Parenting a teenager is never an easy job. But these days it feels like riding a roller coaster backwards. At a formative and already challenging time in their lives, teens are seeing staggering death tolls wrack their communities. They’re locked up without a social structure, left to roam the wilds of the internet. They are vulnerable and exposed—and they know it.
Parents are just as confused. They find themselves shouting at their teens, as if that might help. Or, worse, they take the path of least resistance and avoid the teen, letting them sink into their screen. That’s understandable. Parents are also scared. But this is precisely the moment that parents need to turn to a more intentional approach to parenting their teens. More than ever, these teens need their parents to show up.
The greatest thing any parent can do for their teen children is provide a sense of safety. A feeling of safety is what teens are most starkly lacking at this moment—and also what no one else can. Parents should try to convey that, no matter what’s going on in the world outside the home, the family will be together and stay together and will keep each other safe.
I recognize that putting this approach into action might be easier said than done. The first important step, however, is to realize that stress and worry can look different at various ages and with different kids. For example, if your child is moody, cranky, or seems to have little interest in anything other than their phone or computer, that’s a clear sign it’s time to pay attention to what’s really going on.
Similarly, tantrums, or acting out of any sort, aren’t the expression of a “bad” or disobedient child. Far from it. In most cases, they’re a warning signal that your child is not coping; that they’re overwhelmed by stimuli or lacking the ability to regulate their emotions.
In plain English, these are warning signals alerting you to a serious situation. You need to pause before reacting. Engage with your teen. Listen to what they’re saying, including when it’s not expressed in words. Acknowledge what they’re going through and, most importantly of all, validate their experience.
Here are a few sentences a parent might use to speak to their frustrated, angry or shutdown teen:
· “I see how frustrated you are. Can I help you find the words to express your feelings? Is there something we can do together that might help?”
· “I really want to understand what is upsetting you right now, but I can’t hear you over your screaming.”
· “I didn’t realize how angry you were. What do you think we can do to help you cope with these intense feelings you have?”
· “I can talk when you are feeling calmer. Let me know when you are ready to talk and I’ll be there.”
I know how this sounds to the parent of an angry teen. I’ve been there. But, nevertheless, I still advocate for a direct, empathetic approach. Parents might get eye-rolling in response. And they may not get that desired response (“Sure mom!” seems admittedly unlikely.)
However, the fact that the parent has put themselves out there will not go unregistered by that teen. They will know there’s a line of communication open to them, should they decide to use it. That knowledge will go far.
Whatever a parent might do, the critical component is that we don’t leave our teens alone in their bedrooms, lost in the blackholes of their screens. It’s not healthy for anyone, let alone a teen with a developing brain and raging hormones who’s desperately trying to make sense of one of the most anxiety-inducing periods in memory. It’s time to show up for the teen. They’ll thank you later.
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Nancy Kislin, LCSW, MFT, is a leading expert in helping parents, educators and communities cultivate resilience in an age of uncertainty. With more than 28 years of experience as a therapist and educator, Nancy specializes in helping individuals struggling with anxiety, depression and trauma. She is the author of Lockdown: Talking to Your Kids About School Violence, a book that examines the psychological and emotional impact of “lockdown culture” on kids.