By Robbye Fox
“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” “This sucks!” “Leave me alone!”
Could these words possibly be coming from the loving angel who used to cling to you, every minute of every day? Raging hormones and a reorganizing brain can make our teenage children temporarily unrecognizable. These physiological changes reduce teens’ ability to regulate and control their emotions and impulses, resulting in negative attitudes and backtalk. But while parents can’t control what’s going on physiologically, there’s still plenty we can do to help promote more positive dialogue.
The first step, according to therapist, author and acclaimed parenting expert Alyson Schafer, is to study up. “All parents should become educated from a developmental point of view on what’s going on during the teenage years,” Schafer says. This could include reading up on the reorganizing teenage brain or taking a parenting class such as those offered locally in-person and nationally online by the Parent Encouragement Program. Understanding what’s going on behind the curtain of our teens’ brains can help us prepare and appreciate all that they’re going through.
“The relationship is one of our most significant parenting tools,” Schafer adds. “Teens decide for themselves whose influence they will take – if they feel we’re against them or don’t understand them, they will basically go around us.”
Relationship-building takes place when we spend time with our teens engaged in an enjoyable activity, and not nagging them about logistics, schoolwork, chores, etc. Hassle-free meal times and fun family activities also earn dividends in the relationship bank, even when the teen acts like he doesn’t want to be there. Schafer notes that we need to “make it clear to our teens that we care about them and have their backs, and that we want to understand them and are trying to do just that.”
As children hit adolescence, they are psychologically physiologically, and socially undergoing drastic changes. They are gradually growing in autonomy, becoming the person who will ultimately move out of the house. “Their #1 pursuit has become looking for validation more from peers than from parents,” Schafer explains. “Parents don’t appreciate this shift – they like being the only authority in the child’s life.”
In response, a parent’s instinct is often to crack down on a teen and try to control her more, but that’s actually the worst thing to do. “We have to evolve our parenting style and become less instructive,” Schafer says. Parents need to view their position as changing from a manager to a consultant or coach, progressively offering teens more responsibility for analyzing choices and making decisions.
Adopting new ways of communicating is a huge part of the parenting shift. It begins with talking less and listening more. Teens will eventually fill the dead air space if they feel they will be listened to without immediate criticism and judgment. Asking open-ended questions that require them to think (such as “What are your plans this evening?”) rather than closed-ended questions that only require one-word answers (“Are you going out tonight?”) also helps open up dialogue. Schafer suggests asking teens curiosity questions about topics they know a lot about or are interested in. “They like to show us what they know versus knowing what we know,” she adds.
As part of their growing autonomy, teens are more likely to challenge what parents and other authority figures say, and Schafer suggests parents embrace that rather than fight it. “Our kids need to learn and practice how to voice their opinions and concerns in a respectful way,” she says. “If we want them to know how to advocate, question and debate, then where else are they going to practice that if not under our own roof?”
According to Hal Runkel, author of “Screamfree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool,” parents need to realize that being a model at all times is vital. “Children will be far more likely to consult Mr. Model for guidance, rather than approach Mr. Critic,” writes Runkel. Schafer agrees. “Parents are often naïve about how they talk with kids, believing that ‘it’s okay if I yell at you, but you can’t yell at me,’” she observes. “If we call them names, such as lazy or spoiled, don’t be surprised if they call us something worse.”
As much as we are tempted to show our own anger or hurt feelings, it is crucial to model a calm and respectful response to intense emotional interactions. “If we can’t show self-control using our adult brains, then how can we expect our teens to act appropriately?” Schafer asks. We can help them by modeling the words to use when someone is disrespectful. “I don’t let anyone talk to me like that and I hope you don’t let anyone talk to you like that” is a statement Schafer suggests using so that teens learn respectful ways to set limits on what they accept in their relationships with others.
If all else fails, remember that you are raising the future parents of your grandchildren. How will you want them to talk to one another?
Robbye Fox is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program and mother of three children currently in the brain reorganization stage of life. This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Washington Parent Magazine. Read it here. Learn more about PEP’s in-person classes and online classes on our website PEPparent.org. Photo credit: Shutterstock/VGstockstudio.