Recently, a friend of mine who is also the parent of a teenager said to me, “I just have a lot of fear about the changes my kid is going through.” As the parent of a teenager myself, I resonated completely with his feelings. The most challenging moments about raising kids aren’t really the moments of conflict, the refusal to do chores, or getting told that you might just go down as the worst parent in history.
The real difficulty in parenting a teen is when we see them completely change from the kid we used to know without much warning. It's when we watch as their anxiety or depression starts to impact their ability to live a full life. When they express feelings of despair and we don’t want to do anything that might put them in danger of ending their life or when their friend group seems to have a negative rather than positive impact on them.
Parents carry a lot of worry and fear about their teenage kids. A study conducted in 2018 by the American Family Survey found that the top issues that cause parents worry are things like bullying, overuse of technology, mental health, pressure to use drugs/alcohol, and making decisions about sexual activity.
What can we as parents do with our fears and how can we best help our teenagers through some of these unique challenges?
When Change is Normal
Some of the fear we experience with our teenagers is because of normal and healthy development. Something that is difficult to sit with, but something most parents will experience, is watching our children change significantly. They might lose total interest in something that seemed so very important to them or they might go from outgoing to reserved.
The experience of our kids changing so much and sometimes so quickly can really cause us to experience a lot of fear because we might not know why the changes are coming and why they are so sudden. Some of the changes might be more challenging in nature when our polite and kind child is now suddenly more confrontational or rebellious.
These changes though might just be part of normal teenage development. Part of the development that teenagers experience is the process of finding themselves and their identity apart from their family systems. In order to find their own sense of self, teenagers will sometimes try out new identities and new social groups. Oftentimes their peers become more important for the development of their sense of self than their parents or siblings and things shift quickly.
These changes and shifts are not always permanent because the name of the development game is often the experience of lots of new things and lots of new relational dynamics. For parents of teenagers with normal developmental changes I encourage them to stay curiously engaged in the process. The changes might be scary but during this time a critical or reactive parenting style is going to cause more separation and what a teenager needs is for a parent to stay connected when they face the natural consequences of their choices.
When Change is Harmful
Sometimes though our teenagers change in ways that need intervention. If their risk taking behavior can be harmful to others or to themselves, teens need support from healthy adults. This can create its own fear because for some parents the idea of intervening in their teenagers life creates even more fear that they will drive their teenager into worse behavior. They might be afraid that by getting involved they will make the problem worse.
This can be a difficult moment for parents. First, because sometimes it can be healthy for our teenagers to face the consequences of their choices and the older they get the less we can do to intervene. If a seventeen year old does not see the value in avoiding becoming sexually active, no amount of parental intervention is going to be effective in convincing them otherwise. Sometimes they will have to face the relational or life consequences of their choices. In a situation like this sometimes the best thing we can do for our teenager is to make sure we are there on the other side of bad decisions. We can put in place healthy adults, like counselors or teachers, who can walk beside them in a non-judgemental way to help them make good choices and be supportive of their healthier, more effective values.
When Change Requires Healthy Boundaries
There are times when loving and caring for our changing teens means creating and enforcing boundaries. One of the most challenging things I have helped parents have to do is set boundaries that the teenager feels is harmful to them. Telling an anxious teen that they need to go to school and face the emotions and exhausting body symptoms instead of allowing them to stay home is not always an easy thing to do. But what we know is that allowing anxiety to control choices only tends to embed the anxiety and worsen it over time.
That doesn’t mean that the teenager has to suck it up and suffer. Boundaries come with support. We can help them regulate their emotions, teach them skills to cope, and make sure they have lots of support. But at the moment, the teenager might not see this as being a loving challenge.
This is especially difficult for teenagers with depression and suicidal thoughts. Having a healthy teen means setting boundaries, even if those boundaries and consequences result in negative feelings. If removing screen time for ignoring homework is a boundary the parents have put in place, sticking with the consequence even if it means the teenager will feel angry or sad will be healthy for them but hard to enforce.
When Change Means Holding Our Emotions
No matter the choices a parent has to make or how our teenagers grow up, our emotions are here to stay. Fear doesn't just disappear because we know our teens are going through normal changes or because our boundaries are reasonable and the consequences are natural. Fear will be ours to hold because we live a life where there are no guarantees.
Parents need support as well. Sometimes it isn't the teenager who will benefit from counseling the most, sometimes it is the parents who need someone to help them navigate and understand how to hold their feelings without becoming reactive. Together, parents and counselors can find ways to make holding onto their emotions manageable and effective for their goals and for the goals they have for their children.
As one parent to another, if you are feeling afraid or confused, I encourage you to take advantage of getting support for your child and for yourself during this challenging but important time in life.