Parents notice a shift in their teen. One day their child mostly listens to them and follows the rules, and then suddenly they don't. Now every word you say gets met with an exasperated gasp, they don't want you in their room, and they follow a different fad every week.
What happened? The teen years happened.
The task of adolescence is for the teen to separate from their parents. The struggle of adolescence often surrounds the difficulty of this task for both the teen and the parent.
We call this individuation. What they are doing is trying on different identities to determine who they are. They are rejecting parts of each parent that they do not want to become, and integrating parts that they do want to become. However, they need some space to do this. And what creates space between people better than anger?
But just because they are performing important developmental tasks, it does not mean they get to disobey all of your rules. More on that later. And don't worry. This trying on of identities changes often, so if your child says they believe one thing and you believe another, chances are they'll change to a different belief in another month. Just smile, listen, engage them in discussion, and encourage them to continue expressing their beliefs. For children who were adopted or are step-children, their separation is compounded with the need to do this process with each parent (birth parents and every day parents).
Remember: It is not that the adolescent does not care what the adult thinks, it is that they care too much, which interferes with their ability to become a separate adult. They can only learn to depend on themselves and believe in their own power and agency when the power and agency of their parents is diminished.
Here's a few tips to allow them the space they need to individuate, while maintaining the structure you need:
1. Choose your battles. Create a list of the top 5 most important issues to you. Think about some of the disagreements that you and your teen have on a typical day. Are they in your top 5? To borrow a military expression, sometimes it is more important to let them win a battle so that you may win the war.
2. Peas or Carrots. This is a technique which works wonders to give space and provide structure. If you want your 6 year old to eat a vegetable, you may ask them, "Do you want Peas or Carrots?" You don't care which one they have, so long as they eat a vegetable. The same concept applies to the teen. Let's say you want your teen to take out the trash. You may say to him, "I need you to take out the trash. Do you want to do it now, or wait until after your TV show?" When he chooses, you are providing him the opportunity to feel more in control of his life. And your main goal is accomplished, that is, to have the trash taken out.
3. Provide opportunities for outlets. Give your teen a chance to figure out who they are by trying out an identity. If she seems interested in sports, encourage her to go out for the volleyball team. If he stays in his room all day with his I-Pod glued to his ears, talk with him about taking guitar lessons. The more opportunities your teen has to figure out who they are, the more grounded they will feel, and the less energy they will focus on their disagreements with you.
4. Notice your own reaction. How does it feel for you to have your teen act differently than how you would like? Is it okay in your household to hold a different opinion on a topic you consider important? Do you get angry, anxious, nervous, or disappointed when these things happen? I'm not suggesting to not react. Rather, you want to make sure your reactions are not subtly telling your teen that they should not become a separate adult. It will be helpful for you to notice and monitor your own reactions, because I guarantee your teen is noticing.
Copyright © 2022 Jeannie Colvin, MFT - All Rights Reserved.
Newport Beach, CA 949-241-0042