Ask anyone who’s raised children through the teenage years, and they’ll tell you, parenting a teen is not for the faint of heart! There are so many emotional, physical, and developmental changes taking place – and rapidly! Maybe you have a pre-adoptive placement who has just entered adolescence and you’re finding it suddenly more challenging to connect with them. Or maybe you’ve just been matched with a teenager who is about to move into your home and you’re panicking about how to relate to them. Rest assured, you are not alone!
As adults, it’s hard to remember sometimes that the teenage brain is still developing – in fact, our brains don’t stop developing until we’re in our 20s (at the earliest!). If you’ve ever wondered why teenagers seem to have such a hard time with impulse control, organization, or making decisions, you have the still-developing prefrontal cortex to thank. And while the prefrontal cortex is doing all this great development during the adolescent years, another part of the brain “takes charge” – the amygdala which is, you guessed it, the emotional part of the brain. With the amygdala leading the way, teen interactions are more emotionally-driven than rationally. (Don’t worry – the prefrontal cortex does usually catch up and balance out the amygdala, but it takes a while.) No wonder we sometimes feel like we’re talking different languages than our teens!
For this blog, we went right to the experts – adoptive parents of teens – for their advice on how to make the teen years a little more enjoyable, or at least a little less daunting for everyone involved. Here are three of their tips:
Rules can be your best friend
This might seem counter to your experience, but sometimes the behavior you’re seeing from your teen can be because they need more structure than they can set for themselves. (This makes sense, if the emotional part of the brain is running the show.) Maintaining consistent expectations can be helpful for teens (even if they say otherwise), because it removes the element of uncertainty, and gives teens an understanding of the boundaries they can function within. And when you’re not thinking entirely rationally, having some boundaries can help keep your whole teenage life from feeling like it’s spiraling out of control.
Spend time together
You may be thinking, “But I don’t want to spend time with a surly teenager!” – and that’s completely understandable. Your teen is probably thinking, “But I don’t want to spend time with this boring, rule-following adult!” – which is also entirely understandable. But here’s the thing: everyone needs connection…even teens. The need for belonging, feeling connected, feeling heard and seen doesn’t disappear as you get older. Yes, adolescents need their space and independence. But they also need to know they have a safe space to land when that pursuit of independence brings some bumps in the road. By spending time with your teen consistently and giving them your undivided attention, you’re reinforcing to them that you are that safe space, that you do care about their experiences, and that you’re interested in who and what they are becoming.
A simple way to spend consistent and quality time together: Sit down for dinner each night. Share about your day. Ask about theirs. Have everyone share something they are looking forward to that week. Be intentional and consistent about this. The conversations might feel forced at first, but if you keep at it, you’ll notice that pretty soon, chatting with your teen at the dinner table feels as natural as asking, “Could you please pass the potatoes?”
Get on their level
What does your teen enjoy? Do they love laser tag? Are they working hard on mastering their dribbling skills on the court? Are they into puzzles and strategy games? Even perpetually moody adolescents have something that brings them joy. Work on identifying what it is that makes your teen happy, and then get in there and do the activities together!
Haven’t been on a basketball court in years? That doesn’t matter – it might make it easier for your teen to loosen up around you while you’re stumbling and they’re dunking! (Be prepared for some good-natured razzing.) Never played laser tag? Well, this is a good time to start! Or put your rational fully-developed brain to work by puzzling your way out of an escape room together – what better way to encourage your teen’s use of their not-fully-developed prefrontal cortex? Doing the things they enjoy with them (instead of talking at them, or merely crossing paths in the upstairs hallway) can offer lots of opportunities to connect with your teenager on their terms and in a way that feels comfortable to them.
No, raising teens isn’t easy. But the challenges won’t last forever, eventually the prefrontal cortex will take the lead, and the rollercoaster of emotions will balance itself out. In the meantime, take comfort in knowing that all parents experience these same ups and downs, and pretty much all of them survive it – you will too! Being intentional about connecting with your teen may help with your Michael Jordan shooting skills, but more importantly, it may help you appreciate just what fascinating and creative beings you’re raising (and hopefully, it will help them appreciate that you, too, are fascinating and creative, even if you can’t find your way out of an escape room).