An expert on parent-teen relationships (and their healing power!) shares expert advice on communicating and thriving with your teen
Chloe was a precocious 14-year-old who, while doing well in her competitive private school and engaged in an array of impressive extracurriculars to stay on the competitive track, was also “packed for Paris” under her bed. Mom, Maya, recently found out there was more than just a suitcase in Chloe’s stash retrieving evidence of pot smoking and drinking. They came to me after Chloe had refused to speak to Mom and was threatening to leave the family home if her parents didn’t give her “more freedom.” Mom threatened to send Chloe away. The communication had broken down.
The bonds between mother and daughter were strong and fierce and this was a family who seemed to have it all together. Until now. The relationship and Chloe’s future were on the line if they could not resolve this dilemma.
Stay Connected to Your Teen
Dostoevsky commented that Hell is the inability to love and I agree.
We now know from research, particularly a longitudinal study at Harvard, that warm human relationships are the most essential predictive factors for both physical and mental health. Another impressive study, demonstrating how the specific parent-child connection is vital, used interviews from 90,000 adolescents from 80 different US communities and demonstrated that adolescents with strong emotional ties to parents were significantly less likely to exhibit drug and alcohol problems, attempt suicide or engage in violent behavior and early sexual activity. The alienation I see between parents and teens is particularly concerning as I know that family ties can be the most deep and nourishing bonds we have.
Healing Requires Going Within
While Chloe needed some effective parenting and limits around certain behaviors like stashing and possibly using alcohol, as the sessions with Mom and daughter unfolded it became clear that Mom had deep emotional scars from her own childhood which led to mixed messages to Chloe about growing up. Mom’s own mother was absent and alcoholic so Mom approached her mothering by going in the opposite direction: vowing to be “on top of everything” when she had her child.
The lack of an attuned mother is a nonevent for a reptile and a shattering injury to the complex and fragile limbic brain of a mammal.
When parents’ reactions to their teen are rooted in their own unconscious wounds and left unchecked, power struggles and even the end of the relationship can result. Once Mom resolved her issues related to her absent mother she was able to see that she had been controlling Chloe since she was a child; preventing her from the incremental freedoms we allow our children as they prove they are ready. This led to anger in Chloe and a fear that she would never be granted the appropriate space to explore her own self and her own life. Once Mom was able to own her controlling and over-parenting tendencies and Chloe, a largely well-adjusted teen, realized that her rebellion using alcohol, was not in her best interest, the bond was restored.
3 Tips for Staying Connected to Your Teen and Growing Amidst the Chaos
The parent-teen relationship, particularly the conflict, is an opportunity for growth and transformation. I work with love lost– repairing broken ties between parents and teens into, first a semblance of connection and then into profound change for both.
Like birth and the feelings that accompany the care of a child, parenting a teen involves magnificent pain and equally magnificent joy. We know that those who love us can hurt us the most. Our teens are our mirrors: what we do not choose to see or face in ourselves will show up in their emotional life or their behaviors. Here are three strategies to avoid the power struggles and find the gifts in your teens’ challenges.
1. Endure Emotions: One of the core emotions we feel as parents is fear. Parental fear is the biological wiring that makes us care more than anything else what is happening moment to moment with our child. Fear is normal; to a point. But fear, like any other emotion that is exaggerated and amplified by a parent’s unresolved emotional struggles, can lead to anger, reactivity and distorted thinking that limits our decision making and narrows the field of options we have to manage the complex dilemmas our teens present. Sometimes the fear comes in the form of catastrophic scenarios that keep us up at night. Our teen will also trigger other emotions—anger, despair,– he will push our buttons. And I get that the behavior is often egregious. Like landing in the Emergency Room for drinking or failing out of school. Who wouldn’t be angry or disappointed? But since you are the parent and your teen is busy giving birth to his personhood I ask parents to see how their teens’ behaviors are lessons for their own growth. This does not mean, again, that there isn’t a role for consequences and other guiding and teen-focused responses from us. But any reactive emotion that is exaggerated by our own past hurts, even when it’s valid, is rarely the most successful way to maintain the connection which, as our children grow, is our only real leverage to truly impact their lives. Locking them in their room until they’re 21 will prevent them from engaging in dangerous behaviors for sure. But good luck with the relationship after that!
The opposite of enduring emotions is blocking, denying, projecting or medicating them. Not that there isn’t a place for all of these ways of handling emotions especially when raising teens. But if you wish to reduce conflict and power struggles, dealing with your own emotions will get you the best results. Sit with them; get to know them. I say: “Don’t do something, just sit there.” Feel the feelings and learn from what your teen triggers in you.
2. Enlarge the Lens Through Which You See Your Teen: Sometimes parents of 13-year-olds are still treating their young teens like 9-year-olds. Sometimes parents are micromanaging when they need to become the “consultant” for their teen, hovering on the edges of the pool as it were to make sure their teen is okay but letting them enjoy the freedoms to swim and play without our hovering.
Rather than lecturing or imparting information to our teens, invite them into the dialogue and give them the benefit of the adult they are becoming in the conversation, even if the freedom you grant will be tailored to the teen. Often the inner “narrative” as I call it for our teen needs revision. How can you see yourself, and your teen differently every day to account for the tremendous changes that are underway in them? Experiment with new ways to see the behaviors that are different from narrative you usually have for them. Do you have a “story” about your teen: “She’s not living up to her potential” or: “He’s not motivated; lazy!” or: “She’s the social butterfly; where’s that going to lead?” or: “He should play sports!” Can you pause and reflect to see if you have broadened your lens to include aspects of your teen that may be emerging, which may be unknown to you right now? Can you try to trust them in the face of challenging behaviors they present?
3. Meditate: Create Space for New Possibilities: Science and spirituality are now converging on the benefits of meditation. So take a moment right now. Sit quietly, breathe deeply and notice the thoughts you have, particularly concerning your teen. What is your No. 1 worry about your teen? Notice it. Write it down. And then during the day, remind yourself about this fear and find the place inside you where that fear originates or is heightened. Sure, teens do things that legitimately worry us. But when we add our own unresolved or irrational emotions from the past to an already challenging teenage set of behaviors, our ability to respond effectively is dramatically compromised and our teen will move away from us to avoid our stress. Thomas Friedman, in his book Thank you for Being Late, writes about the dangers of a world run by the dizzying speed of technology and his conclusions reflect the same tip: Slow down. Friedman chronicles our culture’s recent acceleration and concludes that a particular type of slowness which requires an adeptness at shutting out the noise to access one’s deepest values, is the tonic.
Human connection, love, the ability to know each other and be known will always trump the pleasures of outward success or anything the brain can devise. It’s just true. So staying connected to your teen and seeing his challenges as ways for you to grow serves the dual purpose of satisfying yours and your teens’ deepest needs and nudging you to expand and be your best self. It’s a win-win.
Christa Santangelo, PhD is a clinical psychologist specializing in the healing power of the parent-teen relationship. Since completing her post-doctoral fellowship at Yale University, Dr. Santangelo has served as assistant clinical professor at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), where she lectures today. Her forthcoming book, A New Theory of Teens, distills her 25 years of experience working with parents and teens – leveraging the parent-teen conflict as an opportunity for spiritual growth and personal transformation. Dr. Santangelo is also a mother who offers personal wisdom from her own parenting journey. To learn more, visit christasantangelo.com