There is very little about raising a child that prepares us to raise a teen.
We tend to hit our parenting stride when our children are around age 9, 10, 11. Then, the child enters adolescence and all of the rules suddenly change. It’s like plate tectonics. The earth shakes, and your child wakes up a different person. And this requires you to be a different kind of parent.
As a psychologist who specializes in treating teens, I have helped scores of adolescents and their parents navigate the rough waters of adolescence over the last twenty years. I am now the parent of two teenagers myself, and I think this puts me in a unique situation. Shouldn’t I be really good at this, since it’s my professional specialty? The answer is: Hmm. It’s just not the same when it’s your own child.
As a psychologist, I call children’s natural, gradual detachment from their parents throughout adolescence “individuation.” As a parent, I call it simply “loss.” I’ve never felt more alone in my house than I do now. My children, ages 17 and 14, far less often choose, unprompted, to speak to me. When I ask my 17-year-old how her day was, the answer is typically an eye-roll. My son, whose sunny disposition and warm heart has always been my consolation during his older sister’s natural distancing, is now only “himself” about 20% of the time. The other 80%, he’s a sullen, preoccupied, hungry, headphone-covered young fellow.
These two went from, as young children, seeking a kiss and hug from me before leaving for school in the morning, to tolerating it, to outright refusing it. When I walk in the door after a long day’s work, only one person offers a greeting: my husband. It’s hard. It’s lonely. It’s thankless.
It might sound like I’m complaining, and I guess I am. But I would also like to acknowledge the great things about having teenagers. For example, I now have considerably more free time. My daughter drives herself and her brother places. Neither seems to need me as much. I get to spend more quality time with my husband, doing fun activities that we both enjoy. Exciting things are happening, as my daughter has started to think about and explore the process of choosing a college. It is exciting to watch little babies grow into almost-adulthood, and the amazing people that they are becoming.
Now I would like to share some of the lessons that I have learned along the way. Each of these Tips for Parenting Teenagers represents things that are distinctly different from parenting young children. I learned them the hard way, through my own personal experience; then I ran them through the sieve of professional research and experience. So you can rest assured that all of these tips are doubly tried and true, personally and professionally.
This is the month that makes us all go a little mad. You know what I mean. This morning is a perfect example. I woke up to sunny skies offering a brightness that hints of Spring to come. Now, two hours later, it’s cloudy. The winds have picked up, and I really don’t want to go outside. Weary of winter, brown, dingy remnants of the most recent snowstorm, not a lot going on in general. That’s March.
I have found that March is particularly challenging for one particular group of people. To determine whether you are a member of this group, please answer these questions about yourself in general before reading on:
You may be wondering what all these questions have in common, so let me explain. There is a subset of the population who feel pressure to stay busy all the time. Be productive, move around, don’t sit still. I have come to realize that there is a surprising explanation for this particular mindset. It’s not society, technology, inner resourcefulness or drive. It’s actually Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Here’s how it works. When you grow up in a household that’s blind to emotion, you don’t learn the skills necessary to accept, identify tune in to, or express your own emotions. Emotions which aren’t dealt with and managed go underground, pooling together inside of you like a pot of soup. This “soup” simmers away outside of your awareness. Out of sight, out of mind. As long as you stay busy, driven, focused on things, distracted, you don’t have to feel those feelings. But it’s those alone moments when there is nothing to distract you that the feelings start to bubble up. I have seen this lead to great discomfort in many people; a feeling of restlessness and discontent that is difficult to sit with.
This is what makes March a particularly difficult month for the emotionally neglected. When we’re trapped inside, suspended between winter and spring, we are forced to sit with ourselves. It is a challenge which we can either run from or face. I say, let’s take it on.
My book Running on Empty has 3 chapters dedicated solely to helping emotionally neglected people learn to tolerate, accept, name, manage, and express emotion. Here I’m going to share with you an exercise that I often assign to my emotionally neglected patients. It’s designed specially to help you learn to tolerate your pot of soup, a skill that will help make your life more peaceful, calm and emotionally connected.
Identifying & Naming Exercise
Do this exercise once per day. You can start with three minutes, or one minute, or ten minutes, depending on how difficult it is for you. You decide what’s most workable for you to start with:
Step 1: Close your eyes. Picture a blank screen that takes over your mind, banishing all thoughts. Focus all of your attention on the screen, turning your attention inward.
Step 2: Ask yourself the question:
“What am I feeling right now?”
Step 3: Focus on your internal experience. Be aware of any thoughts that might pop into your head, and erase them quickly. Keep your focus on:
“What am I feeling right now?”
Step 4: Try to identify feeling words to express it. You may need more than one word.
Step 5: If you’re having difficulty identifying any feelings, you can google “Feeling Word List,” or use the Feeling Word List in the Resources section of Running on Empty to help you identify what you are feeling.
If you find this exercise impossible, don’t be upset! Many E.N. people have great difficulty with this exercise. Simply try this instead:
Here, you are using Step 1 as an exercise to learn how to sit with yourself and your feelings and tolerate them. Do this as many times per day as you can. The more you do it, the better you will get at it. At some point, you will be ready to go back and try Steps 2 through 5 again, and it will be easier this time.
Bottom Line: Emotions are a useful, vital, biological part of who we are. They cannot be erased, and they will not be denied. We can make them our friends or our enemies, but we cannot run from them. If you’ve been running from your feelings, turn around and face them. Learn to sit with them, express them, manage them, and use them to make decisions. Allow them to enrich and enliven your life, and you will feel more connected, more fulfilled, stronger and overall happier in the end.
Put an end to your March Madness.