Reframing Adolescence

"Raging hormones! Terrible judgment! Crazy mood swings!" How many times have you heard these terms used to describe teenagers? As a culture, we have a lot of negative perceptions of adolescence and all the challenges that the teen years can bring for both parents and teens themselves. What we don't hear as often is how incredibly rich and rewarding the teen years can be, including for the adults who love them. We get caught up in the frustration, the mistakes made, the seemingly unpredictable inconsistencies in mood, behavior and choices.

There are a lot of reasons for the risk-taking, reward-seeking behavior we tend to see in adolescents. Teenagers' brains are, in fact, different from adult brains in how they process information, respond to perceived risks and rewards, and manage emotional cues. But part of what makes the teenage years so full of wonder are these differences we, as adults, are so quick to malign. What if we paid attention to the upside as much as, or even more than, the potential downside?

Mary Elizabeth Williams, author and mom of tween and teen girls, recently wrote:

Teens can be the most amazing, interesting, curious, weird, hilarious, original, enthusiastic and challenging in the good way human beings you will ever meet. My life is exponentially richer and more rewarding because of the high schoolers in it. Teenagers write songs and design clothes and do volunteer work and have really good ideas. Also, they can do their own laundry and make their own lunch.

We couldn't agree more. The words we use have real power to shape the world around us. Imagine the impact we could have on teens' self-image, as well as parents' confidence in their teens, if we took care to use our words wisely. 

friendship challenges: what parents can do

We had the opportunity to speak at Trinity School today on the topic of "Parenting Through Friendship Changes and Challenges," and received such thoughtful feedback, questions and comments from the parents participating. Most children will struggle in some way with friendships: losing a friend, feeling excluded, changing peer groups, not knowing how to react in a challenging social situation. Parents struggle with knowing how to respond, and sometimes have to fight the urge to step in and take over. Here are some tips for what to do when you see your child struggling in her friendships.

  • Normalize change.Friendships change frequently and the enemy of today might be the best friend of tomorrow. Interests change over time, and friendship groups will change with them.
  • Label the behavior, not the child. At some point, all children will experience participating in, and being on the receiving end of, relational aggression and other red light friendship behaviors. Avoid labels like bully & mean girl, but address the behavior. Help your child identify when they or their peer group engage in red light behavior and identify positive alternatives.
  • Know when (not) to intervene. Start with helping your child problem solve on her own. If problems escalate, engage with teachers and parents to collaborate on problem solving. This is a learning process and we want to empower kids to navigate challenges.  Help your child set boundaries  and navigate uncomfortable social situations on her own as much as possible.
  • Encourage self-compassion over self-esteem. Self-esteem is contingent on external validation (grades, compliments) while self-compassion teaches us that we have inherent self-worth, even when we feel bad, make a mistake or experience conflict. Help her be kind and forgiving of herself and others,  remember that everyone has bad days and that emotions are temporary.
  • Create space for down time, independent play and creative pursuits. Honor differences in social needs and help your child set limits on social time.
  • Redefine the goals. Instead of eliminating social challenges, the goal is to help your child develop the skills to navigate them, build pro-social behavior and exercise his brain for healthy development. Resilience is developed when you learn from experience and get stronger.