It’s one of the most common questions I get when running a parenting workshop… “How do I deal with my hormonal teenager?!” … generally this comes from a very frazzled parent who’s at their wits end with their teenager not listening, being moody and demanding and who throws tantrums that turn the house upside down. I know what this looks like as I use to be one of those parents… on tender hooks waiting for the next outburst.
The answer to this issue is a skill that we all need to develop and can be used in all our important relationships… it’s also one that can be a challenge for us to master. Not because it’s difficult and tricky to learn but because our own emotions and childhood history invariably gets in the way of us using this skill effectively.
That skill is listening. By listening I mean a deep empathetic listening that acknowledges the teenagers emotions and concerns and rephrases their words back to them to show them you understand. Empathetic listening has a positive neurological impact on the brain… it calms it. Empathy requires us to have the willingness to place ourselves in their shoes, see the situation from their eyes and really grasp what it means to them. The skill of empathetic listening requires us to modify our behaviour and response and many parents struggle because their emotions overwhelm them and they become reactive instead of pro-active. When our teenager is throwing insults, accusing us of being unfair, being totally unreasonable then we’re more likely to be reactive and speak from our emotional inner child (who feels helpless and is unreasonable) and not your calm adult self. I understand this clearly because on occasion, even I am triggered back into fear and become unreasonable (unresolved childhood “stuff”) and forget to use these steps… Thankfully I have such a level headed, emotionally adept, skilled negotiator as a 15 year old! But on the rare occasion where she is overwhelmed and expressing it and that I get caught out and slip back into my old pattern of parenting and respond no so peacefully that it shocks me now and I snap out of it pretty quickly.
It wasn’t always that easy… my eldest child was much more of a challenge, but then he got crazy mumma – before my healing journey began. With my son, I was faced with yelling, holes in the wall, tears and swearing and stomping out of the house on our very worst days. Once I started healing my past and learned how to deal with his emotions, that all went away because I could remain present and calm in the face of his emotions and employ the steps below (number 3 is the critical skill I speak of).
From my experience as an outreach counsellor for teenagers and their parents, in every situation where the family was in crisis there was a lack of listening on the parents behalf. Culturally, many of us have been brought up with the old attitude that children should listen to their parents but the fundamental issue with this belief is that if parents don’t listen to their kids, then how do children learn how to listen to parents? How do we learn many of our interpersonal skills? We model them off our parents! So if we are not listening to them, empathising with them, how can we expect them to listen to us and also see our side of the issue? Good communication relies on the understanding that all parties need to understand where the other person is coming from and be willing to look for a solution that works for everyone. If you’re a parent that believes that you should be respected, that your way is the right way, that children need to toe the line, then you’re heading for trouble when it comes to the teenage years. If you then use the tactic of fear based parenting, threats, withdrawal of love then you are…. without a doubt… damaging your relationship and the development of your child. Teenagers are people too… and if you’re treating them in a way that belittles or represses them, then you are creating young people who grow into adults that are easily angered, need control, are passive aggressive or are so easily walked over and abused… and I know you don’t want to do that! I know this, because your reading this and looking for a better way.
What guarantees I can give you is that speaking with my fellow parenting instructors that have the same approach as I do, they too have such level headed calm teenagers. There is rarely and outburst in sight… makes me wonder if “hormonal teenager” maybe just a myth! Actually, I’m positive it is just a way we label our frustrated teenagers in an effort to make excuses for their behaviour (and ours) and their frustration is generally due to our unskilled approach.
In addition to the use of our skills, if you understand that your teenager is currently more likely to be emotionally reactive because of what’s happening in their brain (the logical part of the brain undergoes a major remodelling right through the teenage years and ends around age 25 and above), then we are more able to forgive them for their outbursts as their brain really is primed for it. It’s these critical years that we need to modify our approach to parenting as time outs, reward systems, bribing, begging, threats and yelling no longer work! We need a rational approach and the ability to talk down the teenager terrorist and in the process help them develop healthy communication and coping skills (helping them remodel their logic brain). We can reduce the likelihood of “hormonal teenage” outbursts by doing the following steps :
5 steps to handling a hormonal teenager
1. Make peace with your past
Tina Payne-Bryson and Daniel Siegal, the authors of the Whole Brain Child advise that it doesn’t matter how many books or parenting courses you undertake, your ability to parent is based on the level of peace you have made with your own childhood experiences. Many of us grew up with parents who were unable to meet our needs, make us feel worthy, loved, safe and secure. They did the best they could but they were carrying their own wounds from their own childhood and there were not any resources available to them.
We need to take responsibility for our own healing and stop blaming them. There are so many different forms that this healing can take and you don’t need to be in therapy for years and years. If you find the right therapist that you connect with then you will notice the difference within yourself within a couple of visits. However, not all therapy is created equal. From my experience I have found that some forms of energy therapy (EFT, Faster EFT, Matrix Re-imprinting) to be highly effective and work quickly as well as relational and experiential therapy such as Gestalt and Family Constellation therapy for the really deep healing work. Talk therapy takes too long to really shift an underlying issue.
2. Set boundaries that make sense
Many of our ideas around what is a good boundary are based on our own childhood experiences and what we believe is culturally acceptable and not based on our own unique family, child and situation. A one size fits all model may seem fair when you have multiple children however you need to constantly reassess what’s acceptable and unacceptable or risk resentment, lying and underhanded behaviour (especially when our children reach adolescence). The natural progression into teenage-life is to start questioning our decisions and boundaries in order to make their own individual view of the world and we need to be able to face that calmly, with a willingness to review and discuss concerns around values. Being pig headed about a boundary that has been enforced for sometime is damaging to the relationship. For example, forcing your teenager to go to bed at 7:30pm (yes I know of someone who did this even when the teen was 14yrs old) because that’s the children’s bedtime will cause not only resentment but also enforces a powerless mentality in the teen which cultivates into a powerless adult.
Be fair, be reasonable and be open to negotiation. If you find yourself being pig headed, please go back to step one.
3. Listen, listen and listen
You may even be arguing this one already… perhaps you think you actually listen… but my guess is that you may hear the first sentence and think “what have they got to worry about” or perhaps you have the answer to their problem, or think they should not feel a certain way. There’s so many ways we shut down communication and only one way to open it. Listen! Put yourself into their shoes and listen! Feedback what you’re hearing, what they are feeling and empathise. When you do this, a magic happens… they feel heard, their emotions calm down and you give them the breathing space to work out a solution for themselves. Don’t rush to provide a solution… in fact, good helping avoids offering any kind of solution… it just provides space to think and a question “what do you want to do about that?” or “what’s a solution that works for both of us?”.
Good listening involves deep attention… like an interpretor has to listen to the message and then feed it to the target person. They have to not only listen but also interpret the nuance and the emotion behind the message. That’s what you need to do. When you do it, you will see the magic! Your teen will calm down immediately! Try it, I dare you…
4. Allow them to negotiate
The skill of negotiation is one that we all need as adults and it’s your job to cultivate it in your teen. If you can stop looking at it as “speaking back to your” or “back chatting” you’ll realise that they naturally want to negotiate for themselves. We need to help them with the remodelling of their logical brain and by allowing them to negotiate we are helping develop an essential skill. If they are coming up with unreasonable solutions, tell them why you think they are unreasonable. Use “I” language, which means you’re owning your own thoughts and concerns and not using “You” language which is the language of blame and judgement. Encourage them to think of a solution that works for both of you. Give them time to think it through, it doesn’t always need to be solved on the spot, you can let them process and seek a solution over a couple of hours or even days!
Where possible, engage and don’t enrage by using the word “No”. So instead of saying “No, that doesn’t work for me because….” Just say “That doesn’t work for me because….”. The word “No” can be a trigger because it was over used when they were smaller and it signals to their emotional brain that they won’t get their way and just ignites the hormonal teenager. We actually want them to get their way… but a way that works for everyone.
5. Spend quality and not interrogation time with them
Research has shown that our teenagers actually do want to spend time with us and will enjoy our company if we are treating them as people and not as suspicious beings invading our households with the aim of eating us dry and making us miserable. If we treat our teenagers with respect and treat them as we would our friends then they will enjoy our company. The more time we spend in this enjoyment zone, the less our reactive hormonal teenager raises their head. It’s a matter of trust after all, can they trust you to like and accept them as they are? Or are you on your agenda of moulding them into who you want them to be? Don’t use your quality time together pushing your agenda. Practice the art of acceptance… Let them know you love them for who they are and not for what they do to make you happy or proud. If you teach them to accept themselves (through your acceptance) you give them the greatest gift of all… self love.