It can be tempting to let go of your rebellious teenager who suddenly seems to be pushing you away, refusing your suggestions, and ignoring your advice for staying safe. But they need us to hold on more than ever.
When our teens rebel with big energy, we sometimes buy into the widespread belief that there isn’t anything we can do to help, and so we let go more than we’d like, feeling we have no other choice.
When my son was 15, I was tempted to let go a lot more than I did.
It was hard for me to keep holding on because:
- It was hard to tolerate the anxiety in my body if I thought he was doing something risky. Sometimes my anxiety verged on panic, and I felt obsessed when he was out—with knowing where he was and who he was with.
- When I felt anxious, I was tempted to constrain him out of fear (which never works) instead of influencing through connection.
- There’s a history of addiction in previous generations in our family, so I worried that experimentation with alcohol or smoking might turn into addiction.
- I was running out of ideas for how to connect and influence him to stay safe.
Teenagers often carry a lot of stress, including social pressures, beginning to navigate the (vulnerable) terrain of romance, and school pressures, to name a few. They’re transitioning to getting more of their belonging need met within their peer group, where they aren’t unconditionally loved like they are in family. And because belonging is a basic need in our reptilian brain, it can be anxiety-producing as they try to figure out who they are and where they fit in. Part of what they may do during this process is try new behaviours that others are doing, or that look “fun” or “cool” just to try them out. But for parents, it can be scary to watch.
In addition, the combination of all these stresses makes teens who experiment with substances more vulnerable to becoming dependent on them for managing anxiety and fears, rather than learning the skills to tolerate and manage those normal human experiences and feelings without these things. There are also normal changes happening in the brain at this age that make teens more vulnerable to becoming accustomed to using substances to cope if they do a lot of “experimenting” with them.
We live in a society in which many adults view the rebellious teenage years as a difficulty to be endured, rather than a period of time to engage deeply but in a different way. I believe that this is because there’s a lack of knowledge and support for parents and teens for how to do it differently.
Our teens need us to stay connected, but to hold on “loosely”.
Healthy ways to hold on “loosely”:
- Connect, connect, connect
- Listen without judgment
- Serve them favorite foods
- Go out for a meal together
- Stop and listen when they have something to share, with gratitude for the opportunity to connect, even if you feel too busy or too tired
- Make plans to do favorite activities with them
- Invite and welcome their friends to social events that you hold, and have plenty of their favorite foods and drinks on hand
- Ensure your teen knows their friends are always welcome in your home
- Make “safety” your bottom line. When your child begins to see you consistently and genuinely focusing on safety, and your teen sees how the limits you set are clearly related to safety, it’s easier for them to accept your guidance and having honest conversations with you.
- For example, say you prefer that your teen doesn’t drink alcohol. It’s important to explain the reasons (e.g., your values, the risks you see, the current research that shows risks involved), AND, if your teen has expressed interest or you’re pretty sure they’re going to try it anyways, it’s also important to give them guidelines for how to do it safely for “some day in the future”. However, This doesn’t make it more appealing to them—it lets them see and feel your love, and it helps them to trust that safety TRULY IS your intention and goal. And it can potentially keep them safe. You can still remain in integrity with yourself by telling them clearly that you don’t approve for the explained reasons, but also feel safer knowing you’ve prepared them for all possibilities.
- Make sure your teen knows you will always pick them up and provide a safe ride home for them, and also for their friends if needed.
- Continue to set basic safety limits as well as you can, and have the conversations that it takes to do so, even though they can be time-consuming, emotional, and take a lot of energy. Teens’ pre-frontal cortexes are still developing, and their brain is undergoing significant “re-wiring” during the teen years.* They need the support or your pre-frontal cortex to guide them gently but lovingly.
- In general, with regard to new areas of exploration (e.g., alcohol, smoking, dating, sex), ask them questions to draw out the knowledge and values they already have. This is more likely to keep an open connection with them and encourage them to share with you. For instance,
- “How would you be able to tell how much is too much to drink?”
- “How would you be able to tell if a friend had had too much (alcohol or other substance) and you needed to get help for him?”
- “Do you think it’s okay for teenagers to ____?”
- Stay curious. Make sure you don’t judge their answers.
- When you pick them up and they’ve done something you don’t approve of, let them know that you’re happy to see them and you’re happy they’re safe. Ask them how they are? Delay conversations about what they did until you’ve dealt with your own anxiety, and you’ve had time to reflect on the safety issues and the bottom line. Discuss once you’re able to discuss without anxiety.
- Aim to ask more questions and draw out their knowledge, beliefs and values, and spend less time giving them your opinions and values. This helps them get clarity for themselves and shows a respect, openness and curiosity on your part.
- If they’ve done something inappropriate, illegal or violent, try to “see” and understand their intention, emotions and need (being seen and heard can soften even the most distant, disconnected teenager—they all want to feel loved and connected).
- Do your best to fill their attachment need as much as possible. For example, accept their feelings and listen for their intention when they share stories; show interest in what they like (e.g., music, a funny video, a current event, social situations they share).
- When they express a need to you, take the opportunity to meet the need or help them meet the need rather than pushing independence. It reinforces their sense of belonging. Toko-pa Turner says, “Far from the cultural notion that to be dependent is feeble, it is the fortifying activity of our interdependence. We know that when we lean in to support another, we are sustaining our own circle of belonging.”**
- Staying connected trumps teaching responsibilities. It’s easy to get caught up in having expectations—after all, they’re almost adults. It’s your last chance to make sure they’re prepared for adulthood. But if you lose your connection with them and your ability to influence, you won’t be able to teach responsibilities anyways. Your connection to them is vital to ensure that they are getting their need for belonging and unconditional love met in your family, and that they aren’t making decisions solely based on peer pressure.
Finally, it’s important to get support for your own anxiety. It may be through having a trusted friend or elder in your community listen, acknowledge your fears and your grief and you navigate this new stage of letting go. If you experienced traumatic teenage years, it’s especially critical to get seek healing with a practitioner for those traumas, because your teen will trigger those traumas and you’ll have a hard time staying grounded, present and calm.
Getting support for my own anxiety was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I did have traumatic teen years, and getting help healing those traumas has been a game changer in my ability to connect with my teen.
Parenting teens can take a lot of energy, but if your teen pushes you away, don’t doubt yourself and begin to believe that perhaps they don’t need you as much as you thought. They need you as much as ever—just in a different way.
For more tips on staying connected and keeping your teen safe, check out this blog post: How to Deal with a Rebellious Teenager: Tips to Help Keep Them Safe
For some concrete strategies on what to do/say to reconnect with your teen who’s pushing you away, check out the recording from this webinar: Connecting With Your Rebellious Teen
*Jensen, Frances E., MD., with Amy Ellis Nutt. The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. HarperCollins Publishers: New York, NY. 2015.
** Turner, Toko-pa. Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home. Her Own Room Press: Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada. 2017.