Adolescent brain growth is defined by four traits: novelty-seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity, and creative exploration. Teens are in a season of exploring who they are, what their values are, how to connect with others, and what brings them joy and fulfillment in love. These are positive, healthy, and normal developments, but oftentimes the outgrowth can cause conflict with family or lead to some concerning behaviors. As parents, it is important to ask if your teen’s behaviors are normative experiments with gaining independence and learning important life lessons (sometimes easily, sometimes “the hard way”), or if there are more serious concerns about rebellious, danger behaviors (substance use, skipping school, getting in trouble with the law, unsafe sexual behaviors) or emotional health (depression or anxiety that is difficult for your teen to manage, even if they are a high performer.)
HOW IS THERAPY HELPFUL FOR TEENS?
Emotions feel fresh, big, and sometimes unmanageable. Therapy can be helpful in learning how to cope with the teenage emotional experience in a helpful manner, as well as to normalize these emotional shifts.
Therapy can help teens build more insight into their values and goals and how to increase the congruency of their current actions with said values and goals.
Teens are smart and are seeing the truth in how people are as well as the larger world in general. This can be a difficult, sometimes harsh awakening, especially given particular family dynamics or experiences a teen has had. Therapy is a safe place to process this, rather than to lose hope or become cynical. Balancing the harsh realities of the world along with the equally present hope and beauty is an art.
Teens are forming and exploring their identity. It is a common experience to either struggle with self esteem or to build an overly confident identity on items that are shaky and prone to changing. Therapy can help teens assess who they want to be and the strengths they have to develop a stronger, internal foundation.
Therapy can get to the underlying issues of “big behaviors” (oppositional behaviors, substance use, skipping school, etc) that often concern parents and teachers. In exploring these underlying issues, teens are more likely to learn how to deal directly with what is occurring.
For the high performing, perfectionistic teen, sometimes the anxiety that propels them to excel the majority of the time becomes inhibiting (overly critical of themselves, worrying excessively, frequently crying out of frustration, difficulty completing schoolwork out of a fear of failure, difficulty sleeping, vomiting or other physical responses to stress.) Therapy can help teens manage their anxiety and stress and tap into the strengths that have contributed to their success.
It gives them access to exploring their bigger questions with a person who can be easier to trust and talk openly with (in other words, not a family member and not a peer who might share information.) Ideally, through therapy, teens can be become more comfortable with sharing openly with safe family members and friends.
Addressing any of the above issues in therapy while teens are living at home with a supportive family will absolutely aid their transition to moving out for college or work in the future. They will be much more likely to be confident, grounded, able to make well-rounded choices, and able to cope with difficult scenarios they face.
PARENTING A TEEN
When parents wake up one day and realize that they have a full-blown adolescent in their home rather than a child, they often describe feeling like new parents again. It is a commonly disorienting experience because what worked well with parenting your child often may not work well with your teenager, and your relationship with your teen may take some confusing shifts. Know that this is normal. Every family and culture will have different ways of parenting and connecting with their teen children. That being said, there are some overall principles and techniques that will likely be helpful in your parenting of a teenager.
Love your teen even if you dislike their choices: Always communicate that you love your teen, even if you dislike their behaviors. Spend quality time with your teen even if their actions have been frustrating to you. Never be slow to affirm your love for them, and clarify that it is their behaviors that you are frustrated with and disapprove of.
Remain curious about your teen: It is normal for teens to shift interests, activities, perspectives, friends, ways of viewing the world, and future goals. Engage them about these items with open-ended questions and limit assumptions as much as possible, as they will be less likely to get defensive and more likely to share openly.
Natural Consequences: There will be times when teens will receive natural consequences for their actions. In these instances when there are not prominent safety concerns or larger consequences, do not intervene and “rescue” them. Allow them to learn what they need to and be available to listen to them share their findings without communicating “I told you so.” For instance, if your teen is struggling with his grades, he might get kicked off a school sports team. If your teen acts selfishly with a friend, she may lose this friend.
Connected Consequences: As much as possible, when giving a consequence make sure that it is directly connected to their behavior. For instance, if your teen is using her phone after she was supposed to be asleep or in an inappropriate manner, take away her phone for a time period. If your teen stayed out past curfew or got in trouble with a group of friends, restrict him from hanging out with those friends. Make the consequence clear and specific. Always use consequences rather than nagging to prompt change in your teen. Don’t take away positive influences as consequences, such as not allowing your teen to attend a church group, a music lesson, or a sports practice.
It’s okay to admit your mistakes: Times when you have lost your temper or made a decision that was not congruent are perfect opportunities to model owning your behaviors and apologizing to your teen. Not only does this highlight you being a real human being, but it also makes you more trustworthy to your teen and increases the likelihood that they will be able to own their own behaviors.
Give yourself grace: Being a parent to a teen isn’t easy, and it’s impossible to feel in control (because you really aren’t.) Having a teenager can also bring up parents’ own difficult feelings and experiences from their teen years. Engage in your friendships with other parents of teens to normalize the experiences and to share stories of what has been helpful. Continue to engage in your own self care (exercise, activities that bring you joy and meaning) and be okay with making mistakes and taking a different approach. Seek your own support or therapy if needed.
Next, read about Young Adult Therapy.