Does it take a PhD to understand teenage psychology?
Your teenager flops into the front seat. Just from the way they walked toward the car, you know something’s wrong.
“Hey, what’s up?” you ask.
After a few minutes of silence peppered with heaving sighs, you finally push. “I’m pretty sure something’s bothering you. Do you want to tell me?”
“Well, it’s just that…” and out it comes. Torment. Terrors. Tears. You’re heart breaks.
You dive in, voicing your outrage and offering advice.
But a funny thing happens.
Rather than thanking you, your kid begins arguing and somehow defending the villains of the story.
Suddenly, their face is turned to the window and you hear, “You just don’t understand.”
What just happened?!? How did you become the bad guy?
Is This A Trap?
Congratulations if you have successfully created a relationship where the first part of this scenario is true. Many parents may read this and think, “Yeah, right! Like it’s that easy to get them to spill the beans!”
You want your kids to share with you, both the good and the bad.
But with teenage psychology, after sharing, the tables are suddenly turned and you end up feeling like you did something wrong.
In the moment, this can feel a bit abusive. With a broader perspective, it’s even amusing.
What do your kids really want from you?
In a recent article in The New York Times parenting blog Motherlode, Lisa Damour explains this common dynamic of parent-teen relationships. Essentially, teens emotionally dump a present crisis on a parent. The parent will get “sucked into” the drama.
Meanwhile, having dumped their burden onto the parent, the teen will often move on to other things. The parents, not knowing, will stew in the teen’s problem, taking on the pain as if it was theirs.
In our current world where teens can emotionally dump via phone, text, email and more, parents hear the cry for help often out of context.
“Mama Bear” and “Papa Bear” want to come to the rescue. But is that really what teens need?
Is it good for parents to be taken on the emotional rollercoaster of a teenager’s moment-by-moment highs and lows?
As a parent, how can you support your teen through their angst without internalizing their pain?
Be There Without Going Into Your Own Teenage Psychology
It is possible for you to be present with them without taking on their pain.
Yes, it is difficult. As a parent, you worry about your kid.
But when your kids share their pain, it only harms you to jump in to their pain and take it on as your own.
Often, the simple act of dumping is all they need to gain perspective and then they move on.
We regress back to our hurts from our teenage years. It helps us feel connected with our kids. So we shift into our teenage psychology, feeling everything all over again. But that drains our energy.
Be the safe space for them to vent. Don’t tell them to stop dumping on you because it’s an all-or-nothing game.
The goal is to keep the communication open but to protect yourself from feeling hurt, resentful, overwhelmed, anxious, and exhausted.
You can do that by following these basic steps. These steps take practice, and you will improve with time. And with teenage psychology, you will have LOADS of practice!
Step 1: Teenage psychology seeks stability.
When your teen shares bad news, you need to learn to how NOT to make it your bad news. Here’s why.
They have just been dealt a blow. They are uncertain what will happen next. What they need to know is that something is still certain. They need you to be the certainty they can count on.
If you crawl down into the teeming mess with them, now they feel even MORE uncertain.
Instead, stay calm and emotionally disconnected from the crisis.
That doesn’t mean you checkout, though. Emotionally connect with your child, but DON’T emotionally connect to the problem.
Train yourself to see what’s happening. Internally tell yourself, “This is an emotional dump. Don’t get sucked in.”
Step 2: Get a clear signal.
Sometimes, kids just need to vent. They want to voice all the nasty thoughts they have about their best friend, call their teachers names, and throw a fit.
It doesn’t mean that they believe all these things. It doesn’t mean they don’t believe them. They just say them.
When your kid emotionally dumps, ask, “Are you needing to dump right now or are you asking for my thoughts?”
Step 3: Do as you’re told.
At first, they may not know what they want. You are training them to be self-aware.
If they say, “I don’t know,” treat that as a dumping situation.
If they say, “I just need to dump,” say, “Thank you for sharing with me. I’m glad you know it’s safe. I won’t share this with anyone else. I love you. I know you will know the right thing to do at the right time.”
Then don’t say anything else. Honor that all they want to do is dump. Maybe later they will ask for your thoughts, but don’t offer unless asked.
Step 4: Let them be the hero.
If they do want to hear your thoughts, be careful to stay out of the drama.
The most important thing they can hear from you is that you believe they are capable of handling their own problems.
Consider something succinct like this: “I know that you are hurting right now, and I feel for you. I also know that you are learning how to be your best self and getting better all the time. I believe that with some thought, you will know what to do and handle this beautifully. What do you think would make this better?”
Be careful not to tell them how they should handle the situation or what you would do. Keep asking them questions like, “If you felt totally confident in yourself, how would you handle this? What needs to happen so can feel proud of yourself again?”
Let their highest self-concept guide them. You are just holding the faith that they are completely capable of reconnecting and finding their way.
Step 5: Wash it off.
When the interaction comes to an end, try to physically move. Walk into another room. Get to a place where you are by yourself.
Say to yourself (out-loud if possible), “I am not responsible for fixing this for my child. I am doing my best as a parent because I choose not to make this mine.”
Ideally, wash your hands and even your face and drink a glass of water. As crazy as this sounds, it gives you a physical reminder that you are choosing to move forward in the belief that your kid will, too.
Plus, you get some hydration, which is never bad!
Step 6: Circle back later.
In a few hours or a day later, casually check back with your kid.
“Just wondering how you’re feeling now.”
Notice that the question has no agenda — not asking if things are better, just how they are.
This signals to your kid that you accept them no matter how they are. They don’t need to be happy to make you feel comfortable again.
Kids need to know that it’s ok for them to feel anything. When parents are willing to listen and be there with them without becoming unglued and sucked into their drama, it silently reassures them that things will work out in time.
This is how kids learn how to trust you and trust themselves.
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