When your child goes through teenage development, it can sometimes feel like you're speaking different languages. We spoke with Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., about how to connect with your teenager, establishing trust with your teen, and how your relationship changes.
One minute your kid is laughing hysterically, rolling on the bed with the dog—and the next she’s sullen, slamming the door (!), barely willing to acknowledge your presence. Sound familiar? Of course acne, algebra, and angst will always plague young people, but according to a new book by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., the rapidly changing teen brain is also a factor. “We’ve been told numerous myths about adolescence that we need to correct: that this is a time of ‘nuttiness’ and ‘immaturity’ that we have to get over or get through, rather than a moment of necessary change and important growth of the brain,” Dr. Siegel says. More than ever, the period of a child’s adolescence is a time parents should stay connected with their child—and maintain their relationships with other adults. An actual social life? you say. Yes, parents need to get out with friends, too. We spoke with Dr. Siegel about some of the issues he explores in his newly-released book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain (Penguin/Tarcher).
You write: “Not being socially engaged can make an adult feel disconnected in the face of a teen’s social life.” How can a parent who’s feeling this way cope?
Teens remind us very plainly that adulthood can be an isolating experience. For example, how many new friends did you make in your 30s and 40s? Kids make new friends practically every week! If parents realize that our relationships with others are the best source of our own well-being, both physically and mentally, it’ll go a long way toward helping them motivate to reach out and connect with others.
How can adults rediscover their social side? Will it help them gain perspective when dealing with their adolescent?
Don’t isolate yourself! Healthy minds and bodies are ones that are in supportive relationships—at home, at work, and in your community. Not having an emotional spark can make a teen’s exuberance for life seem threatening. This time in your child’s life isn’t a threat, but rather a reminder of what’s good for us across the lifespan. Developing friendships is important, no matter the age.
It’s fairly common these days for some parents to act as if they’re ‘best friends’ with their adolescents. Is this troublesome?
Yes, it can be. It actually makes no developmental sense for teens and parents to be best friends, and to a teen, this situation can be an inherent conflict. Children are attached to us, which means they seek comfort and connection and need to feel safe, soothed, and seen. But we should not be attached to our teens, as it puts them in a stressful role-reversal that can inhibit their growth and development. We can certainly be bonded to our teens, which means we’re dedicated to them and care [about them], but we can’t use them to soothe our own needs.
How can a parent establish, or re-establish, trust with their adolescent?
During adolescence, there’s a natural pushing away from adults, so to the best of your ability, keep the lines of communication open and clear (and bear this in mind each time there’s a period of friction with your child). Changes in your teen’s behavior and decision-making can be hard to handle from the parent’s point of view, but these are fundamental to the remodeling that goes on in the adolescent brain. Being aware of these developmental issues will help you maintain trust and continue an open relationship with your adolescent.
A parent’s natural tendency is to protect her child, but doesn’t a parent also need to let her teen learn some lessons on her own?
Yes—but it’s tough to strike the right balance. You can protect and support your adolescent by being both a safe harbor and a launching pad. Kids need to explore on their own and create their own lives. This takes courage, but it can also involve a few risks. Being there for your kids and listening to them will help them to find their own inner compass that can guide them to be careful and reflect on their own values, rather than simply obeying parents’ rules.
Some parents feel a sense of loss when their teens gain more independence. What advice can you give that may comfort during this time of transition?
First, get to the root of why you may be feeling this way. Sometimes this sense of loss may be about how we’re actually re-parenting ourselves, offering our kids the kind of care that we never had during childhood. Or it could be about feeling important and essential in someone’s life, or about missing that tender and powerful relationship with a young child. Name these feelings so as not to project them onto your child in a way that might inhibit his or her necessary journey toward independence.
What else would you urge folks to keep in mind as they parent their adolescent?
Keep talking! This is a time when adults should be maintaining relationships with their adolescents—don’t let teens exclude you from their lives or push you away. We need to reframe the meaning of adolescence in our culture and the role these kids play in our communities—they’re moving into a time of great creativity and contribution in our world.
Jennifer Kelly Geddes, mom of two girls whose ages fall smack within the scope of this conversation, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Parenting, Scholastic Parent & Child, and EverydayHealth.com. She lives with her family in West Harlem.