Navigating the Transition to Teenager
Any parent who has or is currently raising a teenager will attest that it can sometimes (or often) be a roller coaster of tested boundaries, broken rules, tantrums, tears, apathy, and ultimately, abject fear that you’re doing everything wrong. Navigating the transition to teenager is tough.
Of course, just as there are a plethora of parenting styles, there’s also a broad spectrum of teenage personalities and every parent’s experience in navigating the teen years isn’t the same. One thing that is consistent among most parents and teens, however, is the struggle to communicate and find common ground.
What happened to your baby?
As kids get older, they seek independence. When parents ask me why their teen is suddenly more private or quiet than they used to be, I explain that it’s developmentally normal during the teenage years. They want to be seen as mature and responsible, so they make an effort to establish an individual persona. This is tough for most parents, because we’re used to our little ones telling us everything and needing us all the time. As our children are transitioning into a new phase of development, we’re also forced to gradually let go of a fully dependent child.
Managing your reactions when they pull away
Just because a kid is suddenly more private does not mean they’re doing something wrong. However, many parents overreact constantly checking their kids’ social media and cell phones, putting a GPS on their phone or vehicle – essentially blocking any semblance of social privacy from their kid’s life. It’s natural to be worried about your child, but allowing anxiety to fuel overreactions could be damaging to the communication parents are striving for.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that if your child has done nothing wrong, policing their behavior and their privacy is not necessarily warranted. Instead of going to the extreme, mitigate your own anxiety by setting clear parameters for behavior and communication. When they leave the house, they should agree to check in, let you know who they’re with, where they will be, and what time they’ll be home. This will allow you to feel connected to your child, but gives them the autonomy to have a social life without you hovering or digging into their privacy. Your anxieties may be reduced as you observe them follow the rules, pursue their individualism and stay out of trouble.
Avoiding extremes – be a good parent, not a cool parent
While some parents seize the reins when their kids pull away, others let go completely. They hear the kid say, “I want my freedom,” and the instantly acquiesce. When I work with families that use this method with their teenagers, I remind them that kids that age do not have the developmental wherewithal to make sound decisions. Given the freedom to do whatever they want, most kids will. They simply do not yet possess the tools to think ahead five years and see the potential results of impulsivity.
Balance is key. Being a parent to a teenager is like being a guide. It’s important to lead them, but allow them to explore their own decisions. Healthy boundaries will make your kid feel independent, but tacitly remind them that you’re invested in their future and their well-being. If there are no rules, they will get the sense that you don’t care.
Making the rules and following through
Consistency is so critical in helping your teenager (and yourself) through this transition to independence. Establishing boundaries and expectations should happen before there are issues, not after the fact. Boundaries and established consequences provide structure and let your kids know what will happen if they break rules. It’s much more effective, however, to set these rules up before something goes awry.
Follow through is also very important. If you tell your kid they lose phone privileges for a week if they break curfew, you have to see it through. Bending the rules for convenience sends the message that you aren’t serious and that your consequences are pliable.
If you or your teenager would like more information navigating through these years, contact me or one of my partners for an appointment.
About Lesli B. Hughes, LCSW
Lesli B. Hughes, LCSW, provides individual therapy, family therapy, marriage counseling, and parent coaching. She also offers care for depression, anxiety, medical issues, life-stage issues, behavioral disorders, anger management, and attention deficit disorder. Lesli is committed to providing mental health services and support to those experiencing behavioral and emotional challenges and welcomes new patients to reserve an appointment with her.
She joined TPMG Behavioral Health in 2015.