By Adrienne Kather, LPC

If I were to ask you what your most difficult age in life was, what would your answer be? I think for many of us the answer would be the adolescent years (many developmental theorists define as about age 11 through early to mid-20’s). So much is happening in that time of life. Let’s go back and imagine it. You’re not a child anymore, but not yet an adult. In some ways you’re still treated like a child, while in other areas you are expected to act like an adult. You have the pressure of figuring out what you’ll do after high school; if you’ll go to college or start working. You’re trying to fit in and there are always those you don’t fit in with who seem to make life difficult. Whether you realize it or not, you’re trying to become your own person – trying on different “selves” in different situations, trying different activities and groups of peers, figuring out what it is to be in romantic relationships and navigating all that goes with that, trying to become distinct from your parents and still be in relationship with them (which causes great tension that you don’t understand!), asking who you are and who you are going to be, what you believe, what your values are, and figuring out where your worth comes from. Whew! Exhausting!

Aren’t you glad that time in life is over?!

Probably the next most difficult time in life is being the parent of an adolescent. You were at one time an adolescent, but your adolescent doesn’t seem to believe that is really possible – or at least believes back then was so different you can’t possibly understand what they’re experiencing now. And let’s be honest, the frontal lobe of your brain is now fully developed (the frontal lobe is where executive decision making happens and it finishes developing around the age of 25), so sometimes you really don’tunderstand some of the illogical things your adolescent does, even if you know you did some illogical things as an adolescent, too. Why on earth would it be funny to take the glass table top off a patio table and throw it in a pond? Their frontal lobes aren’t fully developed yet, so sometimes they don’t make the most logical decisions. You see your adolescent not always making the most logical decisions and fear grips you – he/she might do something harmful to self or others, his/her groups of peers might do something harmful or cause your adolescent to compromise values you’ve tried to instill, he/she might not be as aware of surroundings and something harmful can happen. Sometimes those things do happen (usually in small ways that feel gigantic to you) and you feel guilty you weren’t there to protect, that you must not have done as good of a job as you thought at instilling values, and feel guilt from others questioning your parenting and personhood because of what happened. You see your adolescent wanting more time with friends and more time alone and may feel rejected, not to mention this increases the fear that you don’t know him/her as well or have as much influence. You want him/her to become a healthy, happy, well-adjusted, responsible adult able to contribute to society and are trying to help him/her figure out who he/she is and mature so that this is possible. Whew! Exhausting!

When will this time in life be over?!

So, now the question is, how do you navigate this time in life? One way is to find what the basic needs displayed in each of the above paragraphs and how those needs can be met. What needs do you have as a parent and what needs does your adolescent have? Below are basic needs and you can use this list as a starting point to think of additional ones specific to you and your adolescent. It strikes me how the experience of the adolescent and the experience of the parent are interrelated. The experience of the adolescent affects the parent and the experience of the parent affects the adolescent and vice versa.

1. The parent needs to know the adolescent is safe. The adolescent needs to individuate by bonding more with peers and experiencing new things. You sense your adolescent distancing himself/herself from you and spending more time alone and with friends and worry about safety, including the influences he/she is experiencing. Your adolescent needs to develop a sense of self-distinction from you while staying attached to you. This includes needing to spend more time alone and with friends and trying new things.

Remind yourself that you still do have influence, and that it is important for your adolescent to experience other influences. Discuss boundaries that allow for your need for safety to be met while still allowing for your adolescent’s need for exploration and bonding with peers to be met. Discuss how to speak up for oneself and basic safety skills. Be a safe place for your adolescent to come to when something he/she is unsure of does happen or when he/she does do something that is outside the boundaries. This means listening, reflecting, and being understanding of his/her experience and then calmly discussing what needs to happen if a boundary was intentionally crossed.

2. The parent needs to know he/she is still connected to the adolescent. The adolescent needs to individuate by spending more time with peers and alone. The appearance of this is the same as number one, but the heart of it is about relationships rather than safety/influence. You need to know that you still have a relationship with the adolescent, but often it feels as if the relationship is slipping away because your adolescent is spending more time alone and with peers in order to find and establish who he/she is as a person distinct from you.

Remind yourself that you still matter and do still have relationship with your adolescent; it simply looks different than it did when he/she was a child. The quantity of time together may decrease (or at least may wax and wane), but you can increase the quality of time that you do spend together. Listen for what is going on in your adolescent’s life and engage in conversation about it when he/she is open for conversation. If he/she starts to express frustration that you don’t understand, explain that it might not make sense to you, but that you want to hear about it because you care about him/her. When possible, do things with the adolescent individually that he/she enjoys as well as having times that you can do things as a family. In between those times, give space to be alone and with friends.

3. The parent wants to be respected and appreciated. The adolescent wants to be trusted and affirmed. You have done a lot for your adolescent. You were everything and did everything for him/her during infancy through childhood while allowing him/her to try new things and increase responsibility along the way. You still do so much and are trying to understand where the adolescent is and what he/she needs while trying to meet those needs and it is difficult. Sure, mistakes have been made, but overallyou are doing a great job in a difficult time. You want all you do and experience and your position of parenthood to be respected and appreciated. The adolescent has grown up a lot while taking on new responsibilities and is still growing.

Sure, mistakes have been made, but overall he/she is doing a great job in a difficult time. Your adolescent wants to be trusted and wants you to affirm the good and growth in him/her.

Remind yourself that you are respected and appreciated; it simply isn’t always expressed. Remember the adolescent is learning how to form a solid sense of self-distinction from you – learning how to say what he/she thinks, feels, needs and wants. Often this is said with strong emotion that appears disrespectful or unappreciative, but in reality is not intended to be. Often in these situations the adolescent is actually expressing something related to wanting you to trust and/or affirm him/her because it doesn’t feel like you are to him/her. Calmly reflect what you hear being said and if possible also reflect the emotions being expressed by asking if that is what was being said. You can then state your position and can determine if there can be compromise or not. Be watching for opportunities to affirm growth and character.

By recognizing your needs and your adolescent’s needs, you actually accomplish meeting both. When you discuss boundaries but allow time with peers and new experiences, you make room for healthy individuation for your adolescent while still keeping him/her safe and maintaining your influence. At the same time, when you allow your adolescent to bond with peers and have time alone while making time you have together quality time, you facilitate your relationship with your adolescent and (again) make room for healthy individuation for your adolescent. As you display trust and affirm growth and character in your adolescent (reminding yourself your adolescent does respect and appreciate you even when it doesn’t feel like it) when this time period is finished you will find you are respected and appreciated and your adolescent will have become a distinct adult individual who maintains a solid relationship with you.