Parenting Teens: Some Secrets to Staying (Somewhat) Sane
Written By: Charlotte Villemoes, LMFT, Site Supervisor, ACS On-Campus Counseling Program
The cuteness is gone,
and so is the desire to hold your hand on the way to school and cuddle up at bedtime. The kid who used to look to you for answers for anything from “Why does the earth spin?” to “Why do I have to brush my teeth?” has been exchanged with a passionate person, a lawyer-to-be, who insists on arguing with everything you have to say. The little one who, once upon a time, came running to you crying in pain and needed you to blow kisses on a skinned knee has now disappeared behind a closed door, sharing their secret emotional pain and hurt with a sea of friends on social media.
Parenting a teenager is not for the faint of heart. Yes, it brings lots of joy, but it also brings a load of worry, frustration, doubt, exhaustion, and sprinkled with grief that the special connection seems to have vanished. In order to find the energy to keep moving forward, hopefully even with a bit of sanity left, I have gathered secrets other parents have shared with me that I have found helpful. All the advice is centered around the basic assumption that we have to try to make sure our own emotional needs are met and that we have enough internal and external resources to sustain us during the challenging task of parenting.
Take a Time-Out
If you are lucky enough to have a partner who shares those same vibrant and vulnerable heart strings with your kids, make sure the two of you take some time-outs. Don’t just give time-outs, insist on taking them, as well. If at all possible, disappear from home for awhile, go to a park or a restaurant, then do your very best to connect with your partner as full human beings, not just parents. Make a conscious effort to leave the kids behind for a while and try to remember why you decided to join each other on this journey in the first place. Remember: there was a life before kids, just like there will be one after they grow up and move on. It’s important that you don’t lose touch with each other while parenting is in the foreground. If the kids sneak their way into your conversation, don’t let them monopolize your time together. Set a timer if necessary, then get back to business of rekindling the spark and spirit between the two of you.
Make Time for Nourishing Friendships
Whether you have a partner or not, make sure to find time for friendships. Friendships can nourish your soul and remind you that you are a lovable, decent human being, even if you are under attack of a teen who is finding you utterly embarrassing or plain stupid. When choosing which friends to spend time with, always consider who you can be real with. Watch out for those gatherings that have a tendency to turn into a competition centered around whose kid is more accomplished. Be with friends who you feel safe being real, open, and vulnerable around. If you are surrounded by friends who prefer to present as perfect parents, consider finding a therapist. We all need human connection and support from others to stay strong through these years.
Apart from utilizing relationships with others to stay sane, you also need to take good care of yourself. Unfortunately self-care is one of those seemingly simple truths that can be close to impossible to follow. I remember meeting up with some girl friends when I was a mother and stepmother to four teens, my brain fried, my body burnt out, and seemingly running in incessant circles. They listened compassionately to my crazy stories, then told me very firmly I needed to take care of myself. It was a kind message, but it left me screaming in frustration. At that point in time, I could not possibly imagine being able to carve out even ten minutes of “me time”, so their well-meaning suggestions of gym membership and yoga classes sounded completely unrealistic. Years later, once I found my high-jacked brain, I was able to find ways of incorporating self-care that did not require the time I did not have.
First of all, the concept of self-care is tricky. It is as if we have made societal rules about what is healthy and unhealthy. We all know the list: Working out, meditation, and journaling equals healthy, but drinking and binge-watching Netflix is unhealthy. What I’m here to tell you is that you need to take what you can get, so if you end up on the couch catching up on the Bachelorette or Game of Thrones, don’t add guilt to the much-needed oasis you have created for yourself. Allow yourself to simply enjoy it, and if your inner critic is still making noise, try reframing binge-watching as this generation’s way of being absorbed in a good novel.
Secondly, self-care often is associated with action, and as busy parents we are often stretched to the max. The thought of adding yet another activity can feel completely overwhelming. It’s important to remember that self-care is sometimes learning to say a big loud “No, thank you!” to doing something, whether that is helping with the latest PTA project or going to a social gathering. In addition, self-care is also very much about the quality of being. Walking from the parking lot to my office takes about five minutes, five minutes that can be spent fretting over all the many meetings I have to attend, or can be spent simply breathing, taking in the smell of rain and the sound of birds in the distance. When I remember to be present and relax into those small moments, I typically enter my work space much more calmly and mentally ready to take on my day. The same goes for getting ready for a difficult conversation with your teen. Notice the quality of your thoughts (we tend to have the worst case scenario playing in our minds), take a few deep breaths, and set positive, clear intentions to help your body and mind settle.
Keep Everything in Perspective
When all else fails, try to put your parenting experience in perspective. One of the better mantras Alcoholics Anonymous uses is, “This too shall pass.” And pass it will, indeed. Chances are pretty good that that your teen will grow up and even turn into a responsible adult, and yes, you might even find that they actually did listen to all the advice you planted on such stony grounds! This will happen even if you feel you made a parenting mistake or two, like giving them too short or too long a leash when it comes to friends and curfew, losing it and yelling a couple of times, or allowing them more screen time than your best friends have done. We all enter parenthood unprepared, we all stumble through the journey, and we all struggle and make mistakes when we are faced with unexpected challenges. There is no such thing as perfect parenting, so remember to forgive yourself along the way. There is, however, sane parenting, which requires that you reach out for support and do what you can to take care of yourself. So please do it, in a way that works for you, for not only will you benefit, but your teens will benefit too.