My Teenager Is A Toddler In An Adolescent Body

by Claire Nicogossian
Originally Published: 
Teenage girl wearing a black shirt, looking straight ahead with an angry face and lifted eyebrow
unomat / Getty

The other night, during dinner with my husband and four daughters, the topic of conversation was about plans for the summer. My twin daughters, soon to be sixteen, will be starting a summer job, babysitting.

As we chatted about summer plans, the twins abruptly shared, “Don’t expect us to spend time together as a family, we need to see our friends a lot this summer,” thereby setting the expectation for my husband and me not to be disappointed with their lack of interest in family activities.

I gently reminded them the summer is a combination of a lot of things: friend time, family time and work. I have learned parenting teenagers — you have to pick and choose your battles.

A few weeks before this dinner, we had an impromptu family meeting of sorts, to discuss with the girls the inevitable and upcoming expenses over the next few years for which we need to prepare now. And the girls are going to need to start contributing financially by earning and saving money, especially for gas, spending money, and (part of) car insurance.

Fascinatingly enough, one twin embraced the discussion, eager and interested, wanting to start thinking of how to carve the path for rites of passage: working, driving, and independence.

The other twin had what seemed to be a nuclear meltdown of sorts, asking us to stop talking about these things, crying, feeling overwhelmed and trying to regain control of the situation by telling us she was ready to start Driver’s Ed ASAP.

To which I responded, “If you can’t handle a conversation like this, what makes you think you are ready to get behind a two-ton vehicle? There has to be a starting point, sweetie.”

Growing up is hard.

It’s tough on the child; it’s exhausting for the parents.

There’s a reason it’s called growing pains.

And if you are a parent of a teenager (or two), your pain is real.

Almost three years into parenting two teenagers, I’ve become an experienced navigator of the terrain, partly because there’s no choice, and partly because of my training as a clinical psychologist working with adolescent girls for the past two decades. I was reactive first parenting teens during the transition from tween to teen — and wisdom of the psychologist in me went somewhere else, because my children’s reactions to me affected me in a deeply personal way.

Most recent events when I kept my shit together after an emotional barrage included:

At my daughter’s last track meet, I was there to watch — note it’s the end of the season and she just gave me “permission” to see her run. So at this meet, for her first event, the 100 meter, she came in 7th — last. When I greeted her afterwards, she was angry, upset and dissecting the shortcomings of her performance.

I listened.

I let her vent.

She dropped a few profanities, which I ignored.

I did not try to take away her feelings or tell her it was OK she came in last and she didn’t give it her best effort. So I was still and listened and said I’m sorry it was a less than stellar performance. As we walked through the crowds of spectators and parents, she seemed to be calming down, so I offered a thought: You have one more race; what do you think you learned from this past race you can change for the next one? Is there something you need or can do to get yourself back in a mindset to do better?

Well, you might have thought I suggested deleting all social media apps on her phone with how she responded because she became wildly emotional and said, “Right now I don’t want any of that POSITIVE TALK!” Holy shiesta, damned if I do, damned if I don’t. The only solace from this moment was a handful of parents who overheard this exchange sympathetically nod and gesture my way. They get it, they’ve been here before with their son or daughter.

And a few weeks before this, her twin was having a rough time of sorts from the pressures at school with homework and projects — holed up in her bedroom for hours, as she had been for most of the weekend. Concerned, I encouraged her to take a break and do something fun to reduce stress and re-focus.

Sitting on the end of her bed as she worked on her Chrome book, I asked how I could help and what could we do to problem-solve and manage her level of stress. Blank stares, an occasional “I don’t know” and “I just want to be alone” she bit back hard: “I’m not into this psychological thing like you are. Talking things out — it may work for you, but it’s annoying, just like this conversation.”

OK, there you go, another damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

In both of these scenarios with the teens in my life, I did one critical thing: I did not take their behavior PERSONALLY.

Did it seem personal? YES!

Did it sound personal? YES!

Did it feel like a barb? YES!, oh YES IT DID!

I share this wisdom with you because I so wish someone had shared this with me as my twins crossed the threshold from child to tween and tween to teen.

Your teenager’s behavior (most of the time) is not personal to you.

I made it a mantra which became an internal battle hymn of sorts in the moments of stress with my daughters.

My teenager’s behavior is NOT personal to me.

I repeat this often. (If you’re having a tough day with your teen, you may need to repeat a few more times, probably closer to twenty.)

So if it’s not personal, then what is it?

Child development, my fellow mamas, child development.

By the time our children grow into their adolescence (and almost adult body), we can lose sight of the fact that they are still in development. Teens are in process, which won’t be complete (neurologically, until early to mid-twenties when final neural connections are made in the brain).

Think back and recall for a minute what your child was like as a toddler. Chances are, you see threads of their personality now in adolescence. This is because adolescence has been called the “second toddlerhood.” The emotional, social, cognitive and physical developmental changes are profound, intense and quite parallel to being a toddler.

Many days, over many moments during the past three years, I have thought:

Oh my, my teenager is a toddler in an adolescent body!

Think about the similarities in toddlerhood and adolescence:

Both include:

– Rapid physical, emotional and social development

– Needing to be in control of every situation

– Strive for independence and autonomy

– Poor emotional regulation (fancy phrase for managing emotions)

– Impulsive

– Self-focused — I want what I want when I want it

– Imaginary stage (meaning all eyes are on them all the time whenever they go)

– Perplexing tantrums (in teens, it’s more in the form of outbursts, eye rolls, shutting down, slamming doors, getting annoyed)

So what can you do as a mom navigating the minefield of emotional dysregulation of adolescence?

1. Don’t take behavior personally.

Create a mantra, or borrow mine. Because when you can get some distance and understanding between your teens’ behavior, it truly does feel less personal.

2. Create mutual respect and kindness.

Do not tolerate disrespect or hurtful words from your teen. While we can be understanding and sympathetic, it is also crucial to have boundaries of what you are willing to tolerate, and not tolerate. Lack of respect, verbal abuse, lashing out at you or siblings is never OK. And, as parents, be sure to show respect and kindness to your teen — you are their greatest teacher and role model.

3. Allow your teen to gain independence, trust, and privilege.

Part of the developmental process of growing up is moving away from the family system into more independence, and social relationships take priority. While this can be hard for parents, or seem rejecting, it is entirely normal. Encourage developmentally appropriate steps of autonomy with clear rules and expectations.

4. Be available and present.

Teenagers are complicated. While it may not seem they need us, they do — it just shows up in unexpected ways. Have you ever noticed how you can try to have a conversation with your teen, only to get a few short responses like, “Uh-huh,” “Yes,” or “No,” but they’ll talk non-stop as you drive them to a practice or when you are cooking dinner or are in the midst of washing your face? Teenagers often need things to be on their terms, when they are ready, and it may not always be the best timing or the ideal moment. But, if you can roll with the unexpected, take heart and embrace the unexpected moments of connection.

5. Take care of yourself.

I know you’ve heard the saying, “You can’t give to others unless you give to yourself.” In motherhood, this saying is so very true. We give so much of ourselves to family, work, and community. Constant giving to others can be depleting. Focusing on taking care of yourself is essential in motherhood, and so important when you are a mom of teens. Taking care of the three pillars of health — sleep, nutrition, and exercise — is vital for parents. Be sure to carve out time for self-care, as the added benefit of caring for yourself is reducing stress, improving coping and increasing happiness.

6. Focus on compassion.

Think back to when you were a teenager. What do you remember? Can you recall those feelings of insecurity, awkwardness, wanting nothing to do with your family and aching for time with your friends? Do you remember the feelings you had toward your body, acne, hormones, and comparing yourself to others? It is a tough time. And while there are many remarkable aspects of growing up, it’s not without stress, strain, and shifts in every aspect and relationship. Be compassionate with your teen, imagine what it’s like from their perspective, and take a deep breath. They are doing the best they can with the skills and development at hand.

Remember, your teenager is a toddler in an adolescent body, and needs love, support, and compassion from you.

Just as they did years ago.

And remember, you are more important to them than it may seem, and indeed more than is expressed.

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