Therapy in Chester, NJ
Watching your sweet, snuggly, dependent little one blossom into a full-blown teenager can be one of the most exhilarating and exhausting phases of parenthood. True, it's natural to want to give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done when your child is finally showing that they're ready to handle more independence with things like navigating their own transportation and managing their school work and social lives. Unfortunately, the teen years can also be riddled with downright confusion as to what's going on with your kid- especially when they lash out at you unexpectedly for what seems like no reason at all.
Sarah's 15-year-old daughter, Madison, came downstairs for breakfast one morning dressed and ready for the day; she even said "good morning" to her younger sister. The situation appeared seemingly serene, and as Sarah scrambled eggs for her family she was unaware of the eggshells that she was traversing. When Sarah casually asked Madison to remember to take out the trash that morning before leaving for school, Madison suddenly fired back with an accusation about how her mom is always asking everyone else in the house to do the undesirable chores so that she doesn't have to do them herself.
Surprised by this seemingly out-of-nowhere sassy response, Sarah's immediate response was to defend all of the "undesirable" duties that she actually does on a daily basis just to keep the family running. One thing quickly led to another, and what had started out as a routine breakfast turned into Madison screaming at her mom, "then maybe you shouldn't have even had kids at all!" before storming out the door to school, without taking the trash out to boot.
Does this sound like a familiar scene in your home? Well, then you're not alone, because the majority of parents of adolescents live in fear of the next mood swing. Many parents in this situation often experience a feeling of vulnerability that they haven't known yet in their relationship with their child, and may begin to internalize a sense of guilt. They may even start second-guessing every parenting decision they have ever made, thinking "what did I ever do to him deserve this kind of treatment?"
In this lovely phase of your child's life, something to keep in mind is that while they may try and outwardly appear as though they have all of these newfound freedoms and responsibilities in the bag, on the inside, it's actually incredibly challenging for your teenager to make sense of all the new expectations that come with growing up. For a teenager, taking a cheap shot at a parent who can be trusted to love them unconditionally is easier and safer than testing relationships or behavioral boundaries outside of the home.
For example, unbeknownst to Sarah, Madison was facing a challenging math quiz first thing in the morning at school, and had been going over and over the study material in her mind during breakfast while also feeling conflicted about a concerning text message she had received from a friend right before bed. The pressure of one more demand, even a task as simple as taking the trash to the curb on her way out the door, was just too much for Madison to handle in that moment.
Unfortunately, instead of making herself vulnerable by opening to her mom and admitting that she was struggling, the easier route was to divert attention with a few nasty words and storm out the door. After tackling the math test, and after connecting with her friend at school, Madison knows (maybe not even on a totally conscious level) that she will always be able to return home and patch things up with her mom. Although this incident was certainly upsetting to Sarah and not exactly ideal for Madison either, in her moment of stress Madison was able to hedge her bets on her mother's unwavering support.
Some parents may find this reframing of their relationship with their teenager to be comforting, but others may still feel totally discomforted and see themselves as being more like a scapegoat than a parent. If you find yourself in the latter situation, here are some suggestions for how to manage life with a "Jekyll and Hyde" teen:
~ While your teen is flipping their personality back and forth, you can best serve them by remaining measured and consistent. Do your best to avoid following them down the rabbit hole of negativity and remember that going tit-for-tat in even a simple difference of opinion with a teenager can escalate quickly into a greater, more emotionally draining dispute.
~ Instead of being reactive, become an investigator. Share your observation of your teen's negative vibes, and ask them for some info on what may be on their mind. Help them to know you're interested in their lives and that you respect the fact that they have legitimate responsibilities and concerns that extend to outside of the house. Give them the space to share their thoughts and feelings freely, and if they're not ready to open up just yet tell them you're here for them when they feel like talking.
~ As heated as things may get living in a household with a personality shifting teenager, try to make time for appreciating the good moments. Even though your first instinct may be to restrict privileges when your kid is not meeting expectations, you can find opportunities to also reinforce the positive aspects that you see in them. If your teen is barred from going out or using his phone for a few days as a consequence of acting out, that doesn't mean you also have to withhold your affection, attention, or support at the same time.
~ If you discover that your child has a very serious issue like a drug problem or an eating disorder, it is absolutely appropriate and necessary to step in quickly and take the reins without negotiation. Situations like those are not the time to worry about being a "bad cop" or whether your teenager will become angry at you for the time being. Showing them that you can tolerate their feelings of resentment for now in order to address their ultimate well-being will pave the way for a more trusting relationship in the future.
Even on really difficult days when you are quite certain that your teenager only views you as a live-in ATM machine or chauffeur, it's important to keep your eye on the future. By being consistent, showing a genuine appreciation for their lives and interests, and avoiding getting caught up in a back and forth power struggle for the last word, you can model positive relationship skills that will benefit your child when they move through this phase and into early adulthood. Don't forget to appreciate the good times when they're good, and hopefully, the good days will soon again begin to outnumber the not so good days.
If you need help coping with your teenager's Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde personality I am always here to help!
Risa Simpson-Davis, LCSW
Modern Family Counseling