Teenagers are notorious for their emotional mood swings. The extreme reaction of “I love you,” and “I hate you,” (sometimes happening within a few minutes) is enough to drive most parents crazy. To cope, many parents ignore their own emotions in an effort to try to manage their teen. Overtime, this develops into a pattern of parental behavior that makes them appear emotionally deaf.
Think of it in terms of a PTSD-like reaction without a real PTSD event. The teen is obviously angry, sad, annoyed, anxious, or fearful about some event. The parent asks, “What’s wrong?” The teen tests the parent by saying, “Nothing,” to ensure that her (or his) concerns will really be heard. The parent presses on and insists on a response which the teen finally acquiesces. The teen quickly becomes animated and over the top. The parent, so afraid of how out of control things can get, becomes numb to the teen’s concerns (this is the PTSD-like response). The teen then ramps up her response because she no longer feels heard or understood and it all spirals downward from there.
So how can a parent avoid the trap of becoming emotionally deaf? Here are some suggestions:
- Ask more questions. Even when it seems the teen has communicated everything, she most likely has left at least one important detail out. By focusing on information gathering, a parent avoids the trap of making negative assumptions which often leads to false accusations. There is no quicker way to alienate a teen than to jump to the wrong conclusion.
- Listen more than speak. As a general rule of thumb, a parent of a teen should speak half as much as the teen. For those teens who are already shut down, this simple practice will eventually encourage them to share more. This allows the teen to feel her opinion is valued and matters to the parent. A teen is much more likely to care about a parent’s opinion after the parent expresses interest in her opinion. This might seem backwards for some parents, but remember the goal of parenting teens is to turn them into fully functioning adults. What parents model during this time carries more weight then what they say.
- Focus on relationship not performance. During the teen years, school, sports, peers, and activities are ramped up. Natural expectations from teachers, coaches, peers, and colleges are already accelerated. The pressure can be a bit much for a teen. More than ever, a teen needs to feel her parent is safe, on her side, and allows her to make mistakes. Let the natural consequences for not completing an assignment, showing up to a game, or blowing a performance be enough. Focus instead on fostering a healthy adult relationship with the teen rather than treating her more like a child.
- Keep standards consistent. A teen is genetically programed to look for inconsistencies at home, school, community, and in the world. This is a normal outcome of developing critical thinking skills which begins at the cusp of adolescence. These skills are essential for adulthood, college level work, the work force, and future relationships. When parents have zero tolerance for their teen’s anger but openly expresses their anger, the teen quickly loses respect. More than ever, a parent should model healthy behavior, admit when wrong, and not become frustrated when the inconsistencies are pointed out.
- Look at their heart. It is normal and healthy for a teen to change her appearance and experiment with different looks. This is the period of time a person should be focused on discovering who she is in relationship to everyone else rather than doing it in her 20’s – or worse – her 40’s. Look past the façade into the heart of a teen to see who they are becoming. This might be hard at first because some teens use a tough exterior to self-protect. Others will intentionally wear clothing to test a parent. As hard as it might be to look beyond, let the teen know you are a safe person who will love her unconditionally. This is what teens value the most. It is always okay to agree to disagree rather than constantly nick-pick.
- Pay attention to their dreams. So this is very difficult for most parents as teens have a habit of changing their direction with the wind. It is not unusual for parents to see themselves in their teen and then project their own dreams and wishes. Saying things such as, “I was exactly like you and you should do this,” is not helpful. We are all uniquely gifted with talents and traits that are specific to us. Helping a teen find her passion mean parents have to put aside their expectations, goals and dreams for their child and guide her in discovering what excites her.
Parents who are emotionally deaf, do the opposite of this list and further alienates their teen. In some cases, the teen becomes angry, resentful and bitter towards the parent causing a wedge in their relationship that might never be healed.