Many years ago, my 13-year-old daughter woke me up at 2 in the morning. I was always the nighttime parent. My wife needs a solid eight hours of sleep to feel OK, but I never needed much sleep to feel OK.
She was sobbing.
“Dad — I have no idea who I am!” she cried. I waited until she could breathe and told her, “I remember how awful that feels. But I’ve known you your whole life. I saw your amazing spirit when you were born. I know who you are, who you were, and who you will always be. But now that you’re growing up, it’s your job to figure that out for yourself. And you will …” She continued crying for a while longer, gave me a hug, and then went back to sleep.
Trust me, that drama lasted for a long time with intense suffering. She was convinced she would be a spinster for the rest of her life. Now, she’s a middle-aged mom with two kids, married for over 10 years. Adults know that life goes on despite the little and big bumps along the way.
There’s no doubt about it. Adolescence is a drama-filled developmental period. Every bump on the road feels like the end of the world for teens and pre-teens. A bad grade, a fight with a friend, or an argument with a parent can trigger a major meltdown.
As parents, we can remember the outlines of our adolescence life — the good times and the bad times, but very little in between. But we can’t actually remember how we processed the world around us. Our adult brains have grown over our developing teenage brain. The adult brain is a different animal than a child’s, which keeps developing until age 25.
I was pretty anxious during my daughters’ teenage years. I worried most of the time. I couldn’t sleep until I heard the door slam when they came home at night. I was always terrified they would get into a car accident, get into a car with a drunk driver, or do something dumb. I told them they could call me at any hour if they needed a ride home, and I wouldn’t ask any questions. My hair turned gray during those years.
Kids make decisions without any real-life experience, little judgment, and even less impulse control. The worst part is that they think they know everything!
How can we navigate through these turbulent waters?
Keep your cool. Wow! That ain’t easy. Don’t blow up at your teens. Don’t lecture. They’re just acting their age. Breathe. Get a massage. Go for a walk. Stay calm even when you’re terrified.
Don’t stick your head in the sand. Don’t over control to lessen your anxiety. My youngest daughter still wants to tell me what she got away with in high school. I said, “Never! It will just make me feel bad.” Teenagers will always outsmart their parents, no matter how vigilant we are.
Remember what’s important. Getting good grades aren’t important. Coming home late isn’t important in the grand scheme of things. Getting through teenage years intact is important. Developing and maintaining self-esteem is important. Figure out what’s important to you — sweat the big things, not the little things.
Trust, but verify. All teens love to lie to their parents. They figure if they told the truth we wouldn’t let them do half the things they want to do. They’re right.
Don’t be afraid to get help. Teens have struggled through COVID, post-COVID, wars in the Mideast and Ukraine, climate change and political polarization. Don’t be afraid to access mental health services and ask your primary care provider for a referral.
Most importantly, let your teens know that you have confidence that they will find their way through their troubled waters.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.
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If you or someone you know is in crisis, seek safety and get help right away. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911 or go to the closest emergency room.
To reach a trained crisis counselor, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). You may also text 988 or chat at 988.lifeline.org. The lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support. The Lifeline provides live crisis center phone services in English and Spanish and uses Language Line Solutions to provide translation services in over 250 additional languages for people who call 988.