So, you have a teen. Now what?

It is a huge understatement to say that parenting is one of the most difficult tasks one can undertake. It can of course be hugely rewarding and fulfilling, but that does not, in any way, mean that it does not come with challenges, hair raising moments and mountains of worry.  Each chapter of the journey, from pregnancy to terrible twos, teens, tweens and even marriage demands that we, as parents, shift our lenses and approach to our kids.

Terrible Twos

While the term ‘the terrible twos’, is not a term I subscribe to, nor encourage; it is a term that most parents who have had a two-year-old regularly throw about. It usually elicits compassion and a shared understanding.

But what makes the ‘terrible twos’ so terrible? The ‘terrible twos’ often refers to an ordinary stage in a child’s development in which a toddler regularly manoeuvres between reliance and dependence on an adult and a will, determination and deep desire for independence. This period can be marked by:

  • frequent mood changes,
  • lots of frustration and
  • meltdowns.

Terrible twos vs teens

Why then, would I preface a blog about adolescents by thinking firstly about ‘the terrible twos’. Well, the similarities are striking. Just as a two-year-old has many complicated tasks that they must navigate, so do adolescents.

Research shows that there are two critical windows of brain development:

  • The first is between the ages of 0-3 where 85% of the social and emotional brain is developed and then
  • between the ages of 9-25 where the architecture of the brain is changing and the brain is reorganising and pruning.
    • Reorganising, in any form; is no easy task. It often requires mess and disorder before there can be order and improvement.
    • Pruning, on the other hand, is ‘to trim by cutting away dead or overgrown branches or stems, especially to encourage growth’.

This, I think is a powerful analogy to use in thinking about the teenage years. Firstly, the idea of both reorganising and pruning alludes to the fact that there is loss. Things are done away with, and there is change, which can often times be unsettling, terrifying and painful.

Understanding Teenagers at the onset of Adolescence

Some theorists within the field of psychology go as far as suggesting that even under the healthiest circumstances, adolescence is traumatic. It is a time of finding one’s place in the adult world, separating from parents, puberty and identity formation. All this coupled with academic pressure, sensory overload, social media, political unrest, increase of drug availability, more virtual and less real connections and future job and economic insecurity. It is a great deal to manage and can often lead to emotional and mental turmoil.

This, of course means that there are parents on the other side of this feeling just as confused, lost and frustrated and perhaps struggling to manage or know what to do, how to help or how to stay connected to their teens.

So, how can we ‘be with’ our teens as they go through this very demanding time of their lives?

Firstly, be as emotionally and physically present as possible, even though at times, that may seem like the very last thing they want! Despite the conflicting message teens can at times give off; knowing that you are there, even in the distance can often be very comforting. It is important for teenagers to feel like they can, should they wish to; bring their emotions to their parents and that their parents will be engaged and attuned. But this means that parents must care for themselves too – a worn-out parent is an unavailable parent.

It is also crucial that parents are aware of their own levels of anxiety and self-regulate because if parents are not able to do so with themselves, the task is even more difficult for their children. Additionally, if parents are repressive with their emotions, then it is likely that their children will be too.

As stated before, it can be very difficult to parent an adolescent and doing the utmost best as parents to hold on to empathy and sensitivity can help to metalize and imagine what our children may be experiencing.

Finally, while it is vital to show empathy, metalize and allow for emotional expressiveness; it is equally important for parents to be able to set some structures and healthy boundaries, which should be communicated with your children. Boundaries are necessary as they support a predictable environment which makes things easier to navigate.

It’s ok to feel challenged

The challenge remains: there is no rule book or step by step manual to adhere to and there will be moments when parents may feel out of their depth. Finding the balance between allowing for separation to happen while also being firmly planted as parents who play an important role can be challenging.

In moments of doubt, frustration and utter exhaustion, hold on to the image of reorganizing and pruning, remembering that there is bound to be mess, but ultimately, growth and something anew for both parent and adolescent.

Visit the Jozikids  Therapy and Counseling page if you want to look for therapeutic services for you and your family.

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