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  • Writer's pictureSusie Csorsz Brown

A ticking time bomb

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

It isn't you, it is me.

We're in different places now.

I feel like I just need a break.

I hear you, my fellow parent of a teenager. You wish you could say this, but you can't. Like it or not, you're in the relationship: parents don't get to 'break up' with their teens, even when the behavior they are displaying is enough to make you maybe-kinda-sorta not like your teen (even if you love them very much). There are days you know pretty much from the first minute they are awake that it is going to be tough one. You can tell by the way the feet hit the floor that there will be attitude, and you will be the one to pay the price. Price for what, it will probably never be determined. Teenagers are unpredictable, unwieldy and unforgiving ... except when they aren’t and then they are lovely and friendly and communicative. If only there were some way to predict, to know what that day’s personality would be like. If only there were a magic 8 ball for teenage mood swings.

bomb exploding
Your teenager's mood

More and more, we learn about human interactions and relationships. One of the aspects of being human that most greatly impacts how we perceive and interact with our world is our attachment style. Now, before we delve into a bit of a rabbit hole, let me preface this with: you, my friend parent, are not at fault for your child(ren)'s attachment styles. While your interactions with your child have helped create their style, sure, but there are so many other factors that play a part of this, too, such as birth order, gender, even generational norms. Our kids are their own people, with their own temperament, their own experiences, and their own free will. All that being said, your teenager's attachment style is also hugely impacting your relationship, so this is an important factor.

Our attachment styles shape the way we approach, communicate in, and interact with our relationships. It might even predict the quality and duration of those relationships. The influence of attachment styles spreads beyond that. It impacts the way we perceive ourselves, the way we cope with stress, the way we interact in various social contexts (even at work), and most importantly, the way we feel about ourselves. If you are curious, there are sites online where you can learn more about your specific attachment style, and what that might mean for your relationships.

One of the things you'll read about when looking into attachment styles is the concept of 'misattunement'. Bottom line, misattunement is the idea that there exists a lack of rapport between infant and parent or caregiver such that the infant's efforts at communication and expression are not responded to in a way that allows the infant to feel understood. In actuality, though, it looks like a mismatch between what the child is asking for - safety, security, etc - and what the parent is giving, though the parent might not realize they are not actually meeting the child's needs. If this persist, then the child is not able to learn how to self-regulate, how to make sense of their emotions or how to appropriately communicate their needs, and they instead develop a self-defense mechanism sort of response by 'needing less' to the point where they themselves throw their own needs aside and seek only to assist others. We might label children who struggle with misattunement as “fussy” rather than getting curious about what’s going on inside the pre-verbal child who can’t simply say “this is all too much for me” or “I’m scared right now.” When that child becomes a teenager, that 'fussiness' looks like anger and discomfort. It looks like teenage angst and anger.

In today's world, we say this anger and angst is normal. Is it though? I mean, isn't there enough going on for teenagers, without us characterizing them with negative qualities? That sweet kid is still in there! Let's remember, too, that teenage years are filled with two huge forces: hormones (which alone could fell a giant what with the exaggeration of feelings and needs and emotions), and the need for peer approval. This is the phase of growing when our kids are relying on the security of the relationship they have already established (with us, their ever loving parents), while they go out to test the waters with new and uncertain relationships (their peers). Peer interactions, and peer approval and disapproval are forefront in their mind. I don't know about you, but for many, it can be hard not to feel a bit 'kicked to the curb' and it can happen rather suddenly. You used to be most important; and now? Their buddies and potential relationship targets are the Capital B biggies.

Let's talk for a second about attachment. The idea behind attachment is that there is a particular quality to the attachments that people - in this case, teenagers - have with their primary care givers. There are different types, of course, ranging from secure to disorganized, and these types are largely developed due to the attunement we talked about before. Generally the attachment style a child develops with their caregiver in infancy typically continues for life and impacts their adult relationships and their own ability to parent unless it is disrupted through intentional therapy. Attachment in the parent-teen relationship makes the job of parenting easier. It’s a lot easier to teach our kids and help them become healthy adults when they are attached to us. Kids who are attached care what their parents think. A secure sense of attachment also makes our teens more likely to treat us with respect. It means fewer shouting matches and slammed doors. And for our teens, parental attachment is a powerful protective agent against dangerous behaviors and mental disorders. And, very importantly, attached teens will turn to their parents when they have issues or problems, rather than turning to their peers.

So. What do we do about this?

First, know this: if you feel like your teen is sliding away, if you are seeing and hearing a lot more anger and attitude, if you feel like the connection between you and your teen is feeble, you are probably right. And you should also know that the only way that connection can be revitalized is by hard work on your part. I know! Doesn't seem fair, does it? But your teen HAS support (as he or she sees it); peers are always there. They are not seeking to reestablish an attachment with the adult they see as a negative force in their lives. You say no, you make them do their homework, you take away their phone, you impose curfew ... face it, you are no fun. The person who most wants the connection (knowingly) is you. So does your teen, I promise; they love you and need you more than ever, they are just REALLY bad at knowing it.

Teenage Interaction Do’s:

1. Be a good listener. If your teen is willing to share something — anything — accept it for the precious and rare moment it is. Rule of thumb: Listen twice as much as you speak. And when your teen is speaking, tune in to what they are saying. Don’t just wait for a pause so that you can say your piece, too. Actively listen to what your teen is saying, repeat back to them what you heard so you can be certain you heard exactly what they are trying to tell you. I once heard this described as ‘headline listening’ meaning actively listen to what they have to say, and then respond (to sum up) with a headline for their story. Be open to their opinion even if it is different than your own (You’re not in the parenting business to create a Mini Me, right?). In fact, you should applaud them when they have taken the time to form their own opinions, especially if it is a well-thought argument. Your kids are smart; listen to what they have to say. They also are much more aware of the world than we were at that age thanks to that darn device they always have in their hand.

2. Respect his or her privacy. If she sees that you understand her need for private phone calls and a closed bedroom door, she may be more willing to try sharing some of her inner world with you. Make sure to have firm limits on spending too much time behind closed doors, however. 3. Give your teen increasing autonomy. If he believes that you trust his judgment, and understand his need for growing independence, he is more likely to talk with you when real issues arise. 4. Accept all of your teen’s feelings, as long as they are respectfully conveyed. Every person has the right to their own feelings. If they will let you, talk about your feelings, and theirs. Almost nothing is as important to your teen as feeling heard, understood, and accepted by you. 5. This one is so so important: Apologize when you are wrong, and accept responsibility. Often kids who shut down emotionally have the tendency to not trust their feelings, or their judgment. When you say 'sorry,' you're not only role-modeling that mistakes are okay, you're also taking responsibility for your actions. People who own their own actions generally have a higher degree of self-efficacy and sense of self worth. 6. Keep your comments brief. Schedule time to talk about unappealing topics, such as homework — don’t catch your teen on the fly. Tell them you want to talk to them about (insert subject here) and see when they have time for that conversation. Sure, you can add that it has to be (insert timeline here), but let them mentally prepare for that conversation; do not just jump on them the minute they walk in from school. Focus on what she got right, before offering constructive criticism. Try to go for five compliments to every criticism.

7. Find things to do together. Maybe your teen is into gaming, and they will let you have a turn. Maybe they like a particular sport or activity. Make the time to do it with them. Let them teach you a few things.

8. If you can, return to a Family dinner situation as often as you can. I know this sounds ridiculous; you are all busy. I know your kids have a lot of homework and sports and would rather be with their friends. I also know that when you make time for them, that will be noticed. The more your teen (and all of your kids) realize how important they are to you, and deliberately make time for them, and respect their timelines by scheduling things with respect to their own plans, the more likely they will be to respond positively to your interactions.

9. Consistency is very important. You can’t just be there to parent some of the time; as a parent, you have to be present and available ALL of the time. Parenting is 100% a full-time job.

10. Finally even as my kids get older and (gulp!) embrace all things teenager, I find that routines help ease a lot of parenting and teen angst. Knowing what to expect, knowing the parameters wherein one can operate, knowing the boundaries .. this all helps. And when kids know their limits, and aren’t constantly wondering just how far they can go (or push), they can enjoy the freedom. Even better, they won’t hear ‘no’ as often, so win-win for all involved. Kids who grow up with regular routines and boundaries do better in school, are better with unexpected changes (read: international moves like those we regularly complete as expats/diplomats), and are less stressed because they know what to expect. No one regardless of age likes to live with a bunch of unknowns.

Teenage Interaction Don’ts 1. Avoid lecturing, nagging and guilt trips. Believe me, none of these are effective communication tools. (And, as a side note: that comment applies to interactions with all humans, not just teens). 2. Don’t disclose the confidences your teen has shared with you. If you burn this bridge, he may not risk offering you his intimate thoughts again for some time to come. 3. Refrain from asking questions. For example, instead of saying “Why are you 15 minutes late getting home?” say “I noticed you missed your curfew by 15 minutes.” A subtle difference, but one that will meet less resistance. Noting facts rather than questioning will make your comments seem less invasive, and will trigger less of a volatile response.

4. Don't throw in the towel when your teen acts out and tests every interaction with you. It is very very normal that they will rebel and push because they will want to ensure that you REALLY are there for them. Though it feels like a personal attack, know that it is more about them than about you. Take a time out, both of you, and regroup. And let them know to expect that regrouping; it will help them to mentally and emotionally plan.

5. Don’t compare what they are going through or doing with what you did at that age. That will not do anything more than further the gap in your communication. You at the age that your teen is now were in a very different situation. It’s would be like comparing apples to oranges. Sure, both fruit, but not at all the same type of fruit.

I know this sounds like a lot of rules for communication. I know it is a lot to remember. I also know that yes, okay, your teens are still going to act like little monsters some of the time. But the more you are there for them, the more you help them to understand how important they are to you, and how much you care, the less often that monster will make its appearance, and instead you'll have your sweet kid back. Just don't beat them at their favorite PS5 game.

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