When my son was a toddler, I had an arsenal of different parenting techniques at the ready. If he got into something he wasn’t allowed to play with, I used redirection to “trick” him into playing with something more appropriate. When he lashed out and hurt his sister, I built his empathy by encouraging him to look at her tear-stained face and asking him how it made him feel to know he had made her cry. When I knew he was going to be difficult about something, like eating vegetables at dinnertime or loading up in the car to go somewhere, I offered him choices. I knew the best way to avoid a battle was by letting him exercise his autonomy in small ways. When he threw tantrums, I waited him out.
My son is a teenager now, a decade past the toddler years, and I’m kind of surprised by how little has changed about the way I parent him. I still use most of the same parenting techniques I used when he was a toddler. There’s one big difference, though: the stakes are much higher now.
We redirect toddlers, but we also redirect teens. In other words, we keep them busy. A bored toddler will smash your glass coffee table with the plastic drumsticks grandma bought him for Christmas. A bored teen could get into far worse trouble. For now, my son plays guitar and is in a science program that often has him working long hours after school. We’ve already told him that when the science program ends, he’s got to choose something else to keep him busy. His father and I also make sure he has plenty of chores around the house to keep him busy as well as teach him responsibility.
Toddlers often hate when they feel their choices are being taken from them. This is magnified times a billion with teenagers. Thank goodness teens are capable of managing lots of choices on their own, but I still present unpleasant tasks to my teen in the form of a choice. “Would you rather unload the dishwasher now or after you’ve had an hour to unwind?” The chore is mandatory, but he can decide when he does it, within reason.
Any parent with a teenager knows that teenagers still throw tantrums, oftentimes even more impressive than the ones they threw as toddlers. They might not lie on the ground kicking and screaming the way they did when they were toddlers, but door slamming, banging their hands on the counter, or even screaming are not unheard of in the houses of teens. Just like when he was younger, I do not engage with tantruming behavior, even though I may fantasize about knocking him out with one of those tranquilizer darts like you see in spy movies and watching him keel over into a peaceful slumber. Just please, give me like five drama-free minutes.
Of course, a teenage tantrum can’t be ignored to the extent a toddler’s can, even if, in the moment, we give it no attention. A hard rule in my house is that I demand respectful communication from everyone in the house. I’ll offer do-overs in the moment in the form of saying, “Want to try that again?”, but if that fails, all bets are off, and whatever thing my teen threw a tantrum over is no longer up for discussion. Depending on the issue, we can circle back, but a teenage tantrum around here is pretty much instant grounds for not getting what you want.
The similarities between teenage and toddler behavior runs deeper than having a few quirky behaviors that are validating and sort of funny to compare. That’s because these seemingly polar opposite phases of childhood represent two of the most rapid stages of development in our kids’ brains.
Children’s brains grow the most when they’re very young, from birth through age five, reaching 90-95% of the size of an adult brain by age six. During adolescence, there is another massive change, though this one has less to do with brain growth and more to do with general development. This second stage of major brain change begins at puberty and is when unused connections are “pruned” away while others are strengthened. The teenage brain is working at becoming more efficient.
But this pruning and strengthening process begins in the back of the brain, leaving the front, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision making, planning, and considering consequences, to develop last. That means teenagers often default to the amygdala to make decisions, which will generally yield the kind of behavior that to us so resembles toddler behavior — impulsiveness, aggression, and highly emotional reactions.
So it makes sense that as parents we end up applying many of the same strategies we used on our toddlers on our teens, but “aged up” and with that one critical difference: the stakes. When my son was a toddler, there was almost nothing he could do that would dramatically and permanently alter the course of his life. Now that he’s a teenager, that is obviously no longer true. Just about every decision he makes now will shape his future, some decisions more than others.
When a toddler breaks a rule, we as parents still ultimately have control. We control their environment and their access to basically everything. We even control what they know. We also have over a decade left to influence and shape the kind of person they grow into.
With a teen breaking a rule, however, we have far less actual control, and that can be terrifying. I have tried for my kids’ entire lives to instill the values of respect and kindness, because the thought of one day having a 16-year-old who flat-out doesn’t care what I say absolutely terrifies me. A 16-year-old throwing a nuclear tantrum because you told him he couldn’t go to an unsupervised party that “everyone else is going to” is a universe away from a toddler kicking and screaming because he can’t have the blue cup. And then, of course, there is the march of time, every day with a teenager pushing us closer to when we lose control completely — to when we have no choice but to relinquish control.
So, parenting a teenager may share a lot of similarities to parenting a toddler, sometimes to a hilarious degree, but it’s also got an extra layer of fear to it. Because the stakes are so much higher, and we only have so much time left with them.