Adolescence has a way of rewriting the parent-child relationship. The kid you pushed on a swing is gone, replaced by a bigger, more volatile version who seems to loathe you at times. In a fit of anger, she might even blurt out she hates you.
That kind of talk hurts. But in these times it’s important to keep a cool head, said pediatric psychologist Georgette Constantinou, administrative director of the Division of Pediatric Psychiatry and Psychology at Akron Children’s Hospital.
First, it’s helpful to reflect on what’s going on in the adolescent mind and body, Dr. Constantinou said.
“They’re questioning their identity. ‘Who am I?’” she said. “Hormones are racing, their bodies are changing or not changing in unexpected ways. They are assessing themselves, their bodies, their emotional state, their relationships with others, their cognitive selves.”
And they’re full of self-doubt.
“They’re asking themselves, ‘How am I going to define myself in terms of those challenges?’ That’s the core of the adolescent task to establish identity. These are the challenges families need to understand,” Dr. Constantinou said.
Don’t take emotional outbursts to heart. Understand that their hormones and the brain area responsible for emotions are in overdrive. Their reasoning powers are still underdeveloped. Cut them some slack – but not too much slack – as they pull away, consumed with the messy business of forging identities separate from you, their parents.
“This is the second major growth spurt of their development,” Dr. Constantinou said. “The first is infancy. The second is adolescence.
“What I say to parents is that even though the adolescent’s job is to break away from the family, he/she needs you now more than ever.”
Stay the course in terms of ground rules and expectations, she said. Teens want that, even if they initially resent it. Don’t take verbal abuse, but you don’t have to match their outburst with an outburst of your own.
“Find a way to walk away in the heat of the moment,” Dr. Constantinou said. “You can say, I’m backing off because we’re not having a conversation when you’re angry. But we will find another time to talk about this.
“You can also say I’m backing off for now because I care about you and want to give you time to pull yourself together. But the rest of the world isn’t going to back off and give you a break. Don’t expect a boss is going to do that. If you talk like that to someone else, it could cost you a relationship.”
It’s a reminder about consequences. Teens generally don’t have an acute grasp of consequences during a heightened emotional time.
At home, consequences for lashing out can take the form of restrictions.”You can say if you’re a lit fuse, you’re not getting the car,” Dr. Constantinou said, “because this lack of maturity can hurt you behind the wheel.”
So if your fiery teen is prone to be surly or unload on you, take a deep breath and think about what you are willing to tolerate.
Make sure you have down time together, which provides opportunity for talk, Dr. Constantinou said. Don’t overlook proper sleep, nutrition and exercise – all are important for managing emotions and behavior. And watch your tongue around your kids.
“Parents need to check their own behavior with each other,” Dr. Constantinou said. “Kids listen to everything, and they’re role modeling like crazy.”