Living with an adolescent can be a turbulent time for parents and families. I liken it to sailing a boat in a storm, we can see it coming, we know it might get rough, and there's a chance that we might capsize if we're not careful!
Here are some of the rules I give to parents of teenagers in therapy to help them sail through.
1. Stay Calm
Anxiety is a natural response to living life and being in relationships. Some of this fear based feeling is reality based, some of it is perceived. Every parent has a certain amount of anxiety, but if we over rely on this feeling to guide us, it can become maladaptive.
If you imagine you're on a boat and see a storm coming, freaking out, screaming and yelling, is not going to be the most productive way to help your crew and passengers.
We know a couple of things about anxiety :
1) It is infectious - if one gazelle in the pack sees a lion, the anxiety spreads - the whole heard becomes anxious. Similarly, if Dad comes home anxious, everyone in the family feels it and often reacts to it.
2) Anxiety is a primitive feeling - it locks us in to a fight/ flight or freeze mode. This means our logical rational prefrontal cortex is offline when we are anxious and we may not be making our most informed decisions.
If we are talking to an anxious teenager and are not remaining calm, our instincts will have us 1) become anxious and 2) potentially guide us to make an impulsive decision.
Staying calm will regulate your teen and also keep your family regulated.
2. Be Aware.
If we are sailing a boat, we would have to be aware of many things outside our immediate job. We have to have some knowledge of the environment we're sailing in - for example: where the shoreline is, what the weather forecast is, the wind strength and any rules of the marina.
Similarly, with adolescents, we need to be aware of what's going on in the family environment: Things to be aware of with teenagers are
What is going on with the teen and siblings /friends?
Who is the teen hanging out with? Are they a good influence or potentially a negative one.
What is going on between the teens parents that they could be picking up on? t
We should also be aware of what is going on within us as a parent - what is it that we are contributing? How stressed are we with work or other kids?
We can't change the storm that's coming, but we can be aware of how we tend to react to stressors.
3. Stick with your boat.
I think of that scene in Titanic when the elderly couple go to bed together as the ship fills with water. It seems utterly counterintuitive, to stick with a sinking boat sometimes. But pushing away too far from the boat would make it harder for the rescue team to find you - the boat is a resource so we want to stay close.
When the storm hits our relationships, we sometimes want to swim far away from them too and we forget they are a resource. Anxiety has a tendency in some people to make them withdraw or shut down. But if we can hold onto our sense of self and not get swept up in the anxiety of a storm, families can become closer and more helpful to each other in the future.
Remember that anxiety can cause emotional distance in ourselves and others.
4. Don't send out your anchor
This is another counter intuitive rule for boating, but it speaks to the need for maintaining some flexibility. If a boat drops the anchor in a storm, it may increase the risk of damage as it roots into the seabed.
If we become too rigid in our families, particularly when anxiety hits, we are giving up s to move and adapt. We throw down our anchor and get rigid in relationships, it's often about a fear or anxiety within us.
Rigid thinking and an inability to move can create even more conflict in relationships, so be willing to keep an open conversation going with your teen before your hunker down.
Anxiety can make us less flexible and open minded.
5) Pack The Essentials
When the storm hits, it's important we are stocked up with the tools we need to survive. Part of family therapy is about gaining tools to help communication and to reduce conflict in our immediate family.
These same tools though can be used to improve our support systems. By increasing the quality of our friendships and improving connection with our extended family we essentially increase our ability to ride out a storm without significant damage.
Essentials for surviving a storm are the tools we develop in individual, group and family therapy and our friends and relationships.
If you need help weathering the storm of adolescence, please reach out to me. I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Los Angeles / West Hollywood, close to Beverly Hills. I also provide couples therapy and parent coaching to support families going through difficult times, as well as being an individual therapist for teens.