In his 40 years helping students and their families navigate the teenage years, Rick Irving has dealt with so many aspects of adolescent behavior: the shoulder shrugs, the one-word answers, the storming out of the room, the topic-shifting as a method to deflect from a question, the subtle asking for help followed by immediate demands to “leave me alone!”
“Adolescents are not actually emotionally disturbed, they just try on different personas a few times a day,” Irving remarked during his recent visit at Acera, bringing a deliberate, witty irony that made his talk both refreshing and accessible.
A licensed clinical social worker specializing in children and adolescents, Irving chatted with Acera parents as well as many visitors to our school about the difficult years that start the transition into adulthood for our children. For all who could not be there, we have collected some highlights of his talk.
Raising adolescents is like walking through an emotional mine field. And you don’t have a map. The unpredictability is both the challenge and joy of this developmental time.
For girls, puberty is even harder. The boys can hide it for a while. For girls, puberty is public.
Adolescents are full of ambivalence. You can’t win. It’s a relief to know that!
Teenagers will have tantrums. And when they do, paradoxically the last thing to disintegrate is expressive language – so they can still argue strongly while they are a complete internal mess.
Part of our job as parents is to absorb their distress without running away from it. The calmer you are, the calmer they’ll get.
When you are a teenager, and you feel, say, lonely, it does not come out as that. It comes out as “Lunch at school today was set up in a totally stupid way!” That’s because the inside self is all-vulnerable, while the outside self is all over-confident.
Like adults, every kid would like to get through the day and not be embarrassed. And every kid would like to end the day feeling successful about something.
Sometimes, your kids ask you a question or present a problem, such as: Why do I have to take algebra? You respond, trying to answer, or trying to solve the problem, and somehow the conversation quickly derails, and there is yelling and you are baffled and wonder what just happened.
What happened is that with teenagers, the purpose of conflict is often to have the conflict. Your child is trying to figure out: How do I separate from you? How am I different from you? This is how some of the most classic statements got made: “I don’t need to tell you where I am going!” It’s not about a factual argument. It’s “I hate needing you and so I have to hate your ideas!” or: “I’ll show you I’m nothing like you!”
Adolescents are on a learner’s permit for independence. They think a lot, but not always very well when they struggle to be different from you.
The hardest question to avoid: How was school today? Right after school, many kids haven’t made the emotional transition from school to home yet. So they can’t actually answer that question.
You can say: “I’d love to hear about your day. Let me make you a snack.” What kids hear in that is that you care, and know they are hungry and tired. And it shows you are not intrusive. Although in the end, being over-intrusive is better than being apathetic.
If your teen is trying to tell you something, listen. Are you a fast talker, a fast responder? Then slow down. If you rush to a comment, the teen will go right back inside that shell. Watch out for intensity; it’s not the same as care. Your intensity can feel overwhelming to your child who is tentatively trying to share.
Hold back and wait for information. If your child says: “I don’t know, something feels off today.” Just say “Hhm, feels off…” Let it trail, be an inspired idiot. Your goal is not to have answers but to inspire their thinking.
If you ask: What do you mean? Your teen doesn’t know the answer, either.
Don’t ask “Why?” questions, either. Why questions are often feel like set-ups or traps. Adolescents sense that their answers only mean there is usually an adult trying to talk to them about how things could have been handled differently; what they could have done instead of what they did that has caused them to be upset.
Find out if they are ready to engage in problem solving, or if it is about emotional processing. Don’t try the former when it’s about the latter. Give them time. Be an emphatic listener. Say: “So the day wasn’t so good, I wonder what made it that way.”
Adolescents often do see sharing as a trap. Praise crumbs of information. You’ll likely get more.
Try to remain predictable. We all have moods, but within range. You become safer to share with this way.
If you have an idea for a solution, and have given ample time, suggest it and then do something else. A discussion will erase the idea, and put the focus back on the struggle for independence. If you leave, the kid can ponder your idea without losing face.
During adolescence, peers are always an audience in the room, even when you cannot see them. That’s why you get questions they already know you will say No to. Can I buy a super-mini skirt? Can I get a Mohawk? No. Kids ask because they need to be able to get back to their peers and say: “My parents are Neanderthals…”
On Teaching Emotional Language
Mirror your own emotions. Talk about them. Say “I feel like I am going to explode. I am not going to but I feel like it. Do you sometimes feel like that?” Label your emotions, so kids have language for them, too. You make emotions safer that way.
You can cry, be upset or sad, but make sure you do not communicate danger. You can say: “I got some really sad news, crying fits.” They need to know that you are in control of yourself.
On What to Avoid
Sarcasm. Can feel like a put-down. To kids, it often feels like they have been verbally cut but they can’t see the knife. Older teenagers may enjoy it. And they’ll use it on you. Try not to use it back.
Quick assurances. The person who makes quick assurances is feeling uncomfortable. So kids don’t buy it. If there is distress, take it in. Don’t denigrate it.
“I don’t know what to do, I am at the end of my rope!” Remember, you are in charge even if you don’t feel it. Saying this can be overwhelming. Also, it’s actually fascinating to kids. Their curiosity takes over. What will happen next? Saying you are at the end of your rope has the opposite impact if you want your child to back off.
On Things That Work (Though not everything works every time!)
When you find yourself in a conflict that doesn’t seem to make sense, don’t say “You don’t get it!” or “You cannot do that!” or “That does not make any sense!” You can say that in your head but not out loud.
Stay in the conflict for 3-4 minutes, then try to get out of it. Stop any attempts at discussing of the actual question. Say you have something else to do. If nothing else works and you are stuck in a battle, pretend you suddenly remember something you forgot, and run out of the room. Then you can come back. It is very hard t pick up an intense battle after it has been interrupted. And it is a face-saving way to get away, and press the reset button.
Often, our kids refresh much sooner after a battle than we do. Don’t pretend it’s fine if it isn’t. It is important for adolescents to feel the impact of their behavior.
If you are still recovering and need some space, say in a matter of fact way, “that’s how parents are.” Don’t lash out. It will only make them angry at you, instead of uncomfortable with themselves.
“That paper you wrote, I loved it. Next time, why don’t you add a few sentences to the conclusion?” And there you have just erased the praise. Praise needs to stand by itself as much as possible.
Be historians of your kids’ successes. Kids are Velcro for bad events, and Teflon for good events. It’s their natural neurology. They are lousy historians of their own successful work. Say things like: “I remember when you were in fourth grade. You struggled, and then you pulled through… That was really great!”
Say it like it just intruded on your thinking. Teenagers don’t act like it but they need our praise. Desperately.
There are 3 levels of praise:
- General praise. Such as: Nice job! Well done! Can be applied to anything.
- Specific Praise. “Let me tell you why this was great.” Identify a specific skill that it is repeatable, useful.
- Praise for transferable skills. “You are the kind of kid who can assess a chaotic situation and find out what you need!” Identify an internal skill that works beyond the unique situation you are commenting on.
What you are trying to do with adolescents is build a sense of competence. Confidence and self-esteem are build through competence. Competence comes from being noticed for doing things well. Often.