As a professional working with youth and families, I’ve noticed some common themes resulting in conflict within the home, specifically when youth reach the adolescent stage of life. Some of these themes include the youth exhibiting anger and aggression, a constant roller coaster of emotion, lack of communication, and pure defiance. Maneuvering through these mood swings and behaviors can leave a parent exhausted and with a feeling they’re constantly walking on eggshells around their child. Sometimes we find ourselves struggling as parents and when we finally ask for help, we have a “fix-my-kid” mentality. We know this is not a healthy approach, however, hold this mentality because we have exhausted every tool in our toolbox. As much as I wish I possessed a magic wand I could wave that would make all family units cohesive and eliminate conflict, I don’t. Unfortunately, change in behavior (parents and children) takes a lot of work and time and will only be successful if all parties are willing to do the work.
One of the most important things a parent can do is to understand the adolescent brain and how it processes the world around them. Frankly, I could completely geek out on brain development, cognition, neural connections, the procedural memory, etc…. but I may lose many of you. If you can remember anything about brain development, remember this: The prefrontal cortex of an adolescent brain, which controls decision-making, is not fully developed. In addition to adolescent hormonal release, your adolescent’s decision-making and processing ability can be comparable to that of a toddler. I know, I know, this statement seems a bit ridiculous and frankly insulting to adolescents, but let’s think about this… When was the last time you interacted with a 3-year-old and what do you recall? I’m guessing you learned fairly quickly to have eyes on them at all times or the next thing you know they’re eating sand or wandering in to a busy parking lot as you’re loading your groceries in the car.
Check out this video to learn more about a child’s brain:
A key quality of a toddler is constantly seeking stimulation and exploration of the world around them, while still relying on the comfort of their caregiver when faced with new, overstimulating environments. This is typical for children with healthy attachments. There are similarities in adolescent behavior. Adolescents are now seeking to understand the world for themselves and ways to seek stimuli gratification and reward. Rather than learning to walk and eating sand, adolescents are equipped with vehicles and engaging is risky behaviors. If the parent-child relationship is well maintained, adolescents will often seek comfort from their parents, which is often a bit of a love-hate script.
Advice to parents with adolescents who desire to regain sanity:
- Accept the fact that they’re not delicate babies. They are young, capable adults-in-training. It may be hard, but try your best to encourage and support their exploration of themselves and the world around them. Often time behaviors occur when youth feel powerless and they have little or no control over their lives.
- Set clear and detailed expectations and consequences with the youth. Sit down with your child to talk about both of your expectations (realistic or unrealistic, all thoughts should be heard) and brainstorm appropriate “if, then” scenarios if these expectations are disrupted. If youth is not home by her curfew at 10:00pm, then she will lose her phone for 2 days. An even more detailed example would be: If youth is not home by her curfew Monday through Friday at 10:00pm, and then she will lose her phone for 2 days for every hour she is late. The purpose is to ensure everyone is aware of the expectations and consequences, leaving no room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation, while holding them accountable. Up the “corniness” of the whole idea and print a contact up, both sign it, and hang it on the fridge. For warning, you will mostly likely get some push back from your youth about how “lame” it is or how “extra” you’re being, but trust me, it’ll help in the long run.
- They will make mistakes. Don’t “should” on your child. Avoid using statements like “you should know better” or “you shouldn’t have done that.” This will shut the conversation down fast. When you use “should” when interacting with others, you’re sending the message of judgement and superiority. Holding youth accountable in an assertive way will create an assertive adult. When conflict arises, using simple “I” statements can remove blaming and allow them to understand how you feel. An example would be, “I feel scared and worried about you when you punch the wall because you might hurt yourself or someone by accident” vs. “What is wrong with you? Don’t you know you could hurt yourself by doing that?”
- Youth have this amazing ability to know how to get a rise out of you. When things get heated, they know what to say to get you worked up. Consistently across the board, respect is a major trigger for parents. When we’re triggered, we begin to lose rationality. I can’t be the only one who has had an argument with my child and after felt immense guilt for some of the words that came out of my mouth in the heat of the moment. We’re human. Don’t beat yourself up. Take time to calm down, recognize your mistakes, own them, and don’t be afraid to apologize. They’ll respect you for it.
- Continue to explore and learn about yourself. Understand your parenting style and why you are the way you are. We all have a past that directly dictates how we perceive the world around us and interact with others. The good news is, no matter how old were are, we can still make changes and grow. Don’t be afraid to seek help for yourself.
- Get comfortable having tough conversations. In a world of social media and advertisement, our children have access to images, videos, and music glorifying risky behaviors. It’s important to be comfortable and confident enough to have tough conversations. As much as your adolescent will deny it, you are still one of the most influential people in their life. If we don’t have those tough conversations with our kids, where will they get their information?
This blog post was written by Brittney Engelhard, Post Adopt Coordinator in Bismarck, ND.