The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Adolescence…In Our Kids and In Ourselves
Ah…adolescence. It is the best of times and the worst of times (sometimes all in the same day). It is a frenzied time of creativity, activity, dreaming, and making plans. So much is going on during this magical time that it can make a head spin.
I want to talk about adolescence, but this post is not just for teenagers and their parents. Huh? This post is for all of us who have ever been teenagers because we carry those parts inside of us. We all have an adolescent part. This part of us can serve us well. This adolescent part of us can bring us energy and life when we need it. It truly is a gift. It can also get us into trouble. When we get stressed or threatened or go through loss it is sometimes our teenage part that rears its head and takes the reigns. So, let’s talk a little about five common things going on in teenage emotional development. See if any of these things sound familiar and notice how they are intricately connected.
Absolute language. I call these “drama words”. It is words like “worst”, “only”, “always”, “never”, “no one”, “everyone”, “all the time”. As in…”No one EVER wants to sit next to me at lunch.” “I am the ONLY person who doesn’t get to go to the party.” “This is the worst year of my life.” “You NEVER let me do ANYTHING.” “I can NEVER get ANYTHING right.”
These words can be used positively, too. “This was the BEST day of my LIFE!” They can bring a great deal of joy and energy to a situation.
Teenagers frequently use this type of language, but if we are honest…many of us adults do, too. We get stressed and we, too, believe that we are the “only” and “no one” “ever” and “everyone” “all the time”…
When you hear your teen…or yourself…using this kind of language it can be helpful to mirror back what you are hearing and ask questions gently. Teach them about absolute language…drama words…extremes.
2) Imaginary audience. This idea is related to the phenomenon of the “personal fable”. Teenagers often are very self absorbed and even see themselves as the star in their own play or movie. They REALLY and TRULY believe everyone is watching them. This phenomenon can manifest in feeling incredibly vulnerable and exposed…or in feeling special and invincible…quite possibly all within the same hour.
They believe that they are the ONLY ones to have EVER gone through what they are experiencing…whether that is good or bad. They are SPECIAL.
And, wow…social media hasn’t helped! For teens or for us adults!
Before we get too frustrated with teenagers it is important to realize that some of this self-absorption is necessary and helpful for their developmental tasks. They are figuring out a lot of things about themselves in these years. They are establishing an identity. Famous developmental theorist, Erik Erikson, called the struggle of this stage “Identity versus Role Confusion” and it is a critical struggle for choices they will make in their next stage of life. Just a little down the road they will choose mates and careers. They NEED to establish their identify, at least somewhat, and figure out some things about themselves before they make these choices. This very large task requires some self-absorption. To figure out themselves…they have to focus on…themselves. However, we know that too much self-absorption backfires and can lead to shame, negative mood, and unrealistic expectations. It is a good idea to help teenagers experience situations where they realize that they are NOT the focus of everyone…negatively or positively.
We adults can do this, too. We get stressed or traumatized and we think everyone is watching us. We get self-absorbed in our pain and we can think that what we are facing is unique to everyone else’s experience EVER. In the midst of trauma or pain we forget who we are and we go into our own little cocoon of self-absorption to discover, once again, who we are.
Just as with teenagers, this sense of being special and unique…either in joy or in pain…can bring a great deal of pressure and anxiety…shame, negative mood, and unrealistic expectations. There is something comforting in realizing that we just aren’t THAT special. I know. Crazy! This thought goes against American culture that preaches to us that we ARE special. And, yes, yes, we are special and unique and God created us as individuals, but when we take that to the extreme we are no longer just special…we are the center of a universe…a position we were never intended to fill…a position that brings a great deal of pressure. Like teenagers, it can be helpful for us to get out of our heads and do something for others.
3.) Rigid Thinking. Teens are starting to see the grey in life, but they aren’t there yet. Most things are still black and white for them. They are quick to cry foul and get very upset with adult figures if they seem to be disrupting their expectations of what is good and evil. In personal relationships they are still learning to see things from other perspectives. There often good guys and bad guys.
Again, what a gift to us! Teens remind us about justice and that there is a time to draw a line in the sand. We can also help them to learn to have empathy and to see things from different perspectives by having conversations, reading books about people from different backgrounds, and watching movies from different perspectives.
Rigidity is a safe place when things feel out of control. Black and white thinking helps us feel like there are safe boxes to jump into when our world seems chaotic and, boy, adolescence sure can feel chaotic for young people. They want right and wrong answers in their increasingly complex world.
Well, so do we. When life feels like a mess, when we’ve been hurt, when we are scared…we look for those safe places, too. We want someone to tell us what is right and wrong. We get rigid and have a more difficult time seeing things from the perspective of others. Our teen part wants us to cry foul, point fingers, and jump into the right box and on the right side of things.
4) Impulsivity. This one isn’t a surprise to us. Teens can be impulsive. Research seems to suggest that this is due to brain development and what may or may not have happened yet in certain parts.
We can get impulsive, too. In moments when we MOST need to slow down, we often speed up and make quick, hasty decisions. Continuing to use the “teen part” analogy…that part takes overs and makes a decision…any decision…to get us out of that difficult place.
Being able to make decisions quickly can be a strength. Being aware of these tendencies to make snappy judgments in certain situations can help us harness that strength rather than letting it become a liability.
5) Big toddlers. I like to say that teenagers have a lot in common with toddlers. Toddlers want to walk by themselves. Teenagers want to drive by themselves. Toddlers need strong boundaries while at the same time room to learn from their falls as they begin to walk. Teenagers also need strong boundaries and some room to make mistakes as they develop independence.
Toddlers throw fits. So do teenagers.
Teenagers feel things deeply. Imagine that you are divided into part thinking and part feeling being. Some of us operate more in one side than in the other side at certain times and in certain situations. That can be a good thing. It is also great when we can find balance between the two. We need both. Teenagers CAN tend to operate more out of their feeling side. Another way of saying it is that they can tend to get flooded by their emotions. They get so emotionally involved with situations and people that they can’t see straight.
Telling them that they are overreacting doesn’t go over very well. I promise. Sometimes the best thing to do is, perhaps, a little counterintuitive. First, acknowledge their feelings. Sit with them through them. Let them express themselves. Show respect for their feelings. Mirror back to them: “You seem angry.”
You can “wonder” with them in a way that doesn’t seem judgmental, but invites inquiry: “I wonder what is the root of your feelings.” “I wonder if there is anything under that anger.”
AFTER you have acknowledged and shown respect for their feelings, help them redirect their energy. Help them find something to do. Some parents struggle between two extremes: either wallowing with their teenager in the emotions for too long OR ignoring the emotions altogether. Neither is helpful for their development.
I talk more about this in a post here.
Guess what? We need these steps, too. We get flooded by our emotions and our teenage part takes over. The next thing we know the voice coming out of our mouth, whether it is angry, whiny, or sad, sounds more like a moody, edgy fifteen year old than an adult.
The best way to keep that teenage part from taking over is to acknowledge your emotions, sit with them for a while, and show respect for how you are feeling.
Then redirect. Find something to do. Writing, something creative, work, or time with friends.
It is ok to put boundaries in place for teens…for both our teen kids and our own teen parts. It is ok to say: “I think it is time for us to go do something else.”
We all have teenagers in our house…either physically in the form of our children or internally as parts of ourselves. Teenagers bring many gifts to us. They are energetic, passionate…full of LIFE.
We NEED the teenagers in our house.
But, no house runs well if the teenagers are in charge. You can love, respect, and honor your teenagers…both the physical offspring and your parts…without letting them be in charge and the best way to do that is to learn to understand them. Take care of them. Don’t ignore them. Ignoring them does NOT make them go away and is the WORST thing you can do.
Parent them well.
Have good boundaries.
Help them grow.