“Wait until they become teenagers!”
Whenever I hear that phrase my blood BOILS!
I have 4 daughters. My firstborn is a young adult, and my second is a teen. And I don’t just love them… I like them.
When my firstborn, Elisha, went off to college, I was a mess. I counted every sleep until Winter break. As I drove to pick her up at the Dallas Fort Worth airport, my joy grew and grew. It was December 16th and she was my birthday present!
We shared the longest hug in history, and then we pulled away, looked into each other’s teary eyes, and shared the actual longest hug in history. The longest hug records are broken very quickly in our family.
We talked for hours that night. We were sitting on the couch, sipping on vegan hot chocolate, when Elisha declared: “I’m joining a poetry challenge and you’re going to do it with me, mom!”
Well, at least one of us was excited!
You see, writing gives me life, but I was intimidated. I had never written poetry in English and as a single mom and entrepreneur, I already had so much going on!
But I knew that this was no ordinary invitation. Renowned psychologist Dr. John Gottman calls this a “bid for connection”: which is an attempt to get attention, affirmation, or affection. So, for the sake of improving our parent-child relationship, I said YES. And I should say, I need to remind myself that she is no longer a child.
For the next 21 days, we each wrote a poem every day. At the end of the journey, we were more connected, and we each had a published poetry book: What’s Wrong with Me and Dancing with Death.
And to think I almost missed this wonderful experience!
My teen daughters amaze me. They are courageous, creative, and care about people and the world. And that’s exactly how I would describe all of the teens and young adults I know.
And that’s why when I hear “wait until they become teenagers”, I get livid.
Teens are misunderstood and misrepresented.
And it’s also dangerous.
This hits me like a ton of bricks because that’s how I was perceived when I was a teen girl – a long long time ago in a land far far away.
My favorite thing to do back then was still writing. Only I mostly wrote “I ran away from home” notes, “I killed myself” notes, and very my own eulogy.
It’s strange now to think how beautiful these tributes were and how significant I made myself sound after death when I actually felt worthless being alive.
All my life, I had been told just how difficult, defiant, and damaged I was… And when it wasn’t blatantly expressed to me, it was the theme of discussion among my family members. There was no doubt I was a total disappointment.
I thought about dying by suicide almost daily, I acted on those thoughts several times, and at 13, I almost got there. I wasn’t met with compassion, and no recovery plan was put in place. Instead, I was reminded how I really couldn’t do anything right.
And many teenagers can relate to this.
A lot more than you think. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, suicide is the second leading cause of death for children, adolescents, and young adults ages 15-to-24-year-olds in the United States. Studies have shown that suicide as a cause of death in the 15-19 age group is one of the leading causes of death among young persons of both sexes worldwide. Furthermore, our youth’s mental health is progressively deteriorating.
You were a teen once, right?
This is when people stop saying you are cute and lovable. And they start measuring your worth by your grades or accomplishments. You start being judged by every word you say and every choice you make. Oh, and you’re often dismissed because “you’re only a teenager…” so your opinion doesn’t count.
Being a teen was hard then, and with social media and the impossible standards in today’s world, it’s even more challenging.
And the way we talk to our teens, and about them, is a matter of life and death.
So when these misguided people predicted that my daughters would become “terrible terrifying terrorizing teens,” I refused to believe the stereotypes.
I decided to read, instead. Yeah, I’m pretty much a word nerd.
I became fascinated with the teenage brain and fell in love with neuroscience. I spent thousands of hours with my head buried in the research. And I learned that what we are told by society, the media, and the probably well-meaning people who can’t help but give our kids backhanded compliments are all lies.
Raising teens can be challenging because parenting is challenging. It can also be a joy and a very fun adventure. And if we have a positive attitude toward the teen years, we can learn a lot from them. We can also maintain good relationships with our teens.
But, instead, as a society, we blame teens for these struggles.
Last year, I was sharing my outrage and indignation in a conversation with my teen daughter, Elyssa. She inspired me to speak up and turn my anger into advocacy…
And in a matter of minutes, I came up with a simple and memorable evidence-based system to help us improve our communication skills as parents of teens. Because when we effectively communicate with and about teenagers, they can be emotionally whole.
A better way to parent and teen communication
I call it the head-shoulders-knees-and-toes-eyes-and-ears-and-mouth-and-nose system – Yes, I’m serious.
In every interaction with your teen, remember that their brain is still developing.
Brain science tells us that the prefrontal cortex –the thinking center of the brain – is underdeveloped in adolescents.
Brain imaging technology also shows that the amygdala – the emotional center of the brain – is hyperactive in teens.
So, it turns out that society and well-meaning adults will put you down for achieving developmental milestones that should actually be celebrated. And YOU feel shame for attitudes and behaviors that are not only normal but necessary.
According to The Center for Parent and Teen Communication, “Dozens of developmental milestones occur during the teen years. It’s a period of growth similar to babyhood when the changes (rolling over, crawling, walking…) come at you a mile per minute. Adolescence is a time to notice (and celebrate!) tons of cool changes.”
These are some of the milestones I have learned to embrace and celebrate, just like I did when they were toddlers:
First romantic interest
Making a well-thought-out decision
Contributing to Community
Learning to drive
Graduating from school
Choosing friends over parents
Thinking deeply about possibilities
Following through on a goal
Defining friend groups
Learning from a mistake
Seeing parents as people
Seeking role models
Setting life goals
Bouncing back from failure
Not giving in to peer pressure
Setting boundaries in relationships
Looking to friends for advice
Setting work habits
Getting a job or internship
Asking for privacy to think
Delaying an immediate want
You might be surprised to learn these as I was – and most parents don’t know this at all.
As parents, mentors, and caregivers, we need to learn about the teen brain, their biological clock, and the science behind their behavioral changes. It makes a big difference for good communication to take brain development into consideration in the teenage years.
Whenever you talk to your teen, remind yourself that they have so much pressure on their shoulders.
Get their driver’s license
Prepare for college
Get straight A’s
Do chores a home
And let’s not forget the pressures from their peer group, especially in high school.
Many of our teens are overwhelmed, overstressed, and overworked, with very little time to rest or relax. It’s normal for them to have a hard time coping with this.
It’s helped me understand why they want to disengage or why they don’t want to clean their room, even though it would be a good idea sometimes if you know what I mean.
I think we’re all a bit weak in the knees… I know I am.
Because the knees are for the knee-jerk reactions. And as parents of teens, our first instinct is to react by either going into fixing mode or scolding mode. Ugh. It can be so easy to forget all of our teens’ strengths and their positive behavior in daily life. We can let a triggering moment jeopardize our close relationship.
An effective approach is to take just a few moments to ground ourselves, take a deep breath, and process our emotions, so we can respond consciously, rather than react impulsively.
Toes – Imagine what it’s like in their shoes. This has been my favorite and most humbling technique in raising teenagers. I start off by being frustrated or annoyed, and then I ask myself the simple question:
Was I like her at this age?
It reminds me that our teenagers are outstanding humans and it helps me see them in a positive way.
And this question not only helps us be more compassionate with them, but it also causes our admiration for them to grow.
This is about helping them feel seen. You see their efforts and you see their struggles. You validate them by acknowledging their point of you – and acknowledge them.
This one is a bit obvious. When practice active listening, and stay present with them – without interruptions – our teens feel heard. Silence creates safety and it sends a clear message to them that we want to understand them, and that we are willing to keep an open mind – this is truly open communication.
And even though we are listening with our ears, we know that your eye contact and body language can let them know that they have your full attention, your undivided attention, which sometimes, is all they need to self-regulate.
Speak validating words and strive to make every conversation a soothing conversation. In my research with hundreds of teens, I was shocked to find that they all felt invalidated, even when they enjoyed their parents’ communication styles.
One cool tool I learned from Byron Katie, that can heal your communication is to simply reply with the phrase “you could be right,” even if, and especially when you disagree with them. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it can definitely avoid a power struggle and keeps the lines of communication open.
Don’t be nosy – respect your teen’s privacy and boundaries.
I personally learned the “art” of interrogation as a parenting tool and I’ve learned that it’s not an effective way to have a healthy relationship.
When we give them the space they need to process their emotions, they feel safe and develop trust.
The key is to stay connected through quality time and by staying alert for bids of connection that might be right under your nose!
Many of these bids come in the form of memes, cat videos, text messages with emojis, video games, or even poetry challenges.
So there you have it. The head-shoulders-knees-and-toes-eyes-and-ears-and-mouth-and-nose system – and I hope the song is stuck in your head by now. That’s my evil plan.
Because the concepts I’m teaching should be stuck in our heads. Our teens need it and deserve it. These 8 steps can strengthen parent-teen relationships and family relationships of all types.
So what you can do to get started on this journey toward better communication?
For a moment, I invite you to close your eyes and place your hand on your heart. Think back to when you were a teen and ask yourself: What did I need most from the people in my life?
To know that you are valuable and capable, just as you are.
To know that you are loved, supported, and cared for.
To know that what you do matters and that you matter.
You may open your eyes.
Now put a heart around the one you needed most when you were a teen.
And you’re going to commit to giving that to yourself and the teens in your life – whether you are a parent, relative, teacher, coach, or a loving stranger to them.
And if you’re a parent, I’m going to challenge you to ask your teen a simple question:
Do you feel loved?
Because the only way to know someone feels loved is to ask them.
Imagine living in a world where we don’t just seek to practice effective communication, but also talk to teens with the same compassion we offer to younger children. A world where we talk about them as the valuable, capable, amazing humans they are.
As we treat every teen like the important person they are, more teens will stay alive and will be happier, more confident, and emotionally whole. The entire family will benefit from better and the world will thrive.
What do you personally do to practice better parent and teen communication? Share it with us in the comments below.
Elayna is a homeschool educator, single mom of 4, founder of the Positive MOM Community, award-winning Storyteller, Story Strategist, and Student of Pain. She’s a bestselling author, internationally acclaimed keynote speaker, and 3x TEDx speaker. To receive a gift from Elayna, click HERE.
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Wednesday 19th of April 2023
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