In training to be a therapist, I heard a lot about adolescence being closely related to toddlerhood. They both involve a lot of changes that aren’t easy to mediate, and they focus on the dance of separation and connection.
Traditional thinking in our society focuses a lot on the independence gained, both during toddler years and the teens. Teaching toddlers to get back up after they fall down is emphasized, as well as teaching toddlers to separate from their caregivers without anxiety.
In the teen years, our societal celebration of independence looks more like a heavy sigh and an acknowledgement that at this age, peers become more important than parents. The school day is longer, extra-curricular activities are more demanding, and no one likes a helicopter parent. To avoid being an uncool, intrusive parent, we back off.
The teen who is acting out has the potential to create even more distance. When “how was your day?” is met with sullen quiet, many parents sigh and move on. Who wants to set themselves up for a rude encounter? The natural consequence of adolescent rudeness is less social interaction, right?
Yes. But in the same way that we don’t allow our toddlers to experience the natural consequence of playing in the street, leaving our teens isolated from quality adult interaction is dangerous.
Traditional family therapy textbooks see parenting as happening on a spectrum ranging from hands-off to controlling, and would help families find a spot somewhere close to the middle.
While balance is certainly important, current neuroscience urges us to shift direction. Instead of seeing parenting as on a continuum ranging from laissez-faire to authoritarian, let’s add another axis– one of connection and disconnection.
Throughout the parenting journey, it has been a relief to find a specific tool or piece of advice that “fixes” whatever is wrong. Whether it’s a technique for assertive communication, natural consequences, helpful routines or family meetings, a new tool can be so comforting. The biggest tool for adolescence is being present. Simple, yet it’s one of the most challenging things we do as parents.
Due to the developing connections in the adolescent brain, what is needed is a trusted mature brain to stay present and assist in navigating the tricky emotional terrain of this stage. Thanks to the adolescent’s mirror neurons, and the strength of modeling as a teaching tool, the act of remaining still and available during emotional turmoil helps teach the adolescent how to mediate strong emotions.
For the time being, set aside notions of authority and independence, control and permissiveness, and instead focus on making a solid connection. The connection axis is the one that matters. If a solid relationship is there, problem-solving, responsibility, empathy and self-control can all evolve. There are families all along the spectrum of traditionally strict and permissive who send compassionate, disciplined young adults into the world. The secret is connection.