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When our kids are young and aren't able to communicate how they are feeling, they typically behave in a way that makes it obvious they are sad, uncomfortable, or not feeling like themselves.
We try everything to help them feel better—we put them down for a nap, we hold them, rock them, give them baby Tylenol if needed, offer snacks, whatever it takes. We don't give up on them just because we can't quite figure it out.
As they get older and are able to talk and communicate, I think we raise our expectations a little bit too high—at least I have as a mother to three teens. But what I've realized is just because they can talk and communicate and let us know if something is wrong, doesn't mean they will.
Not because they don't always want to (of course this is the case sometimes), but teenagers seem to think they can handle it on their own; they think their parents won't understand or are too embarrassed to come to us with their issues or talk about certain situations.
But I've also had to realize when my teens are acting up, being disrespectful, or seem really highly irritated, they might not know how to express themselves. They might be struggling with the words to use, and they may not even really know what is going on with them.
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Even as a 43-year-old woman I still struggle with finding the words or putting a name to my feelings. Sometimes I just want to isolate myself and eat bags of chips and ignore my responsibilities. And I don't have a mother standing over me telling to straighten up or someone telling me to get off the sofa and clean my room to make things feel worse.
What I have learned with my three kids is this: When they are acting out, when they are testing me and pushing the limits in a way that feels more aggressive than "normal teenage behavior," this is when they need some extra love and attention.
I'm not talking about being coddled or left to their own devices so they can act and treat people however they want.
I mean they need me to push them to tell me what's wrong. They are looking for more rules and boundaries because they don't know how to set them themselves. They are looking for love and guidance from their parents.
“Teens, like all of us are looking for connections," said Dr. Beatrice Tauber Prior, a clinical psychologist who has been working with teens for 25. And if they aren't finding what they need inside the family unit, they will go elsewhere to look for it through their friends, a partner, or online.
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What should parents do when we notice this behavior?
First: Make sure we are spending quality time with them. "This has to be face to face," says Dr. Tauber. If connecting with your teen via text feels easier, then start there, but don't stop there. "Put down your phone and look at your teen in the eyes to communicate, too," she says.
Second: Make family dinnertime a priority in your home without any devices allowed at the table. Dr. Tauber notes a study published the University of Minnesota found that teens who had family dinners are less likely to "exhibit high-risk behaviors including substance abuse, sexual activity, suicide attempts, violence and academic problems," she says.
Third: Find an activity you can do together, even if you aren't talking to each other, spending time together and bonding will take you and your teen's relationship to another level.
Dr. Tauber says it is important to note if your teenager is acting out in a way you don't feel you are able to help them, or if they are threatening to hurt themselves or someone else "it's time to involve a psychologist or other mental health professional who has experience working with teens."
Note that it's important to realize teens are "mouthy or breaking the rules so they can understand the themselves, the work, and others," said Ana Jovanovic, is a clinical psychologist from Parenting Pod.
Jovanovic suggests the following to keep you and your teen in a healthy relationship:
Understand their perspective.
This is when the communication can go wrong between the parents and the child. Don't call them "young" or "childish," says Jovanovic. Yes, they still have a lot to learn, but realizing this is as old as your teen have ever been, and when you say they are childish, it makes them feel as though they aren't being taken seriously.
Don't assume you know exactly what they are going through.
Even if you have experienced a very similar situation you must realize your child is an individual, not a replication of you. They have their own beliefs and opinions.
Don’t share your experiences.
If you are tempted to share one of your experiences with them, don't, says Jovanovic. "In many situations I hear parents trying to use their examples to approach their child on a more personal level. But this ends in making the teen feel that their parent doesn't have a genuine interest in getting to know them, she says.
Instead, Jovanovic says you should say something like, "I've been a teenager once, but I've never been in your shoes. I have no clue what you're going through but I want to understand."
Don't tell them this is just "a phase."
Teenagers are going through so much between body and hormonal changes. When you tell them they are going through a phase, Jovanovic says this can make your teen want to show more anger just to prove this isn't a phase. It can also make them feel ignored.
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Things to look out for
If your teen is demonstrating recent behavior changes while dealing with emotional changes, and they aren't asking for help or are having a difficult time expressing their thoughts and emotions, and breaking a lot of the family rules, these all may be signs your child is in need of more support from both you and a professional, says Marline Francois-Madden, a licensed clinical social worker.
Parenting teens is a delicate balance between realizing when they are naturally pulling away and experiencing normal mood swings and recognizing when their actions are really just them screaming for more guidance and attention.
The one thing they will always need is love and support from their parents, especially when they are acting like they need nothing from you. It can be a difficult path to navigate but just like when they were little and up all night sick or teething, you never made them go it alone. They still need you just as much as they did then.