Your child’s brain grows until about age 24. During the teenage years, the brain undergoes vast neurological changes. Parenting teenagers through this storm of dramatic mood swings and behavior shifts may sometimes seem impossible.
The good news is you don’t have to be an expert. If you take an active interest in your teen’s mental experience, and seek to understand him with sensitivity and genuine curiosity, you will maintain access to his internal world while contributing to his emotional resilience.
Engage, empathize, investigate
Perhaps the most important step you can take when you notice distress in your child is to stop what you are doing, give her your full attention, and empathize with her feelings. (This does not require you to agree with the reasons, or even fully understand them). Put your own emotional reactions aside and take a sensitive investigatory approach. Find out the facts, but then focus on your child’s thoughts, feelings, wishes and beliefs about those facts. Try to learn as much as you can about her subjective experience.
But what do I say?
It can be difficult to generate the right words under pressure, especially when you can’t directly relate to the situation. If you are unsure what to say, try phrases like:
- Wow, that really upset you.
- Tell me more about that.
You can also rephrase your teen’s words by suggesting a feeling that seems to fit the description. For example:
- Do you think you felt embarrassed when your teacher called on you in class and you didn’t have the answer?
- You seem sad/angry/frustrated right now.
It is OK for you not to know what is going in your child’s head. Your interest in knowing provides more support and comfort to your child than your actual knowing. Even when you think you have all the information, it is more helpful to presume that there are aspects to which you are not privy (because of course there are always are). Then you have reason to explore them in a curious manner. When parenting teenagers, a phrase such as, Help me understand what’s going on for you, conveys this lack of presumption and deep sense of interest in your child’s experience.
Help your teenager develop the story
Encouraging your teen to expound on the story to include more detail, such as the thoughts and feelings of others involved.
The following questions can be helpful:
- How were you feeling when that happened?
- Do you feel any different about it now?
- What do you think was going on for [the other person or people involved]?
- Why do you think they did that? Could they have been motivated by anything else?
- What might they have been thinking? What else could they have been thinking?
Fleshing out the narrative in this way expands your child’s view of the situation to include other people’s perspectives, and helps promote empathy.
It is natural to want to relieve your child’s distress by fixing the situation. You may feel frustrated when you are helpless to do so. However, you might be surprised at how much better your child feels (and behaves) when you express genuine curiosity about his internal experience. It implies, You are not emotionally alone. When parenting teenagers, this is particularly important, since they are naturally struggling with fears around belonging, rejection and independence.
Promoting internal strength
Listening to your child (at any age) with open-minded curiosity also promotes internal strength. When you take a not-knowing and understanding stance toward her experiences, you encourage your child to do the same – to approach her own thoughts and feelings, and those of others, with a sense of wonder. So when something bad happens, your teen won’t jump to a single, often irrational, conclusion that feels bad. Instead, she will be more likely to consider multiple interpretations.
For instance, when a girlfriend acts mean, how is your daughter likely to interpret the behavior? Might she think:
Maybe Jenny was mean to me because she was upset I didn’t call her back last night, or perhaps she is stressed about homework, or upset about a test.
Jenny was mean to me because she doesn’t like me.
The latter interpretation feels terrible – particularly if it is the only explanation she can come up with. It implies, Jenny doesn’t like me because I’m not likable, and there is nothing I can do about it. The former is a much healthier response. It reflects uncertainty about what may be going through Jenny’s mind. After all, it isn’t clear from her behavior what she was thinking, so leaving room for multiple possibilities is appropriate. Generating multiple hypotheses about an uncomfortable situation protects against the cascade of negative thoughts and feelings that stem from assuming a worst-case scenario. It also helps to facilitate a quicker emotional recovery.
This is Mentalizing
The ability to take an inquisitive stance toward people’s behavior is part of a fundamental skill called mentalizing. It is at the heart of resiliency and robust mental health. Parenting teenagers with understanding and curiosity is an important component of mentalizing, and helps transmit this skill to them. For more information on mentalizing, and therapy that improves this ability, click here. Also, see the attached article for additional research-based interventions you may find helpful for adolescents and teens.
Cover photo by Redd Angelo