeared as someone who I credit as being an integral part of my work and the birth of the book. They were stunned and excited and asked if they could take the book with them when they left…”so I can show my parents and prove to them that I’m not a loser!“
Again, this phrase was uttered with a laugh and a nonchalance that belied the sting of it. I have known this young person for a long time and I have heard them use that word in reference to themselves many times before. Each time I have gently let them know that I don’t believe it’s accurate in any way. Despite that, their overall belief is that their parents believe they are a loser.
It is so important to understand how quickly our words become our child’s inner critic. We can tell them we love them daily, and when they hear themselves characterized as a “loser” or an “idiot” or a “pain in the ass,” they can believe both that we love them and also that they are not living up to our hopes and dreams. They can develop a sense that they will never be good enough or that if they just worked hard enough to be something else (not do something else – because name-calling is about saying someone IS something, not that their behavior needs to change, but that THEY need to change), we might love them more. The damage that does to the self-image of our children is enormous, especially if those comments are made with derision, especially if they are made as a joke, as a given, as something that describes the entirety of this person’s being.
In my family, I was known as the “good child,” the compliant one, the one who my parents could count on to do the Right Thing. In many cases, that was a point of pride. Sometimes, it was something I weaponized and used against my siblings. But ultimately, it kept me small, kept me from trying new things, thinking outside the box, questioning rules that seemed unfair. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy because it was used from the time I was very young, and when I reached adolescence and was tasked with defining my own identity and exploring who I really wanted to be, it boxed me in to a certain set of characteristics that weren’t necessarily comfortable, but I had blindly accepted that my parents knew me best, so any time I questioned them, I felt somehow wrong.
It is natural for us as parents to find some sort of short-hand to describe our children. It becomes harmful when we use those terms with disdain or to shame our kids, or if we talk about them as if that is all they are when we describe them to other people. Giving our adolescents room to explore their own ideas of who they are is a key part of helping them develop a healthy self-image. Letting them know that we support them as they seek to grow rather than pretending we already know who they are and what their fate is can create room for a stronger, healthier relationship.
My hope for these two young people is that they hear other voices in their heads telling them that they are not “losers” or “f*#k ups.” That they know that they are beloved, allowed to think in different ways and try new things and make mistakes without fear of being known as the one person in their family who is less than. My hope for their parents is that they come to acknowledge the power of their words and seek to use new ones that let their children know that they are so much more than a derogatory term used in jest.
As my kids got older, I began to realize that it was going to be necessary to change the way we addressed certain issues in our home. While I still encouraged lots of discussion and offered to be present and support my teens as they worked out their own differences, it became clear to me that their unique personalities meant that they approached this in very different ways. This tended to make conversations turn in to conflict, if only because one of my daughters is someone who wants to hash things out instantly, in the moment, and stay until it’s done, while the other one prefers to walk away when emotions get high, re-center herself, and decide if it’s a fight worth having. After a few ugly scenes (complete with doors slamming and tears), we sat down to create a set of ground rules that would work for everyone, and I think they’re pretty universal, so I’ve adopted them as rules for any classroom or student gathering I’m in that has a conflict of some sort. Here they are:
- Everyone at the table is here because they want to be (not because they are forced to be or guilted into it). Force and guilt/shame set up a power dynamic that means the discussion is doomed to fail before it even starts.
- Everyone has the same rights – we are all equals and we all deserve to be heard and our perspectives respected. It doesn’t matter how old someone is or what their status in the family/classroom is. There are no trump cards if we are truly interested in working through this to everyone’s satisfaction. If someone thinks that they’re bound to be over-ruled at some point, there’s no point in engaging. And if anyone else believes that they ultimately get to decide what happens, there’s no point in them listening to the others.
- Even if we can’t understand someone else’s point of view or feelings, we respect their right to have it and we all agree not to belittle anyone because of it. No gaslighting. Your reaction might seem disproportionate or even absurd to me, but since I’m not living in your skin, I don’t get to tell you how you should feel and I certainly don’t get to shame you for feeling the way you feel.
- No name-calling, ultimatums, demands, hate speech. This one might seem patently obvious, but often when we get in to a situation that seems to be going nowhere, we resort to these tactics to ratchet up the urgency. They’re not helpful at all if what we really want is to solve the problem at hand.
- We all agree to work our hardest to define a common goal for this situation and work toward it. Bringing up past resentments is not okay because it derails the conversation. There may well be patterns of behavior you have noticed over time, but if you want to have a conversation about this incident or issue right now, you need to stay in this moment. No fair blaming or shaming someone for something they did in the past. Period.
- No eye-rolling or turning away or other negative body language. This sends the clear message that you’re not listening or you’re not interested in really understanding where the other person is coming from. If you’re not, there’s no reason for you to be here.
- If someone decides they can’t be part of the conversation right now for any reason, they are allowed to leave, but they agree to be part of the conversation in the near future so that bad feelings won’t fester and things won’t remain unsolved. ‘Nuff said.
- Everyone agrees to own their part of the issue and take responsibility for their words or actions that might have caused others pain or frustration. There are multiple sides to every conflict. Nobody is ever all right or all wrong.
- Blaming and shaming, labeling someone, and using words like “always” and “never” will not move us forward and should be avoided. These are all shortcuts to ending a conversation and an indication that you’re making assumptions about the other person’s character or intent. You won’t get anywhere if you use these tactics.
This small but mighty parenting workbook is officially available on my Amazon estore this week.
Purchase it for use on your own or with friends. It is packed with information about how your teen/tween’s brain works, what they’re experiencing when they make decisions and struggle with anxiety, and activities and tips on diffusing conflict, building strong relationships, and parenting mindfully.
Check it out and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org
We all want to be connected to others, to have a tribe, to feel community. This push is particularly strong during adolescence, and it is important during this time to help kids understand what true connection is and what it isn’t.
Unfortunately, we don’t generally form strong bonds with others quickly. Trust and connection require sustained interaction that is consistent over time. We all know how quickly a relationship can be called in to question with one act of betrayal, and how long it takes to restore.
Sometimes, though, we think we can create intimacy and connection quickly, and I have discovered that there are two ways teens and tweens try to do this that create a false sense of trust and connection and end up backfiring.
- Oversharing – It’s true that one characteristic of close relationships is personal knowledge. We tend to trust those individuals with whom we are closest with our most intimate secrets. But often, adolescents think that if they share their most personal information with someone else, that will jump start a close relationship. Unfortunately, that isn’t generally how it works. Unless that person has demonstrated that they will honor that disclosure by keeping it safe, this is almost always a bad idea. You simply can’t be sure that a person is reliable or trustworthy without being in relationship with them over a period of time. It is important for parents to talk to teens about how they know someone else can be trusted and why they are choosing to be vulnerable.
- Gossip – There is nothing that binds people like a common adversary, and while they may not realize what they’re doing, many adolescents share other people’s secrets as a way to create intimacy with their own friends. Not only does it make us look better when we compare ourselves to someone else’s shameful mistake, but letting our friends know that we trust them enough to share a secret seems important, even if it wasn’t our secret to tell. In the long run, this tactic will not work by its very nature because in the act of gossiping, we are demonstrating that we ourselves are not trustworthy. This can feel like a powerful bond in the short term, but it does nothing to build authentic connections with others.
There are many elements of a healthy, strong relationship, and they all take time. That is not very comforting news to a lonely teenager, but the more we talk to them about what kinds of friendships they want to have and why, the more they can begin to make choices about how they interact with others. One way to do this is to talk about the people in their life that they trust the most and why. Ask them how these people have shown them, over time, that they truly care for them, and share information about your closest, most trusted relationships with them. Contrast that with people who may have betrayed their trust and yours. Ask if they have ever worked hard to regain someone else’s trust after they broke it and what that was like.
As parents, we want our kids to have good relationships, but it isn’t as easy as deciding who to hang out with. They need to understand what goes in to a good relationship, too.
This is one of the most impactful changes I have ever made and while it is simple, it takes practice. It also works for educators and school administrators, or anyone who is in a position of power over students or children.
Step 1: When your t(w)een is doing something you don’t like, stop and name what you’re feeling. For example, if you’ve asked them to come do a chore and they aren’t responding, recognize what your immediate reaction is. Is it frustration? Annoyance? Anger? Maybe there is some story in your head about how often they do this particular thing, “he always ignores me when I ask him to empty the dishwasher!”
Step 2: Acknowledge that what you’re feeling is about you and your priorities, which are absolutely valid, but your child can’t be expected to know what they are right now. Once you’ve acknowledged it, let it go.
Step 3: Ask in a neutral or inquisitive tone whether there is a good reason why your child isn’t responding to you right now. It may be that he is in the middle of a challenging assignment and he wants to focus and finish it before being interrupted. Or maybe there is some other circumstance that you can’t possibly imagine which is causing the delay. Or, maybe, you’re just being ignored or teased. Whatever the reason, if you assume bad intent without getting all of the information, you’re painting your child into a pretty tight corner. If you remain curious about the situation and are clear about your priorities, you are more likely to get a positive response and move toward getting your needs met.
I have heard many stories from students about situations where a teacher yelled at them for not making eye contact or for doodling on their paper when the teacher wanted them to “pay attention.” Those scenarios might enforce compliance, but they don’t build trust, and in many cases, the student had what they felt was a perfectly good reason for doing what they were doing at that point. Had the teacher given the student the benefit of the doubt and stopped to ask why they weren’t “paying attention,” they might have gotten good information about that student without the risk of alienating them. This is especially helpful in cases where a student has a non-traditional learning style. Some kids need to doodle or bounce in their chair in order to comprehend what the teacher is saying. Others have a difficult time making eye contact at all, or might need a little extra time to focus before moving on.
As a parent, when I’m in a hurry, it is easy for me to forget that my children are often immersed in things that are important to them, and I sometimes revert to asserting my power to make them do things on my schedule. I can get angry if I feel as though they aren’t paying attention to me, but if I stop and remember to not take it personally, in general they are more open to helping because I took their priorities into consideration.