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Rolling with the Waves of Adolescence - Relating to Your Teen

by Jenni Jackson

Adolescence is a time of significant change. The body is growing and maturing, hormones are surging and the brain is still developing. In addition, the social environment is changing as our teenagers explore growing independence, focus more on friends, and face decisions about their future.

Parenting teens during this time can be full of challenges. While your teens still need you and your guidance, your parenting and guidance must adapt to all these changes. That adaptation is easier when you understand your teens’ needs, how to balance those needs in your relationship, and find ways to celebrate your relationship.

While teens begin to look and sound more like adults, they are not there yet. The human brain continues to develop into our mid-twenties; areas like the executive functioning (planning, organizing, predicting consequence) and the emotional response are still maturing. Just knowing this can help explain how your adult-like teen can show great judgment in one circumstance and make you shake your head in another.

Teenagers want to form an identity separate from their family. Their need for independence is a driving force, as is their need for connection to others outside of the family. As these needs increase, parents must remember that they still need parenting and a connection with their families. The key is understanding your teen’s needs and accommodating those needs while allowing your relationship to evolve more on their terms. The relationship is similar to an elastic band. When your children are young, they are close and the band is at rest. As they get stronger and more independent, the band gets stretched farther and longer, but the relationship is still there and forms a secure base that teens can return to after they have been out exploring the world.

Changes in your teen’s needs also require you to be aware of the changes in your own needs and feelings. These changes may leave you as parents, feeling a sense of loss. It is important to recognize what’s going on for you, so you can address your needs independently from your teen’s needs. Also, realize that it does not need to be a loss, it can and should simply be a change in the relationship.

Change often creates conflict which can be quite stressful for both parents and teens. Yet conflict can be an opportunity for growth. One tip is to try to understand a conflict from your teen’s perspective. Is the conflict showing you needs and values that you can address in another way that is acceptable to you? In other words, would a compromise or an alternative activity meet both their needs and your needs, and defuse the situation?

Celebrating your relationship with your teen is also important. Perhaps this is an opportunity to give your teen some control. What would they like to do together with you? Don’t let a refusal to do something derail your efforts, be creative and keep the ideas and offers coming. For example, since your teen’s need for connection to peers is high, would your teen enjoy including his or her friends in your quality time on occasion? Maybe that is a game, doing a hobby or taking them on an outing somewhere.

It is important to remember that teenagers do not have the ability to function like an adult. They are striving towards more independence and an increased sense of self, yet their social skills and abilities are still developing and they still need parenting. Our relationships need to reflect an understanding of their increasing need for independence and the need for connection to the family as a secure base.

In a way, parenting is like being in a boat. If you prepare yourself with a compass, bail bucket, life jacket, paddles and maybe a flare or two in case you need to put out an SOS, you’ll make it safely back to shore. Similarly, if you prepare yourself by working with your teen, respecting their needs, creating a balance in your relationship, and celebrating your relationship, you will make it through the turbulent waters of adolescence.