Tips for Parents/Guardians: Dealing with a “Difficult” Teenager
Many parents/guardians of a teenage child find this complex period of development confusing, highly stressful, and even exhausting. Due to your teenage child’s significant changes in brain structure, hormonal regulation, and increased exposure to peer influence and media suggestion, this period is often extremely difficult to navigate for both the parent(s)/guardian(s) and the teenage child experiencing these changes.
Below are some tips that may assist you in guiding your teenager through this often-difficult developmental period, while minimizing your personal stress in the process:
1. Don’t take it personally. Autonomy-seeking is a normal and necessary part of brain development during adolescence; therefore, resistance to structure and rules is a normal and overwhelmingly common behavior in adolescence. It is also important to remember that your teenage child does not yet have the vocabulary or emotional regulatory skills to appropriately communicate their feelings. For example, a frustrated adolescent may yell, “You’re the worst parent ever!” to simply convey feelings of annoyance or frustration. With this in mind, it can be easier to remain objective and not allow your own negative emotions to control your reaction when addressing problematic behaviors from your teenage child.
2. Be willing to compromise. Many parents/guardians have difficulty with this due to fear of losing control within the parent-child dynamic and/or “giving in” to the child. If you find yourself resisting compromise with your teenager, I invite you to ask yourself this question: “Do I want to be right and spend six hours arguing with an angry 14-year-old, or do I want to compromise and have a calmer and more relaxing evening?” If you choose the latter, brainstorm options either alone or with your partner (if applicable) and present them to your teenage child. This allows your teenage child to exercise autonomy while you as the parent/guardian maintain overall authority within the parent-child dynamic. For example, “You cannot stay out past your curfew on a school night to go to out with friends; so, you can either extend your curfew by half-an-hour this Saturday, or I will pick you up this evening instead of you being driven home by friends so you are home by your curfew.”
3. Validate your teen’s feelings and experiences. “Teenage drama” may seem extremely minor and/or silly to you, but peer-related events that happen during this critical developmental period are extremely important to your teenage child. Your child’s ability to navigate these situations in a healthy way is critical to their psychological development. Validating your teenager’s feelings and providing authentic support and guidance through difficult situations they will face is extremely beneficial to their overall emotional wellbeing.
4. Monitor your own behaviors. Unfortunately, “Do as I say and not as I do” is not an effective strategy at promoting positive behavioral changes. As humans, our primary
learning strategy is through mimicking the behaviors we are most frequently exposed to, and, in most cases, this is through a child’s parent(s)/guardian(s). It is therefore critical for you to examine your own behaviors if they are similar to ones you wish for your child to change. For example, if you swear often but wish for your child to stop this behavior, the most effective strategy is to attempt to control this behavior in front of your child (as opposed to continuing to swear in front of your child but then disciplining the child for mimicking this behavior).
5. Create clear structure and boundaries for your teenage child. Remember that during this period of development, your adolescent’s primary goal is autonomy and separation from their caregivers; therefore, they do not yet have the ability to create structure and boundaries for themselves and they rely on fully emotionally-developed adults to create this for them. Remember that resistance from your adolescent to this is completely normal and expected, and the tips mentioned above can assist you in addressing this resistance and successfully creating structure and household regulations (or enforcing established ones).
6. Be realistic in your expectations. Adolescents do not have a fully-developed brain during this period of development. Until your teenage child reaches their mid-twenties, the part of their brain responsible for time management, impulse control, and appropriate judgment (i.e., the frontal lobe) is not yet fully developed. This is in no way meant to “make excuses” for your teenage child if they are exhibiting problematic behaviors; however, it is important to keep this limitation in mind when you and/or your partner (if applicable) attempt to formulate realistic expectations and household regulations for your adolescent.
7. Check in regularly with your adolescent. This period of development is difficult for parents/guardians because it is extremely difficult for the adolescent experiencing it. Your adolescent is experiencing extremely strong emotions with a highly limited ability to regulate these internally. This can be an extremely intense experience for many adolescents and it is important that you make yourself available to them as a known primary support figure, even if they do not always choose to take you up on it.
If you are finding the above techniques particularly difficult to implement, or your adolescent is experiencing significant emotional distress during this period of development, it may be helpful to seek the services of a mental health professional to assist and support you and/or your teenage child during this process.
-Sierra Shapiro, MS, LPC, is a staff psychotherapist at Marsh Psychology Group. She can be reached at 248-860-2024 or at email@example.com.