August 2020 I provided an insight into the teenage mind and can be viewed here, but as our children return to school this month I was asked to revisit these issues and provide parents/carers with additional context for those times of need.
First, in the most kindest of terms, please be mindful that your teens behaviour(s) are not all about you. I empathise that your distress, frustration and fear will be a product of your teenagers’ behaviour, the things they do, the things they say. It can be overwhelming and can appear to negate all the love, kindness and support that has gone before it. You are a thoughtful, generous and selfless parent/carer who does their best to provide a safe, inclusive and nurturing home for your child and when the door is slammed, the offensive language is thrown in your direction or you have, almost overnight, been surgically removed from their life, it hurts, but this please be mindful this is not all about you.
To defuse you from these and many other emotions associated with the challenges of being a parent/carer of a teenager I will endeavour to provide you with some context as to what is going on in the mind of a teenager.
Prior to embarking on this stage of development children take the social cues from the family. They seek reassurance, love and confirmation from the primary care giver however,as the child grows physically so does their mind. Neurologically the limbic system is now beginning to interface with the cerebral cortex. This requires an immense amount of energy to make those neurological links [behavioural pathways]. Be mindful that the human mind is 86 billion neurons that function as a product of chemical and electrical activity.
From birth your child’s mind primarily controls the regulatory systems in their body like hormones, body temperature, blood pressure, and even hunger. As a child they gained access to their limbic system [primary survival response] that made them feel anger, fear, joyand gratitude. These emotions provided the context for feeling safe, or not, a basic need for all. As a teenager the mind seeks to realise its potential and begins to interface with the cerebral cortex nurturing the ability to make decisions, control impulses and plan for the future.
Now for context envisage the acritical ‘blow up’ between a parent and a teenager. Sometimes this is a product of many little things or can just explode out of nowhere. Either way it is fraught, emotionally charged and overwhelming for all involved.
Rather than trying to ‘fix’ the situation endeavour to take a step back. Undoubtedly the situation will be tense, things will have been said, done and as a consequence parties will be emotionally fuelled by feelings of anger, fear, guilt and shame.
Neurologically this means the hypothalamus has ‘dumped’ a cocktail of stress chemicals into the Amygdala, commonly referred to as the fight, flight or freeze response centre. In a functional adult this will manifest as a flushing of the skin, a spike in adrenalin that increases the heart rate and can result in a taste of coins at the back of the throat. As an adult you will have experienced this feeling many times before, you will have reacted or defused from the emotion throughout your life, meaning you will have developed behavioural responses to the emotion. Your child has not had the time to cultivate those regulatory behaviours yet. They will always react. This does not condone the emotional response, rather it gives you some context to what you are observing.
During this ‘blow up’ your teenager is overwhelmed, all the lights are flashing red, alarms are going off and as a result they are chemically compelled to hit it, run away from it or hide form it. I implore you to empathise [emotional intelligence] with what this must be like experiencing it for the first time, knowing now what you know. It is often confusing, frightening and overwhelming for the teenage mind.
Maximising your own emotional intelligence during these ‘blow up’ moments can enable you to draw on ‘the five pillars of emotional intelligence’ helping the parent/carer better cope with the teenage years, ensuring you remain at your best so you can be best for your child. Greater self-awareness will inform appropriate self-regulation, your motivation to enable the potential in your child is resolute, it is your empathy that will enable you to put yourself in your child’s shoes, all be it with different socks and finally affective communication will ensure ambiguity is removed, you remain curious but non-judgemental.
Engaging in resolution at the point of hurt is often fruitless endeavour as the teenager and,to some degree, the parent/carer are not thinking straight rather they are feeling an emotion. Emotions are a product of the limbic system and in neurological terms you will not be thinking clearly. Ruby Wax in her book ‘How to be Human’ suggests ‘when you have been stabbed in the heart because your kid has hit the emotional bullseye, they probably didn’t do it on purpose, register it, leave the room if you have to, don’t respond until the ‘hurt’subsides.’
When that hurt has subsided, choose your moment to reflect on what has happened. Nurture empathy in your teenager by being honest. Express the hurt in terms that they will understand e.g. ‘I am struggling right now’ reiterate that you love them but as you are struggling right now what they said/did was especially hurtful. This lesson in empathy can help the teenager see you as human, drawing on the positives of your relationship to this point can help navigate this developmental stage for both of you.
For those parent and carers yet to experience the ‘the knife in the heart’ future proof your relationship with your child/teenager. Sit down and coproduce a plan for what to do when/if this happens. It may be helpful to consider an emotional outburst witnessed on their favourite TV show, social media or film. It can provide useful context for you as a parent/carer to understand your evolving role in the parenting paradigm.
There of course will need to be dealbreakers and it is important that all parties understand what they are and what the consequences will be. In youth work this is referred to as a behavioural contract and once agreed must be manged consistently. This said it is not possible to mitigate every possible ’blow up’, so keep it simple, as a youth worker of 30+ years I asked that we [staff and young people] all treat each other as we would want to be treated, there is no can’t and lets have fun!
These three headlines may read as an oversimplification of boundaries but in my experience, they have always provided the framework for considered, compassionate and at times immediate challenge of poor behaviour, mitigating the risk of the issue becoming a ‘knife in the heart’.
There is a lot to consider here and as always my sincere wish is the help helps. If however you or your child/teenager require additional support or help please consider the team at Rowan House. A call to the helpful staff will help you navigate the Rowan Hose family of professionals and identify the right person for you.
Being `a parent/carer is the hardest ‘job’ we will ever have, know that you continue to do the best in these trying times and if nothing else as provided you with some helpful context consider the context proffered by Claire Dumphy, fictional Mum of Modern Family, who said ‘Raising a kid is like sending a rocket ship to the moon. You spend the early years in constant contact, and then one day, around the teenage years, they go around the dark sideand they’re gone, all you can do is wait for that faint signal that says they’re coming back!’; they will come back.
Brett Rennolds is a qualified psychotherapist DSFH, HPD, MNCH NCH Supervisor and registered with the Complimentary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). Brett specialises in a solution-focused approach, complimented by the principles of CBT, ACT, mental health first aid and hypnotherapy. He continues to provide therapy online, via an encrypted platform. For more information please visit his website.