"All she wants to do is sit on the computer/ hang out with her friends/stay in her room. It's like we don't even exist!" **** "Whatever I suggest, it either goes in one ear and out the other, or he does the complete opposite. It drives me crazy!" **** "I used to know what to do to make her feel better—now everything I say or do is wrong. It's like I'm the enemy." **** "It's as if I don't even know him anymore—like he's a stranger to me…." **** These are just a few of the comments I have heard from parents of the most wonderful, complex, dynamic (and utterly maddening) patients I have the pleasure of working with: Teenagers.
Whenever I meet with an adolescent and their parents for the first time, the first half of the battle is with the young person, working through their resistance to being in therapy and accepting the need for help. Through the process of joining (meeting the adolescent where he is at), the provision of empathy, and the offer of a non-judgmental and supportive therapeutic space, the adolescent frequently comes around to engaging in the therapeutic process. The second half of the battle is talking the beleaguered parents of the adolescent off the ledge of anger, frustration, and fear that readily accompanies the experience of parenting a teenager in distress—if not simply parenting a teenager in general.
In addition to addressing the specific concerns the parent has about the teen (such as depression, anxiety, conflicts with peers, eating disorders, substance use, defiance, and ADHD), I have also found that parents benefit tremendously from psychoeducation about the developmental stage of adolescence. This information serves to normalize at least some of what the parent is experiencing, decreasing anxiety and re-framing the experience of parenting an adolescent as something that is universally both terribly frustrating and profoundly rewarding. After all, this young person—for all their instability and ire—is developing into an independent entity with responsibilities of his own. In other words, they are on their way to becoming….gasp!...an adult. And all of their irrationality, defiance, and emotional instability is, in truth, absolutely, positively…..necessary!
That's right—a necessary part of their developmental process is to 'rage against the machine', create anarchy, say "black" when you say "white," fight the system, focus on their peers over their family, and challenge parental rules and values. The only way they are effectively going to separate and individuate on their way to adulthood, is to challenge what they have been taught in an effort to try it on for themselves as they develop their independent identities. Seriously, it's their JOB! That being said, it's your job to forge on and continue to set limits, teach values, educate about safety out in the world, and still manage to keep strong the foundation of love and support—even when you'd rather be shipping them off to sea. Not an easy task, to be sure. But while it's important to acknowledge your feelings about all of this as being valid, it is also important to be mindful of the fact that while it is ok to have your feelings, it might not be appropriate to react to them.
For example, your teenage daughter (you remember, the little girl your friends used to call your "appendage") suddenly stops spending time and talking with you but locked in her room texting and Facebooking her friends about all that is relevant to her life. For some parents, this might bring up feelings of rejection, sadness, and grief over what feels like the loss of a relationship that once was. You might also feel like you have gone from being the center of her universe to being little more than her chauffer, her maid, her waitress, her secretary, or, in some cases, her enemy—particularly when she thinks you are taking your role as her 'warden' too seriously.
With all these shifts and changes, you may find yourself feeling more irritable, resentful and angry than at any other time in your life. As a result, you might find that you punish more harshly, limit more severely, and wonder more regularly what you did wrong to deserve all of this from your ungrateful and unappreciative offspring. And when you sift through the anger, it makes you just plain sad. So you find yourself using guilt to persuade her to talk to you, spend time with you, have more than 2 seconds of physical contact with you in public, and to not role her eyes when you won't drop her off a block away from her friend's house. (By the way, it's ok to think to yourself, "If you role your eyes one more time I'm going to rip them out of your head," but, again, not to act on it).
My suggestion to all of you who can relate: talk to your kids about how you feel. Not in a fit of rage, or when they do what they do to push your buttons and tick you off, but when you are having a quiet moment together and the timing feels right. Tell her you understand that it is important for her to try on new ways of being and to separate herself from the family in an effort to move towards independence; but for now, she is still a member of the family who is both loved and who has the ability to hurt other people with her actions and her words. Tell her you miss her and would like to carve out some time together to re-connect. If she does not respond to this olive branch, tell her that you will be there for her when she is ready. Because at the end of the day, that is what she needs to know: that she can test you and push the limits (and your buttons), and that in spite of it all, you will love her anyway. Now go to your room and think about that!
Last but not least, know that you are not alone. Reach out to other parents, join a support group, talk with your teenager's therapist, go out with your friends and let off some steam. As noted in an earlier installment of the Mindful Parenting series, one of the most important ingredients of parenting children of all ages is making time for self-care. And to those of you with a teenager at home—who is probably bugging you to get off the computer so they can check their News Feed on Facebook right about now--this especially goes for you!
Fara is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Park Slope where she specializes in working with people, coping with trauma, addictions, anxiety and depression. Utilizing both traditional psychotherapy and creative arts therapy in her work, she provides individual, couples and family counseling and has developed and implemented psychotherapy, psycho-education and creative arts therapy groups.
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