By Jason Karasev, M.A.
Adolescent and teen years bring new social norms and pressures for our children: a desire for acceptance from peers, risk-taking and testing of boundaries, and new sexual drives and demands. There are pressures from authority and society at large, too -- the weight of homework and test taking at school, rule following, prioritizing, and scheduling. When children or teens are overwhelmed and cannot meet these expectations, they are often labeled problematic, challenging, or even clinically “unwell.” Oftentimes, it may be communicated to a parent (or parents) that these students are somehow failing to meet norms, resulting in parental guilt, shame, or anger. This cycle can also leave parents feeling just plain inadequate. And, since children and teens are much more intuitive than they are given credit for, these adverse experiences may become internalized by them, as well. They may believe they are failures, or doomed to a terrible future. If we can recognize this, we can begin to empathize with the various ways our children cope with these cycles of demands and failures. For younger children, it may look like tantrums, escapism through video games, or regression in potty training; for adolescents, it may extend into substance use. While these dramatic behaviors can be overwhelming for a parent, they may be the only outlet, or source of control, for many of these still-developing minds. This is where validation and reflection come into action.
Before we become anxious, or even disciplinarian, we must take into account fundamental aspects during this phase of life. Numerous chemical changes are taking place in a young mind, and with adolescents and teenagers, this often means puberty, too. Hormonal and neurological changes during this time may make kids more sensitive to the “everyday” challenges of life, not to mention additional stressors like death, divorce, assault, displacement, racial inequality, socioeconomic disparity, identity struggle, and (hello!) a pandemic, to name a few. At this age, the pre-frontal cortex is still forming, so processing and decision-making is far from its peak.
When we consider the mood-shifting potential of puberty, changes within the brain and chemical imbalances therein, compounded with the social pressures mentioned above, it’s a wonder any of us survive this period of our life.
When a teen or child does not feel they have a safe outlet, or healthy attachment (to a parent or teacher, for example), it is not shocking that they turn to other means of expression to ease the turmoil.
The pain parents experience watching this is understandable, and may even bring to light emotions from their own childhood. Despite this, we cannot immediately remove something that has become a point of safety and comfort, like a blanket from infant years. In trying to remove a tool that brings solace (a substance, or video game, for instance), we are only perpetuating what others have drilled into these young individuals –“the way they are behaving is wrong, and their actions are unjustifiable.”
As a child, it is hard to separate a behavior from a sense of self. Reacting by punishing, chastising, or even shaming, may send a message that the child is a “bad person;” and while behaviors may come and go, a negative sense of self can have long-term ramifications, like depression and relationship difficulties.
An important first line of defense is to validate and recognize our children's experience.
Seeing and understanding a child’s experience, and verbally reflecting this back to them, makes them feel heard and safe. Things like, "I see how frustrated you are with me, it doesn't seem like I'm being fair," or "I think getting that bad Math grade made you feel sad or less than," allows a child to create an understanding of complicated emotions, and to know they are justified. As adults, we have more tools at our disposal to release built-up pressures, most significant of which is the ability to verbalize and describe our feelings. For those with young minds, however, they must develop the language to articulate the feelings that overwhelm them. This is critical in paving the way for new coping methods. Additionally, when parents model that they can hold difficult emotions, the child will increase their own ability to tolerate increased stress.
None of this is intended to devalue abstinence and change, or to deny that they may be the ultimate goal. Of course we want our children to have healthy coping mechanisms! However, reacting to a traumatized individual with a jarring action to remove their comforts may only perpetuate additional trauma reactions. Instead of trying to get our children to change, let us first attempt to understand them. This is a gesture young individuals do not frequently experience while navigating a busy world that demands they perform to idealized standards. Although this method may at first glance appear too simplistic to induce “real” change, validation, reflection, and empathy are proven to facilitate healthy, adaptive, and sustainable transformations.
Below are some resources and studies supporting the power of reflection and validation when our children fall on hard times.