Teenagers are notorious for their extreme emotional responses. The contrast between “I love you” and “I hate you,” which sometimes can happen within a few minutes, is enough to drive most parents crazy. To cope, many parents end up ignoring their own emotions in an attempt to manage their teen. Over time, this develops into a pattern of parental behavior that makes them appear emotionally deaf according to their child’s perception.
To break it down a little, try thinking of this situation in terms of a PTSD-like reaction without stemming from a real PTSD event. The teen in this situation may be angry, sad, annoyed, anxious, or fearful of some event. The parent asks, “What’s wrong?” and the teen often tests the parent by saying, “Nothing,” or perhaps something similar, to ensure that their concerns will really be heard. The parent presses on and insists on a response which the teen finally acquiesces. In many cases, the teen can quickly become animated and even overwhelming. The parent, so afraid of how out of control things may get, becomes numb to the teen’s concerns (this is the PTSD-like response). The teen then ramps up their response because they no longer feel 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, they most likely have 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, the parent of a teen should not speak more than half as much as their teen has. For teens who are naturally withdrawn, this simple practice will eventually encourage them to share more. This allows the teen to feel their opinion is valued and matters to their parent. A teen is much more likely to care about a parent’s opinion after the parent expresses interest in how they are feeling. This might seem backward to some, but remember the goal of parenting teens is to turn them into fully functioning adults. What a parent models during this time carries more weight than what most would assume.
- Focus on the relationship, not performance. During the teen years, school, sports, peers, and activities are ramped up, and natural expectations from teachers, coaches, peers, and colleges are accelerated along with everything else. The pressure can be a bit much for a teen. More than ever, a teen needs to feel their parent is safe, on their side, and that their parent will allow them 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 them more like a child.
- Keep standards consistent. A teen is genetically programmed to look for inconsistencies at home, school, community, and in the world. This is a normal outcome of developing critical thinking skills that begin at the cusp of adolescence. These skills are essential for adulthood, college-level work, the workforce, and future relationships. When parents have zero tolerance for their teen’s anger but openly express their own 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 their appearance, experiment with different looks, and even experiment with new friends and interests. This is the period of time a person should be focused on discovering who they are in relation to everyone else rather than doing it in their 20’s – or worse – 40’s. Look past the façade and rapidly changing trends 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, while others will even intentionally wear clothing or display unwelcome behavior 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 them 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. This idea is very difficult for most parents as teens have a habit of changing their direction as quickly as the wind. It is not unusual for parents to see themselves in their teens 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 their passion means that parents have to put aside their expectations, goals, and dreams for their child and guide them in discovering what excites them.
Parents who are emotionally deaf only further alienate their teens and strain their relationship with them. If this continues on the teen will eventually become angry, resentful, and bitter towards the parent, solidifying this strain into a permanent wedge between the two that may never heal. Use this list as a guide for tips on how to prevent yourself from shutting down and maintain a healthy connection with your teen.