Anyone spending time with a young teenager knows that they can be lovely and intriguing one moment and irrational and angry the next. Their emotions are strong and their prefrontal cortex is under major reconstruction, resulting in incredible highs, desperate lows, mature insight, and impulsive reactions – sometimes all in one day.
The early teen years can be incredibly hard to parent through. Somewhere in the eleven- to thirteen-year age range, our previously reasonable children are likely to become completely allergic to direction. They can appear inconsiderate, act rashly, and yes, even throw tantrums.
Even if previously we enjoyed a close relationship with our child, they are now likely to roll their eyes at us and inform us plainly just how wrong we are about any number of things. They appear to have forgotten everything we ever taught them – from manners to bicycle safety. Many adults throw their hands up in exasperation, feeling they have totally failed as parents or teachers. They ask: where has my tender care and instruction over the last twelve years disappeared to?
Actually, the care and instruction have not been for naught. We, as parents and teachers, have simply entered puberty again, this time as the ones responsible for shepherding our teen through this transition! If we thought it was a rough ride the first time, this time is probably going to be pretty bumpy too. Body odour and growth spurts, pubic hair and bras are actually the easy parts compared to the emotional ups and downs we are challenged to patiently navigate and guide our teens through.
What is all of this turmoil and disruption in service of? We understand that physical changes are meant to ready their bodies for reproduction, but what is the purpose of the wild mood swings and refusal to cooperate? Quite simply, Nature is making room for a new tentative individual to emerge into their own personhood.
For the first decade or so, you get to fill your child up with your values, your beliefs, your preferences, ideals, and priorities, and then the emerging young adolescent begins to test out new ideas that are entirely their own. Some of these are sweet and tentative, some are bizarre and odd, and some might actually even be dangerous; all of them are untempered, and black-and-white thinking rules the day. While this critical process of discovering one’s own thoughts and ideas begins, Nature puts up what amounts to psychological walls to hold the outside world at bay. So if you feel like you are talking to a wall, you sort of are. If you feel like they are only thinking of themselves, it’s true. But it is for good reason: Nature has a plan.
When we understand why this is happening, our role becomes more obvious: we must protect our budding young teen from harsh criticism, from shaming, and, often, from themselves. We must let them unfold. And we must have some grace for the awkwardness of the expression, the bizarreness of the idea, or the frustrated explosion when we have to stop them from, for example, jumping their bike over the car.
We do this for them, just as we did when they were toddlers and wanted to “do it myself”! We let them try, we support the effort, and we keep them safe, both physically and emotionally. Although they may be inconsiderate to others (including us), this is the moment when we have to step up as parents and treat them with dignity and care.
For young teens, becoming their own person is exciting, but it is also incredibly scary and vulnerable, and the most important thing we can do as parents is to hold on to our teens. This can be hard because they seem to be actively pushing us away. Nevertheless, we have to find ways to walk beside them. They need us to be in their corner no matter what. We must feed them physically and emotionally. We must provide a strong home base. Most importantly, we must take full responsibility for the relationship.
This may sound like a tall order when your teen just explained to you in great detail where he thinks you should stick your head. Indeed, it is a tall order. Parenting a young teen will grow and stretch us. It requires us to extend grace – freely given unmerited favour with no expectation of reciprocity. For example, we cannot assign intent when an adolescent is being hijacked by extreme emotion. Rather, we might state matter of factly, “This situation isn’t going well, let’s take a break and come back later to watch a show and have a snack together.” This is grace in action.
So the next time your afternoon with your young teen goes completely sideways, imagine them as their three-year-old self and cuddle them up (if they let you), find something to laugh about, be playful, feed them, and trust that your relationship with them will bear fruit down the road. These can be tough years, as our adolescents transition from being children to becoming adults. This is a difficult and scary time for them, filled with huge emotions and new realizations.
We cannot protect them from the peril of the journey, but we can stay by their side, remain loyal and steadfast and hand out the snacks and the kleenex. We can hold on.
Robin, along with fellow Neufeld faculty member Lisa Weiner, is anchoring the upcoming Making Sense of Adolescence course which starts on January 18, 2021. Click HERE for details and to register.