1. They’re tired.
Not what you thought I’d say? Ha! Read on…
In an evil trick of Mother Nature, teenagers’ biological clock is different from children or adults (one of the many ways that teenagers are simply a different species from the rest of us!). Though they need from 8-10 hours of sleep a night, teenagers’ natural circadian rhythm makes it difficult for them to go to sleep before 11:00 pm. Most of the teens I have worked with stay up much later than that, then have to get up at 6:00 am for school, or even earlier if they are going to practice for a sports team. Studies show that only 15% of teenagers get at least 8.5 hours of sleep on a school night.
Why do I bring up sleep in an article about communication? Timing. For many parents, the best time for them to talk to their teen is in the car on the way to school. They don’t understand why their teenager insists on being glued to their phone or zoning out with their headphones for the entire ride. Mornings are the worst time to talk to your teen. Your teen is tired, probably cranky, likely hungry, and nervous about the day ahead at school. They will see your interest and questions as intrusive.
When do teens want to talk to their parents? 10:00 pm. That’s right. Just when you are ready to collapse, exhausted, into bed, your teen will knock on your bedroom door with an innocuous question. If you are coherent enough to carry on a conversation, and can stay calm, the best thing you can do is respond with an attitude of “tell me more”. This late hour (late for you, it’s still early for them) is your best time to get them to open up.
2. You don’t understand teenagers.
They’ve said it to you a thousand times, and it’s exasperating! You were a teenager once. You remember how awful it was. The truth is, teenagers today face pressures much more serious than we realize. We clearly remember how important the opinions of our peers were when we were teenagers. What we can’t know is what it feels like for our teens to see the judgments of their peers instantly on social media. We remember that group of mean girls in middle school, but teens today can be judged by teens all over the world. Any social misstep a teenager makes can be documented, magnified, and rapidly spread among all the people they consider important in a matter of minutes. Teens today are judged publicly by their peers 24/7, and their brains are programmed to care about it more than anything else.
Is there hope for parents? Of course! “You don’t understand” is vastly different from “You don’t listen”. Your teen will not immediately think about this, but you, as a parent, can do your best to make that clear. It goes like this, teen: “Mooooooom, you just don’t understaaaand”, You: “Jordan, I know many things are way harder for you now than they were in my time, but I’d still love to hear about what’s going on. Would you like to tell me a little bit about ‘X’? I promise I will just listen?” And now the hard part. JUST LISTEN. This is the part where you build trust. Whatever your teenager says, respond with something to the effect of, “Wow, that sounds really hard/awful/embarrassing. It looks like you handled it/are handling it/will handle it pretty well. Thanks so much for telling me.” Your teenager needs desperately to hear this. They want to know you are a safe place– that they can tell you their fears and embarrassing moments and you will have faith in them. The truth is, they don’t have any faith in themselves. It is even better if you can remind them of a time when they handled a similar situation well in the past. Even if the past was yesterday, they will not connect the dots without your help. This will show them that you have faith in them, and that you have been paying attention to their successes. (Believe me, they are certain that you only notice when they screw up!) Eventually they may even ask you what you think they should do. They might first share a story about a friend, and ask you how you think they could help their friend. Wait until you are asked, and just stick with the listening until then. It will pay off. Your teen will know that even when they don’t have any faith in themselves (most of the time!) there is someone who does. In the end, this is the greatest gift you can give your kids– the sense that they have value.
3. Teenagers are biologically programmed to separate from you.
This idea has been popular since the 1959, when Erik Erikson came up with his Theory of Psychosocial Development that many of us studied in school. According to Erikson, the stage of “identity vs. role confusion” takes place between age 13 and 21. Now we have evidence that brain development during these years (and longer) programs teenagers not only to separate from their parents and bond with their peers, but also to specifically reject their parents’ way of doing things. Dan Siegel’s 2013 book, Brainstorm, The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, is all about his research on this topic. This is good news for society– humans will get better at doing things, because each generation will reject the old way and look for something better. This is tough on parents, who thought all their hard work taking care of babies and young children would produce a human that cared about what they thought. Or at least would make their bed once in a while.
What is the lesson here? Try not to worry. Your teenager is normal. When they finally become a young adult, they will eventually realize why you are doing what you are doing now, and even begin to appreciate you. You will feel sane again. You will look forward to their visits (they may even move back home, so be careful what you wish for! But that’s another blog…)
What can you do in the meantime? Get support. I can’t stress this enough. Parenting a teen is SO HARD!!! If you don’t have a strong group of friends who are also parenting teens, maybe you can start a support group, or join one that is already up and running. There are therapists who specialize in teens, and if you suspect your teen could use some extra help (most can!) getting counseling for your teen can improve your relationship immeasurably. Finally, parenting a teen can be pretty all-consuming, and it usually comes at a time of life when we are beginning to re-define who we are (or would like to!). Individual counseling can not only help you find ways to better communicate with your teen; it can also help clarify your goals and move you in the right direction toward living your best life.
Need some more help talking to your teenager?
I am passionate about working with teens and parents of teens. I have years of experience both as a therapist and as a mom of four kids, all now in their 20’s. If you have any questions about how therapy might benefit you or your teenager, I would be happy to answer them! Please call or email me for a free 20 minute phone consultation to learn how I can help you communicate better with your teenager.