When I think back to how I treated my parents during my teen years, I often cringe with guilt at how rude I was.
I treated my teachers and coaches with respect, but when it came to my parents, it seemed that sometimes all the rules for respectful social interactions went out the door.
For example, my dad used to be prone to lecturing me and my siblings. Most of the time his lectures were about things that I had done, but they also branched out into things that he thought were important for me to know. While I learned that it was best to just sit there and listen (rather than get up and leave), I figured out ways to show my indifference. I would do this first and foremost through my body language.
Most often I would sit as far away from him as possible, implicitly communicating my indifference. I would never make eye contact with him and would usually slump in my chair or turn my body at an angle so that I wasn’t directly facing him. I also used classic teen tactics if I was called upon to answer a question. Some of my favorites included ignoring questions completely, giving one-word answers such as “yeah” or “no,” and the ultimate teen power move phrase: “I don’t know.” Looking back, I’m impressed that my dad kept his cool and soldiered on with these one-sided conversations!
Hopefully you don’t have a child who is as openly hostile when talking to you as I was when talking to my dad. But if you have a preteen or teen, there’s a chance that you might. We know that these are years where children begin to assert their independence and pull away from their parents. It might be a shock to your system when your children begin to tell you less and less about their thoughts and feelings while at the same time they are willing to tell strangers on social media their most secret inner thoughts and feelings.
What are ways that you can work on keeping that bridge of communication open even as your child begins to pull back?
This column will focus on what to expect from your teen, and my next column will look at some strategies to better communicate with your teen.
Let’s look at what to expect when talking with your teen.
Developmentally, the teenage years are when young people start trying to become more independent. Teens are going through a host of changes that affect their bodies and minds.
One crucial thing to understand about teens is their brain development. Teen brains primarily assess situations based off of their emotions rather than logic. In fact, the part of their brains that controls rational thought won’t fully develop until they are around 25, meaning that teens don’t have the same capacity to use logical and rational thought that a fully grown adult does.
Additionally, during their teenage years, children begin to pull away from their parents. Because of this desire for independence, teens might seemingly change overnight. Some children might no longer be as affectionate, and they might push you away when you try to show them affection. Parents can also be caught off guard when they go from being their children’s heroes to being people with whom their children don’t want to be seen with in public.
Remember that this is a normal part of development. This doesn’t mean that you should condone disrespectful or disobedient behavior from your child, but it is helpful to understand that it will happen.
Along with this desire for independence from their parents, teens also have an increased emphasis on peer relationships.
It is often during these years that young people begin to form their own social groups and start gaining interest in dating. And while teens might view their parents as dinosaurs who lack any type of insight about how to help them with their problems, they often are open books to their friends. While it is developmentally normal for teens to begin to create their own social groups and pull away from their parents as their sole source of seeking advice, teens often prioritize fitting in to a group over sound decision-making. This can explain why some teens make such boneheaded decisions.
While teens might fully understand the risky nature of some of their choices, their brains are hardwired for fitting in. If you combine that with their limited brain development when it comes to logic and reason, you can have a recipe for disaster. Because of this combination, teens will often engage in risky behaviors even when they know that those behaviors aren’t good decisions.
If you have a teen, help your child understand the changes teenagers go through and encourage your child to have some independence while still making wise choices. Help teens to understand that their desire to fit in is what is driving their behavior. Understanding this is the first step to helping teens control their behaviors.
Finally, learn to talk to teens in a way that meets them where they are. We’ll address some ways to do that in the next column.
• Mischa McCray is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist. Send questions or topics you’d like him to discuss to firstname.lastname@example.org.