by Jenna Drennen
My family is changing. It often feels as though I barely blinked, and my sweet toddlers became teenagers in an instant. I’ve anticipated these upcoming teen years with some trepidation and anxiety and frequently questioned whether or not I was prepared to navigate the teen years successfully. But as I watch my kids enter this new developmental phase with a mix of dread and excitement, I’ve also come to realize that parenting teenagers isn’t so different from parenting toddlers. As they move towards independence and attempt to manage big emotions, I’ve gathered a set of tools establishing the foundation for my parenting philosophy, making our family’s journey a little less bumpy. Through the ups and downs of these turbulent early teen years, I’ve often relied on this foundation to guide my choices and offer my family the support they need and deserve.
Meet my child where they are at
The teen years are often an emotional rollercoaster, and finding ways to communicate effectively during this period can be challenging. Watching my kids become disrespectful and difficult to reason with is frustrating and defeating. Reminding myself to reframe their behaviors through their current cultural landscape and cognitive/emotional development allows me to address these behaviors with the grace and understanding needed to redirect them. As teenagers experience a surge in hormones for the first time, their developing brains are not yet equipped to respond appropriately to these changes. Teenagers’ erratic, overly emotional, and sometimes reckless behaviors stem from this discord, and their still-developing frontal and prefrontal lobes hinder decision-making, judgment, reasoning, and impulse control. Viewing their behaviors through this lens, rather than my own framework guiding my actions and decision-making, allows me to meet them better where they are, rather than where I am or where I think they should be. In doing so, I am better equipped to keep my anger and frustration in check while taking the necessary steps to keep them safe and steer them in the right direction.
Give room to their feelings and validate those feeling
Throughout the years, I’ve frequently fallen into the misguided routine of encouraging my kids to view their difficult emotions with rose-colored glasses. Reassuring them that “everything will be ok,” or to “look on the bright side” seems like supportive reassurance grounded in gratitude. But practicing gratitude and promoting toxic positivity are two very different things. Reassuring my kids that it is “ok not to be ok” gives those feelings the space they need to be processed and supported appropriately. As my kids enter their angsty teen years, I work to be open with them about my mental health struggles in hopes of normalizing those struggles and encouraging space for conversations around mental health and wellness. Letting in the fear, anxiety, and sadness so prevalent in the teen psyche also takes away some of the power of those feelings while giving them space to process these emotions and receive adequate support. I hope that normalizing everyday dialogue surrounding mental health also allows my kids to feel empowered to communicate when they need help or increased support.
Recognize the power of pausing
When my kids are in a heightened emotional state, they can behave in ways that make it difficult for me to manage my emotional response. I’ve often found myself angrily rising to their level of escalation when my patience is tested, and I fail to keep my outrage in check. Inevitably this is counterproductive. As my temper rises, my ability to see clearly and make rational decisions decreases. My kids are not in a place to be redirected when they are in a state of emotional escalation, and this state is only perpetuated when it is met with outrage and anger. Through much trial and error, I’ve gradually learned to practice pausing. My natural desire to immediately react to my kids’ poor behavior more often than not leads me to interact with them on an emotional level rather than taking a calmer, rational approach. While it often feels counterintuitive, purposefully pausing before reacting or taking action mindfully reconnects me with my body and mind while allowing for the space I need to calm down and ground myself. This space also lets me better grasp the clarity I need to avoid lashing out in verbal outrage, further escalating the situation. The stillness of conscious pausing allows me to move forward with mindful parenting strategies grounded in my wiser rational mind rather than the emotional mind that frequently presents itself when I’m angry or frustrated.
Encourage self-care practices, and lead by example
Teens today are more stressed out, anxious, and depressed than ever before. Balancing the academic and social pressures of adolescence can be daunting. Working towards independence while experiencing the disruption of raging hormones, socio-cultural influences, constant connection to technology, and the trauma brought on by a major pandemic makes managing mental health difficult, to say the least. While Millennials and Gen Z are becoming more aware of mental health challenges and more willing to seek out support for those challenges, preventative self-care practices can be difficult to learn and maintain. My self-care toolbox took years to build, and self-care was certainly not a priority during my teenage years. My kids are equally dismissive of concepts such as meditation, regular exercise, and attention to sleep and nutrition. Despite their disinterest and hesitancy, they see me give space to these practices regularly. Meeting them where they are necessitates acknowledging they are not developmentally ready to engage in the same self-care activities and lead by example anyway. Every day they see me prioritize my physical and mental health, and a seed is planted. Over time I have faith that seed will grow and bloom as they exert their independence and navigate their own path towards wellness.
Acknowledge and take accountability for my mistakes
Parents aren’t perfect – we make mistakes. Taking accountability for my mistakes is a difficult task towards which I continue to work. I’ve learned the hard way that leading by example doesn’t entail perfection or perfect parenting. Raising good humans means acknowledging that we are, in fact, human and inevitably make mistakes. How we choose to respond to those mistakes speaks more to our character and ability to communicate effectively than any false notion of perfection. I feel lousy when my behavior or reactive parenting style conflicts with my beliefs, but when I justify those errors rather than take accountability, I lose those beliefs entirely. My kids see me make mistakes and struggle daily, and I hope to give room to their own mistakes rather than characterize them as moral failings. In owning up to my mistakes, I acknowledge I am human while maintaining the integrity I value. Creating this communication format counters some of the stubbornness so prevalent in adolescent cognitive development and allows for an open discussion regarding lessons learned from the experience.
As my family journeys deeper into the teenage years, I’ve begun to discard some of my preconceived fears surrounding parenting adolescents. Sure, my kids can be overly emotional, entitled, and self-centered. Still, these moments are far outweighed by the untethered joy of watching them bloom into the kind, interesting, and passionate people they are becoming more and more each day. Watching them grow, I grow right along with them and revel in their unique perspectives that so often lead to a reframing of my own. As my kids become increasingly independent and walk a path towards self-discovery, I am gifted with a renewed opportunity to do the same, and I can think of no greater gift.
Jenna lives in Firestone with her husband, two kids, and a house full of animals. She enjoys, running, gardening, and climbing mountains in her spare time.