How to stay calm when dealing with teenagers

Article By Cat Williams
Teenagers, and the parents of teenagers both want the same thing. To feel listened to, understood, respected and loved.

“fear makes strangers of people who should be friends”   Shirley MacLaine

What are we afraid of?
If we are struggling to deal with our teenager then we need to recognise we are affecting each others self-esteem.  If we feel disrespected we feel ‘threatened’ and our brain triggers our hormonal and physiological ‘fight or flight’ response, our heart might beat faster, we might feel twitchy, our mouths might go dry, and we describe this as feeling ‘negative emotions’ such as annoyance, anger, anxiety or stress.

If we are unaware that threats to our self-esteem cause our emotions, then we will also be unaware that our subsequent actions are attempts to protect or repair our self-esteem. We do what makes ourselves feel better in some way, maybe defend ourselves by judging and criticising each other, and then berate ourselves afterwards for making the situation worse.
‘I didn’t have high self-esteem when I was a teenager, I think most teenagers don’t.’  Alanis Morisette
As teenagers there are many threats to our self-esteem; “am I liked by my friends?” “do I ‘fit in’? “do my parents love me?” “will I do well enough in my exams?” “should I try sex, alcohol and drugs like my friends do and how will they make me feel about myself?”.
‘Tell me how a person judges his or her self-esteem and I will tell you how that person operates… in every important aspect of existence – and how high he or she is likely to rise. The reputation you have with yourself – your self-esteem – is the single most important factor for a fulfilling life.’ — Nathanial Branden
As teenagers, the ‘conscious’ part of our brain is not fully developed so we often ‘cannot think straight’ because we are more often ‘threatened’ and overwhelmed by our emotions; and we react accordingly to protect our self-esteem.  This can be hard to deal with as parents because we might be trying to be ‘logical’ when our teenage is being ‘emotional’ and saying that we don’t understand.
What are teenagers thinking?
Teenagers who are behaving unpleasantly or aggressively are likely to be questioning whether they can cope with the pressure of exams etc, and whether they are truly loved by, and can trust, their parents.  By inviting criticism, they expect it, so they are protecting themselves from hoping for praise, and being disappointed.
What can we do as parents?
–           Firstly we need to  recognise that our own behaviour probably needs to change.  If we have been treating our teenager as ‘lazy, irresponsible, or disobedient’ then they will continue to behave that way.

–           Work on our own self-esteem so that we improve our confidence and feel more positive as a parent. We must ‘fit our own oxygen mask’ by making time for things which will build our self-worth and self-confidence e.g. exercise, time with close friends etc.  Having set a healthy example, encourage our teenager to pursue activities which increase their individual self-esteem.

–           Discuss clear but realistic expectations; rules, boundaries and risks.  Focus only on the things that really matter and explain why they matter to us as a parent. Listen to our teenager’s point of view and discuss a ‘win-win’ solution   to disagreements if possible.

–           Invite their friends over, be open-minded and find out why our teenager likes spending time with them.  Our teenager’s friends can tell us a lot about how our teenager feels about himself or herself; they will ‘fit in’ with these friends, or will be wanting to.

–           Stop criticising ourselves, our partner, and our teenager.  We will all be behaving in ways which make sense to us as individuals, even if those reasons don’t seem like good ones to someone else.  This does not excuse negative behaviour against others, but it does explain it, we each do what makes us feel ‘okay’ or ‘better’ at the time, and we need to understand, not criticise this.

–           Give encouragement and praise to our fellow parent, and our children.  Tell them we love them, this is the most likely way that we will receive the   same in return.  Find out from what makes each of us feel most loved, and then act on it.

–           Ask our teenager open questions; “How?”, “What?”, “Where?”, “Why?” and “When?” cannot be answered “yes” or “no”. Don’t ask too many, and be patient if they are not ready to talk until another time.  When they do talk, check carefully that you have fully understood their answers.

–           Be a role model: speak about our thoughts, fears, frustrations, and weaknesses to our teenager.  Demonstrating the self-confidence to speak openly about our own feelings, and to apologise for our mistakes, will help to normalise open     communication.  Our teenager is more likely to respect and love us when they understand us better.  They are far more likely to have the confidence to be honest with us once they know we love them simply for being themselves. Once they feel more confident and loved, their ‘negative’ behaviour, will change.

Stay Calm and Content by Cat Williams is available from and priced £9.95