The Shock of Puberty
One of the most anxiety-provoking times of life for children and their parents occurs when the child reaches puberty. Puberty is a confusing hormonal, neurological, and social event in which life is turned upside down and everything, it seems, changes all at once. During puberty, teenagers have the daunting task of separating from their parents and preparing to meet adult challenges. One of the difficulties with this period of time is that adolescents swing from adult behavior back to child-like behavior rather rapidly. This is very confusing for parents because one minute they are talking with “the adult” and the next minute they are talking with “the child.” This seeming split in personality can be very perplexing and frustrating, even though it’s a part of normal teen behavior.
The Impact of Anxiety on Teens
In addition, pubescent teens suddenly develop a more complex set of emotions due to chemical and neurological changes, but they lack the coping strategies to manage these powerful feelings. When upset, many teens are simply not able to process their feelings verbally or express them appropriately. During this time even the most supportive parents are often unable to persuade their teenagers to open up. Teens whose emotions are percolating in new and frightening ways often isolate themselves in their rooms and sometimes refuse to participate in family activities.
At puberty teens begin to see their parents not as heroes, as they did in childhood, but as people with problems, faults, and inadequacies. This might be interpreted on some level as a betrayal, i.e. that the parents were fooling them all along. Sometimes there are feelings of anger related to these changes, both for teens and parents.
Other challenges for teens include adjusting to physical changes as their bodies grow into more adult stature. Physical, emotional, and neurological changes make fitting in socially both a top priority and a terrifying challenge. Life is suddenly complex as teens begin to struggle with low self-esteem, identity questions, dating, more complex school work, and a myriad of other challenges. Even without the invisible emotional and neurological challenges, it makes sense that all these changes would trigger moderate to massive amounts of anxiety. The journey through puberty is a daunting one!
The Impact on Parents
But the teen herself isn’t the only one deeply impacted, perhaps even traumatized, by the suddenness of these changes. Parents typically experience feelings of loss during their child’s entry into puberty, wondering, “Who is this stranger in my house?” It’s as if a body snatcher came along and took the child they knew and loved and replaced her with this stranger. Parents may feel rejected by their teen and unintentionally withdraw emotional support or become angry and critical, not being consciously aware of their own feelings. When this occurs, teenagers feel alone and their anxiety skyrockets. Some teenagers will purposely stay away from home as much as possible. They might attempt to recreate a sense of family with a circle of friends or may turn to alcohol or drugs. Even parents who have consistently reached out to their teens to offer support and assistance may be rebuffed.
Remaining Emotionally Available
So how can parents help themselves and their teenagers navigate this anxiety-provoking developmental phase? In order to effectively address these challenges, parents must first accept the fact that their child has changed and mourn the loss of that parent/child relationship. The relational vacuum created as a teen pulls away from her parents is bound to be painful. Some parents react in anger; others attempt to retain a level of control over their teen that is unrealistic and counterproductive. Regardless of natural inclination, however, parents do well to fill this vacuum in positive ways, for instance by re-engaging their spouse or support network. This is a perfect time for parents to re-engage neglected interests and/or pursue their process of personal growth.
Though teens sometimes respond as if they don’t want their parents to be part of their lives, they still need to know they are loved and valued. An unforced message that the parent is emotionally available, therefore, is crucial. In addition, it is important for parents to realize that though puberty can be devastating to the parent/child relationship, it is the precursor to an adult-adult relationship. Losses create space and opportunity for other good things to enter our lives. Parents who retain this long-term perspective have a better chance of weathering their child’s adolescence effectively – in a way that will set the foundation for a stronger adult-adult relationship.
Parents may need to be creative in how they try to maintain an emotional connection with their teen. It is easy, but self-defeating, for parents to prioritize their own feelings of loss above their feelings of empathy for their teenager. Parents who withdraw in kind or push too hard for engagement may inadvertently drive their child further away. Teenagers may feel intimidated by face-to-face discussions, but might still enjoy going to a movie together or having parents attend their sporting events or other activities.
Holding regular family meetings to discuss the week’s agenda can be a time when families compare notes and discuss common goals and activities. During these meetings, input from children and teens regarding family rules and consequences can be encouraged, helping them feel respected and invested. Getting to know your teen’s friends is another critical strategy for staying engaged in your teen’s world; inviting your friends to visit and providing activities in the home are ways to show support and at the same time be vigilant regarding your teen’s activities.
It is vital to keep the lines of communication open with your teen. One rule of thumb is that if your teen is saying something that seems irrational, she is probably talking about feelings. One common lament of teenagers is, “you don’t understand me!” or, “you don’t listen to me!” When emotions are high, that is the time to use good listening skills. If your teen complains that you are not listening and becomes escalated, try a classic counseling skill called active listening. Reflect what your child is saying back to them in your own words; this helps you ensure that you are correctly hearing them and helps them correct misunderstandings.
Active listening, when done effectively, shows that you are working to connect and to understand and helps take emotional pressure out of the conversation. It requires a sincere desire to understand and a willingness to delay efforts at problem solving or advice. Active listening can have a calming effect and can help you and your child feel more connected. If, despite your best efforts at active listening, your child still feels that you still don’t understand her, it can be helpful to closely inspect what you are saying and how you are saying it. Sometimes this is best done with a third party such as a spouse or a therapist. Then you can make the necessary changes in your approach.
Teenagers often balk at or argue about rules and boundaries. Though it appears they dislike limits, they feel much calmer when parents can be consistent in this area. This creates safety and helps teens feel that their parents love and care about them. As mentioned earlier, teens will be more likely to follow rules when they have input regarding the limits and consequences.
There are many challenges for parents and teens during puberty. However, it is also an exciting time when new skills can be learned, a foundation for adult relationships can be laid, and progress can occur in family relationships.