Teen Angst Sucks … For You, Too!

So there you are, humming along, feeling pretty great about your relationship with your pre-teen. He’s happy and engaged with life, the family and you, and things for the most part seem pretty peachy. Then for no apparent reason, he seems headed for the Dark Side. “Anakin!” you call out. “Come back!” But the little boy is gone and a moody, withdrawn adolescent has taken his place.

Before our kids get there we hear about those annoying teenage years and tend to minimize them until suddenly, we are smack dab in the middle of it all. True, some teens seem to sail through those years virtually problem-free and give us little to worry about. But many of them will put us through the ringer on and off for several years. If you’re one of those going through it now, take heart, you’re not alone. Hormones, brain development, and changes in their bodies and what’s expected of them all contribute.

In many ways they are going to have to go through whatever it is that they are going to have to go through. It’s simply their own personal passage through a challenging time in their lives. And the vast majority will come through it fine. But as it’s happening, parents often feel left out (or thrown out) and their feelings get hurt. It’s inevitable.

“How could this be happening to me?” you might wonder. The sunny kid who used to love to hang out with you as you cooked dinner or shuffled through late afternoon paperwork and emails now wants nothing more than to head to his room the minute he gets home from school.

At dinner he may not want to say too much or, on the other hand, he may have plenty to say — mostly about how uninformed, out-of-date, and downright wrong you are about everything! The eyes roll, the head shakes back and forth, the smirks multiply, and you can’t understand any of it.

At this point, some parents are so desperate to reclaim the warm, comfortable relationship they once shared with their child that they decide to do whatever it takes to keep the peace and coax him or her back into their lives. The distance feels too scary and they figure that they better fix things fast or things will never get better.

Then the bribes and the payoffs begin. Does any of this sound familiar?

“Honey, I think you need a car now that you have your license. You’ve got things to do and places to go. So…. we bought you one! Isn’t that great?” (And aren’t we soooo nice? How can you be mean to us when we give you so much?)

“You can decide when to come home, just try not to make it too late.” (See how understanding and laid back we are?)

“Sure, you can take your dinner up to your room if you want. But will you please bring your plate down when you’re finished?” (We get that you need space and privacy. We’re not pushing!)

“Look at this iphone I got for you! Now you can call me or text me all the time.”(Can’t you just think of me as your friend? And can you believe how generous I am?)

“Your grades were really bad but if you promise to try harder we won’t take away any of your privileges.”(We know you must be upset about this and we don’t want to stress you more. Plus, we remember how boring school was and know how smart you are.)

“Your friend’s mother just called and said that you were smoking pot in her basement. You shouldn’t do that.” (End of story. Kids will be kids, no big deal).

“Yes, you and your friends can have some beer upstairs but take it easy and don’t let anyone drive.” (Can you believe how cool we are? I’ll bet your friends’ parents aren’t this hip).

Other parents decide to meet fire with fire and begin to withdraw themselves. “Two can play at this game,” they might think. “If he isn’t going to talk to me, then I’m not going to talk to him, either.” Sometimes these parents end up regressing to adolescents themselves and spend a good part of the day fighting with their kid like he’s a sibling. Then things escalate and can get very ugly, very fast.

For some kids, things can get seriously off track during the adolescent years.** And when that happens, most parents will try hard to help their child sort things out. But if he remains stubbornly uncooperative, many parents will feel like throwing in the towel. “Fine!” they might say. “You’re so smart, you figure it out. I’m done!”

I totally understand how hard this stage can be. I’ve got three kids. I’ve been there. I know that those teenagers can drive you to the brink and leave you there at times. But before you decide to write him off, I want you to consider a couple of things that may help you hang on for a while longer:

1. Don’t take their attitude and unkind words personally. This is a big one. It’s very difficult to not be hurt at times by the things they say. But you have to remember that they know you incredibly well and they know every single one of your buttons. Often when they get all up in your grill, they are just trying to get a reaction and they are really, really good at it! Understand though, that their job is to individuate and separate from you and it’s hard on them, too. Bad behavior, unfortunately, is one of the ways they struggle to do this. So keep your cool and don’t take the bait.

Think of it this way — it’s an opportunity for you to grow into a new stage of maturity yourself, one that features patience, understanding and calm. And don’t forget, this stuff goes on in all families all over the world and has for generations on end. It’s really not about you. It is a developmental stage which means it’s normal, as normal as your two year old saying “No” to anything and everything.

2. Stay in the parental role. Sure they often seem to know what they are doing and they go to great lengths to convince you that they do. Don’t believe it for a moment. They have one foot in the adult world and one foot in the kid world. They may look like adults and sometimes sound like adults but between you and me, they are acting the part more than anything.

My son, for example, had almost convinced me that he had it all under control when it came time to fly home after his first semester at college. When I reminded him to make sure that his flight was still scheduled and on time the night before, he became downright incensed. “Mom! I’m not a baby! Geez, give me a break!” So I backed off. But the next day, on the way to the airport, he called his sister in a panic and asked her to check which airlines he was flying on. He had forgotten and was too embarrassed to call me. And this is a smart, capable 19 year-old. Later we all had a good laugh but it only proves my point.

Remember, they still need structure, rules, expectations, chores, and all that other good stuff. They are not fully cooked yet. So educate yourself on adolescence. Get a good book and find out what is normal and what to expect. And if you find that you are really struggling, get help. The adolescent stage of the family life cycle is the #1 time when people go into therapy. Parents as well as kids. So you see, it’s not just you. And please, resist the urge to hold on to them by becoming a Best Friend Parent or a whiny adolescent yourself. You’re the grown up here and you have to step up, hopefully without the help of illicit drugs or Dr. Phil moving in.

3. Don’t give up. This is the big one. The teenage hellion you see standing before you is not the finished product. He will change a LOT by the time he reaches the early twenties. His brain is going through all sorts of changes and he will get there. Once he does, you’ll get him back. In the meantime, your job is to get him safely through these tumultuous times in one piece. He so needs you to stand by him and be his rock, regardless of how awful he behaves.

And just think, one day he will probably have children of his own. Payback will come and you will be able to watch it in living color. Then when he asks, “Was I ever like this?” you can smile and say, “Gosh, honey, I can’t remember” and then get in your car and go home.

**Some teens may slide into clinical depression and that’s something that needs immediate professional attention. If you have any doubts about whether his behavior is over the line, check it out right away with your pediatrician.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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