This post is Part 1 of a 4 Part series about teenagers and how to parent consciously. In Part 1, I’ll provide general information to normalize teen behavior and consider common issues, while in Parts 2 and 3, respectively, I’ll share important information about the teenage brain and suggest ways parents can consciously parent as they witness the dynamic transition from adolescence to adulthood. Finally, in Part 4, I’ll share my thoughts on bullying. I’ll give examples of teens I have worked with in order to reassure parents that support is available for both them and their teenaged children.
The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.
Socrates 469-399 BC
Many of you may be surprised to learn that the above quote, written by the Greek philosopher Socrates (469-399 BC), is over two thousand years old! Clearly, parents, teachers, and teens have faced challenges with this stage of development for centuries. What you and your teen are going through is nothing new. So what are the challenges of this stage of development and what is needed to go through it as consciously, not to mention as gracefully, as possible for all involved?
What You Need to Know About Your Teenager
Some teens are consistently thoughtful and respectful, and they seem to bypass giving into many of the self-destructive or rebellious impulses that are often observed during the teen years. However, some of the common challenges adults face while parenting teens are issues such as disrespect, impulsivity, fights, and risk taking with drugs and sex. Many adults fear that these issues in teens these days are getting worse and worse. The truth is that teenagers have always acted this way.
We constantly hear in the news about fights, thefts, or gang violence involving teens. Some adults are scared and feel distrustful of teens for these reasons. Whether or not teens are actually guilty of each crime or situation they are blamed for varies. Whether or not they are responsible for what happened, adults commonly project additional fears they have onto teens and a number of these fears are false, or only partially true. Unfortunately, this has the impact of creating more distance between teens and adults.
Teens are at an interesting stage in their lives in which they are no longer children but haven’t yet become adults either. It can sometimes feel confusing. On the one hand teens are capable of carrying on amazing conversations, and can be very quick thinkers as well as excellent debaters. They can be coordinated and quite strong in ways that remind many adults of themselves. They can also be quite reasonable, polite, and thoughtful. It can be overwhelming for adults when they hear their teen yelling swear words at them, or find out that their teen has stolen something or damaged property.
In most cases, acting out is a result of poor judgment, lack of experience, and a desire for independence. If a teenager breaks the law, does something unethical, or breaks family rules, you’ll need to discipline your teen (I’ll be covering this topic in more detail in Part 3). Discipline is important and, as we’ll discover, it is important to discipline without shaming or creating unnecessary distance between you and your teen.
The Angry Teen
Andrew was sent to see me because he was getting angrier and angrier. He felt like he couldn’t meet his parents’ standards. Both of his parents were successful high achievers. Andrew struggled in school and also had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Some of the symptoms included brain fog, feelings of agitation and distractibility, spurts of energy, irritation, and quick temper.
Andrew remembered his father getting angry when he was younger. He said that he always felt sad and guilty because he felt like a disappointment to his father. He was often compared to his older sister, who had done quite well in school and was also popular socially. He ended up getting together with kids who were struggling more than he was and was a leader among this group.
As a group, they smoked cigarettes and marijuana and got into trouble by being loud and disruptive and getting into fights. There was a history of alcoholism in the family, which Andrew was aware of, but he claimed that alcohol was not his issue.
Andrew’s father worked long hours and traveled out of state regularly, and so Andrew was often left with his mother, with whom he would get into arguments. His mother was more of a disciplinarian, and she would try to assert her authority, but they would often just get into yelling matches.
After a history of problems with the police, school suspension, fights, marijuana, and alcohol, I referred Andrew to a wilderness treatment program. He always enjoyed the outdoors, so that was one of the things that made this type of a referral less of a stretch. After returning from this program, I worked with him on anger management, and supported him in maintaining his sobriety by getting a sponsor and attending a 12-step meeting that some of the peers he was in wilderness treatment with also attended.
Being back at home with his mother after his return from the wilderness treatment program represented some challenges. In addition to family therapy, I directed Andrew to notice what type of anger style he used. His anger came on explosively and felt out of control. He felt relief after expressing it, but also felt bad. I also had him pay attention to which anger symptoms he noticed as his anger was rising. The symptoms he became aware of over time included tightness in his breath, dizziness, heavy fast breathing, heart pounding, tight jaw, tight stomach and other muscles, and feeling his face getting flushed.
I educated him about how the way in which we make meaning of situations, and our subsequent feelings, determines our response and the way we react. Tools that were helpful included STOP (stop, take time to breathe, observe, and proceed). Andrew was also able to track early, middle, and late warning signs that would usually lead to an outburst.
I exposed him to other tools that would help increase his awareness, such as one called Relax, Observe, and Allow. Once in a relaxed state, he was able to more easily observe his thoughts and impulse to react, and to allow more space for these thoughts and feelings to be there. I also taught him different ways to distract himself when he was feeling triggered and to keep a record of which distractions worked best for each kind of trigger.
Some of the distractions included engaging in activities that improved his mood, mental distraction through activities that kept his mind occupied, physical activities that helped release pent up energy, spending time connecting with others (without ruminating), activities that made him laugh and feel lighter, and creative activities that helped him express himself. We also used many of the same tools to work with and manage Andrew’s triggers to use alcohol or marijuana.
Suggestions For Parents
Teens with anger issues will tend to push up against their parents. They need consistent limit setting. Andrew felt a desire for approval from his father, and did not feel close to his mother. What was needed was for his parents to come together. In this case, and others like this, having his father get more involved was essential.
Another important message for teens is to know that their parents love them and are not frustrated with them as people, but are frustrated with their behaviors. Some parents have expectations that their teens will be as successful as they were in school. What’s most important is encouraging teens to do their best, which may change over time. When teens are going through a rough patch, their best may not be what it is when they are feeling better about themselves. It’s important for parents to have some flexibility in their expectations and provide encouragement.
The more that parents try to push their personal agenda on a teen, the more risk with some teens that there will be a battle. For Andrew, parental pressure that he be accepted to the best school in the country was opposite to his thoughts about possibly skipping college all together. Meeting teens where they are, discussing the logistics and pros and cons of their decisions non-judgmentally, and sharing their concerns while providing encouragement, can lead to a better working relationship.
Regarding the issue of ADHD
I used some different tools to help Andrew stay more organized, including looking at the calendar on his phone to slow conversations down so he could respond more appropriately. Sometimes he found it helpful to distract himself by playing with objects in his hands in order to be more present. We also worked on helping him to relax into moments that felt less intense and expand his capacity to stay focused and relaxed during those times while letting go of the impulse to seek intensity. I also referred him to neurofeedback, which has shown to demonstrate some success in treating the issue of ADHD.
It is important that a thorough assessment is completed before a teen is prescribed medication. The assessment should include a visit to the family physician to rule out medical issues as well as talking to the teen’s teachers, school counselor, and a psychiatrist.
More on Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drugs
Alcohol: When teens use too much alcohol the body stops producing dopamine, which is the “feel good” neurotransmitter. As a result, teens will feel worse and worse when they are not drinking. Teens are also less affected by the effects of drinking too much; they stumble less, and have less significant hangovers. So, if teens are drinking a lot, by the time they do experience health consequences of alcohol, the situation may be much more serious.
Alcohol affects short-term memory, which is related to a neurotransmitter called glutamate. Without glutamate, it is harder for teens to learn and store new memories in their brains. This is even more crucial to adolescents who need to be learning while the brain is producing maximum glutamate. Otherwise, it will be harder to learn later.
Tobacco: Research by tobacco companies shows that teens get addicted much quicker than adults. Nicotine affects 12 different neurotransmitters. Their dopamine centers rise when they are smoking, but when not smoking they feel more stressed out than they would otherwise.
Marijuana can cause the irregular production of dopamine, and dopamine levels are already lower in teens to start with so they will be more at risk. Marijuana also affects a teen’s ability to focus, which is why many who smoke it are described as spacey. One of the biggest issues is that this can affect a teen’s motivation.
Suggestions For Parents
I just named the most common substances for teens. Tobacco is considered a gateway drug. Research shows that kids who smoke are at greater risk of using alcohol and other drugs. If you drink alcohol as a parent, model responsible use. Parents’ actions regarding alcohol and substances are more potent than whatever is said verbally.
The message needs to be clear that drinking or using substances while driving is off limits. Get to know your teen’s friends. Have regular conversations about alcohol and substances and the risks, and set and enforce curfews. It’s important that parents are clear and avoid sending mixed messages, or accepting excuses for repeated drinking or drug use. Monitor any alcohol or prescription medications so that they are not easily accessible to teens while parents are away.
Sam was at a neighborhood party with his family. His parents said it was ok to taste the wine the adults were drinking. Not only did he taste it, he drank so much alcohol at the event that he ended up vomiting all over the neighbor’s house. Sam’s parents probably felt their blood pressures rise!
When this type of thing happens, parents may be tempted to blame themselves, their teen, or a one of their teen’s friends. It is important to remain calm during these times, because these kinds of situations may trigger parents about memories of their childhoods and there may be an impulse to react the way their parents did with them.
Dr. Daniel Siegel, author, Parenting from the Inside Out, talks about how, ideally, if parents are able to be fully present in a challenging moment with their child, they will have access to a “drop down menu” of options to choose from about how to best respond to the situation in front of them. After Sam sobered up, his parents asked him about his drinking. Sam admitted to drinking during lunchtime at his school. His parents approach was to call the school and ask for the names of the teens that Sam was drinking with.
His parents each felt like they must have done something to cause Sam to act this way. Sam was not performing in school to his parents’ standards. Sam’s father was critical of him and would get irritated, impatiently asking Sam a rapid succession of questions whenever Sam was talking about something in a tangential way. Sam’s mother was sensitive and would take things personally that Sam said or did and would then withdraw from him.
Sam appeared to be a shy, detached, and lonely teen. In therapy he disclosed that he felt as if he was worthless or unlovable. He believed that his father was disappointed in him and felt like his mother loved him as long as it served her. In reality, Sam’s parents, while they both had their own issues, loved him deeply.
In family therapy, I guided Sam’s parents to encourage more emotional conversations with Sam in which they could make space for all of his feelings and hurt parts to have a voice. I then continued this work with Sam individually. This approach lead to Sam feeling more heard, seen, and supported in his family, and also lead him to make more of an effort to connect socially with other teens and become more engaged in his life.
I believe that many of us as adults today still long for those moments when we feel that someone is able to hold and make space for the vulnerable and hurt parts that were never fully welcomed. When certain parts of us that do not feel welcomed get triggered, then we are more likely to feel ashamed of ourselves and unworthy. I believe that what is important as parents is being able to remember times when you felt your most vulnerable and try to make space for those kinds of feelings with kindness when you notice them arising in your teen.
What Sam’s Story Means For Parents
Talk about peer pressure. Letting your teen know that being social is an area that can be developed and share personal experiences with them that may have worked for you when you first learned to connect with other kids. When teens compare themselves to others, it’s important to remind them of some of their gifts and strengths.
Look to other adults for support. It’s normal during this time period for teens to be more interested in other teens and less interested in their parents. This time period is one of teens discovering who they are and who they want to be. Alcohol and drugs can get in the way of learning and growing and increasing their awareness of the type of person they want to be.
Because teen behavior can be stressful, it’s important to seek peer and professional support so you, in turn, can support your teen as he or she walks the path towards independence and individuation. He or she is preparing to leave the nest and needs to build some confidence in order to be able to do that successfully.