So, I’ve been talking ‘FEELS’ with some of my adolescent clients...
I love viewing my appointments for the week and seeing my adolescent clients' names listed. It gives me a feeling of eager anticipation, just hanging out to witness and support the next chapter in their dynamic and developing lives. But it also gives me a feeling of mild anxiety and I find myself having to mentally bolster my reserves of energy, compassion and patience. When I share this with some of my parents, they smile and say things like “Absolutely! It’s sooooo draining!” or sometimes they share a look of despair and fatigue and say “Some days I’m not sure I can do it”. But I have NEVER encountered a parent yet who says the ride isn’t worth it.
Adolescence has got to be the fastest paced developmental stage there is. I mean, you’re transitioning from childhood into adulthood – there is SO MUCH to get your head around. From the practical aspects of learning to feed yourself without getting food poisoning, do your own washing without ruining that favourite top, maintain household hygiene and avoid contagions, find a balance between study, work and play (trying to keep your parents, friends and self happy ALL AT ONCE), to the deeper side of beginning to understand how you tick and why you might think so negatively at times, what to do with big, overwhelming emotions that you cannot control, how to manage when other people’s emotions spill over onto you, how to ‘play by the rules’ but explore your own way of doing things, how to solve problems on your own, take risks and manage the fallout and how to ask for help despite that little part of you that wants to be totally independent.
No wonder adolescents seem to experience twenty emotions within the space of ten minutes. When you think of it like this, its kind of easier to cultivate some compassion for them and dig deep to find the patience and calm required to support them. And if that’s what we are going to do – support them – then its handy to know what they need from us.
So, over the years there are 5 needs, or ‘feels’ that the majority of adolescents I work with have commonly identified as essential through this period of ‘irrational warfare’ that they wage with themselves, their parents and the world around them. Lets have a look at them…
1. To feel safe in a predictable environment.
I know it probably goes without saying, but I think it’s always good to recognize the importance of a safe and secure home environment for young people. I mean it’s hard enough being a teenager, without having to navigate your way through a volatile home-life, worrying about whether your parents are okay or whether you’ll be okay when you get home. It’s kind of hard to give an English assignment or Math lesson your full attention when your mind won’t stop worrying about your family. Families go through difficulties, parents get stressed over various life issues, and some ‘public’ arguments seem unavoidable, but making an effort to shield adolescents from too much ‘adult stuff’ before their time allows them to tend to the things they need to – like school, socializing, being ‘a kid’ and planning how to live their dreams – rather than feeling they need to ‘care-take’ their parents.
2. To feel heard and listened to, and know my opinion matters.
Lets face it – you are NOT always going to agree with your adolescent. The very nature of adolescence is to ‘buck the system’, test boundaries, question rules and push limits. That’s how they learn where to draw the line. But regardless of whether you say red and they say green, or you support the Broncos and they are Cowboy fans, or you sing the praises of animal protein and they choose strict veganism – the content is not so important – it is the ART of listening without judgment, without jumping in and correcting, without screwing up your face or sighing, without walking away from a discussion that gets ‘too hard’. You probably wouldn’t do it with a work colleague, an employer, or a respected friend…. so don’t do it with your teenager. They need to know their opinion is okay to have – which is different to necessarily agreeing with it – hearing it and acknowledging it is the important part. You have your air time – give them theirs. How else do we know our ideas and thoughts are valid unless the people closest to us actively listen to us?
3. To feel important, valued, unique and special.
We all want to be good at something. We all want to be recognised for doing something well. In adolescence it’s a fine line between wanting to ‘blend in’ and ‘stand out’. We see teens crave social acceptance and sometimes this means conforming to their peer group norm, whatever that may be. Other times it means embracing their differences and ironically ‘standing out’ to belong to the collective. Either way, they need to know they are important and valuable simply being the person they are. A great way to explore this with your teenager is using the ‘love languages’ framework as developed by Dr. Gary Chapman and outlined in his book ‘The Five Love Languages of Teenagers’ (2010). Often we may think we are expressing value and love but we could be communicating it in what seems like a foreign language to our teens. Check it out. It’s a great read.
4. To feel capable of making smart choices for myself.
Do you always make the right choice? No, me either. So imagine how many mistakes and errors in judgment your teen is likely to make as they begin to navigate life. Mistakes are opportunities for learning. It’s as simple as that. Adolescents need the leeway to make more and more decisions for themselves as they age, which in turn gives them more and more opportunities to develop skills in problem solving, emotion management and taking responsibility. Don’t get me wrong its not like –“well you are the one who decided to ditch work and go to the beach, so you can work out how to deal with getting caught out”…it’s important parents are there as the ‘safe place to land’ when things go south (and they will). Stepping between childhood and adulthood means sometimes the adult world will be too much and teens need to retreat back to childhood to get some help to sort things again. Just be there to work on a plan ‘together’ when they need it.
5. To ‘feel’ all of these things despite making a million mistakes on the way.
Okay, so maybe I added this one for good measure – I find it rare that an adolescent will willingly own ‘a million mistakes along the way’ – lets face it – “they know everything” (chorused all of the parents I work with in unison). But seriously, none of us went through adolescence unscathed – we screwed up, they will screw up. What they need to know however is that we have their back – NO MATTER WHAT! Easy to say, hard to do. The ride is rough, so make sure as parents, you get your own support – good friends, understanding extended families, your own interests outside of parenting, time to yourself and for your relationships.
“The fact is that child rearing is a long, hard job. The rewards are not always immediately obvious, the work is undervalued and parents are just as human and almost as vulnerable as their children.”
- Benjamin Spock
Adolescence is tricky.
Parenting adolescents is tricky.
Compassion for them and for ourselves is paramount.
Enjoy the ride!