Even if you could remember all the highs and lows of your adolescence, you’d likely decline the opportunity. The teen years, after all, are a brutal stage of human development, filled with (often self-inflicted) negativity and plenty of opportunities to make poor choices. But while most parents wincingly recall their own stumbles through junior high and high school, the modern teen’s challenges are a whole other beast.
Today’s emotional and mental threats are far more pervasive than alcohol or drugs. Knowing what your teens are up against can help you be more understanding of their behavior, and accept the challenge and privilege that comes with the parenting territory.
Living in a “like” society
While Snapchat, Instagram, and their ilk are used for teen entertainment and communication, “so many youth are looking for someone to pay attention to them, perhaps even promise them love,” says DeGarmo. “This addiction to technology can place blinders upon a child and prevent them from seeing the danger they might encounter.”
Getting positive attention online—even from a stranger—can be a major ego boost. So be aware that the culture of “likes” is prominent—and being ignored is a major potential hit to your child’s self-esteem.
Cyberspace trolled by bullies
On the flip side of seeking validation through technology touchpoints, teens may be on the receiving end of cyberbullying, which can involve being embarrassed, threatened, teased, and harassed. “Today’s bully can follow their targeted victim wherever the child may go,” says DeGarmo.
Online platforms allow for the “anonymous delivery of hurtful and degrading images and comments with no accountability,” says Brian Moore, public safety director for Red Clay Consolidated School District in Delaware. “This allows some who have a desire to harm others a perfect cloak of secrecy and cowardice. For the victims, this comes with the belief that each blog post or online comment is seen by the world and believed by all when viewed.”
As an adult, you might be able to brush off a public embarrassment but, “Teens don’t have the coping mechanisms and life experience adults do,” says Moore. What may seem like a minor situation to a parent can be world-imploding to a fragile adolescent.
While your teen may be consumed with their smartphone apps and how they connect them to their peers, these interactions do not exist in a bubble. The situations and feelings are very real. And so are the consequences. Teens can find whatever they want or need online, from encouragement for their eating disorder to how to commit suicide.
“Many of these sites suggest that suicide is a positive solution to their problems, or a spiritual release to their pain and struggle,” says DeGarmo. “For a child suffering through great bouts of depression and looking for help or encouragement, this may be the answer.” There’s a reason why live-streamed suicides have become a distressing trend among teens.
“Sadness, mistakes, and disappointment will happen. It’s how long you stay stuck in it, and what you do about it, that matters,” says Fern Weis, a certified parenting coach. “Kids don’t know what to do when they’re not happy.” Weis believes that a heavy focus on capturing happiness—instead of focusing on developing resilience, empathy, and resourcefulness—could actually push teens toward the underworld of substance abuse.
How well do you and your teen communicate? How does your teen correspond with his or her friends?
Parents might rely on a smiley face to lighten a text message about curfew. Teens, however, regularly interact with each other using emojis. They carefully select the tiny little picture that accurately conveys the feeling behind their message, and they read into the meaning of return emojis.
To put this in perspective, think about how much you tried to infer from an email or note signed “love” when you were in junior high or high school. “Does he really mean love? Does she write ‘love’ to everybody?” Oh, how life has become so much more complicated because of tiny illustrated faces that live inside your teen’s smartphone.
Toeing the toddler line
Teens are emotional people, and some parents have trouble adjusting to the developmental changes that their teens go through. Though you may be tempted to abandon teens to their own defenses, realizing how much this phase of life has in common with toddlerhood can help you stay tuned in.
Keep in mind that even if teens shrug, roll their eyes, or grumble as you make efforts to stay connected, “they’re grateful for your attention,” says Carl Grody, a child, adolescent, and family therapist in Worthington, Ohio.
Feeling safe, thanks to their parents, gives toddlers the confidence to learn about their world. “Teens are the same way; they just won’t tell you,” says Grody. “Continue to have expectations, rules, and boundaries. They’ll complain about it, but teens see this as creating a box for them, which shows them that you still love them enough to make sure they do the right things.”
It’s a fine balance to give your teen room to explore while still limiting some of their independence. So, stay connected, but resist the urge to be too present in your teen’s life if you want to avoid being shut out.
“All this connectivity has given us the ability to hover,” says Jessica Gottlieb, co-founder of WeAreMidlife.com. This reality may make helicopter parents rejoice, but Gottlieb believes of her high school-aged kids, “If I need to know where they are every moment of the day, I’ve failed as a parent and they are set up to fail as adults. I try very hard to allow them to make their own decisions.”
Be mindful that stifling your teen goes against their natural development. “Toddlers are very egocentric. Teenagers rev up in rebellion and self-focus as they accelerate the process of separation and individuation from Mom and Dad,” says Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent.
Stay connected with your teen
Try not to take your teen’s pulling away personally. Their inadequate communication is not meant to be an insult. Try not to back away from your teen when they need your parental support the most. If you find that you simply cannot manage the ups and downs of having a teen under your roof, seek help. Developing a trusted relationship with a therapist can be invaluable.
“The teen can act out all of their disappointments, anger, and hostility toward their parents onto a safe place—the psychotherapist who will not bolt by attacking, abandoning, or collapsing into tears,” says Walfish.
Teens also deserve the opportunity to check out and recharge. Research conducted at Vanderbilt University found that teens must be allowed to process information in their own way, whether they need to take a break from the stress itself or remove themselves from the situations around them that they can’t control. Teens seek positive distractions that help them out of a funk, whether that’s watching SpongeBob SquarePants or playing with the filters on Snapchat.
So yes, allow your teen to manage their own emotions. But stay involved, even during the hard parts. Experts overwhelmingly state that a parent’s presence in their teen’s life can truly make all the difference.