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One Step to Deeper Emotional Connection With Your Teen

Consider two provocative questions.

Key points

  • Adolescence is often a time of emotional turmoil but it can also be a time of emotional growth and creativity.
  • The teen years don't have to bring parent-child disconnection.
  • By valuing teenagers' emotions, parents can make this a time of deeper connection.
Source: PDPics/Pixabay

This is the fourth post in a series on emotional connection between parents and children at different stages of development. Adolescence reminds many parents of the toddler years, with stormy moods, heightened sensitivity, and tension between the need for autonomy and the need for dependence. The difference is that adolescents are nearly fully grown, with increasing responsibilities and higher expectations. Bigger kids mean bigger worries, and bigger outbursts when patience runs out.

Development is still underway

Many parents expect adolescents to be fully able to control their emotions, but this is still not possible because of hormonal changes, stresses of school and family, and the fact that the brain is not yet fully developed, especially in areas of judgment, reasoning, and problem-solving. That part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, is not fully developed until age 25, at the earliest.

For this stage I will only suggest one thing for parents to do to support development, but it is a big thing: Value the emotional side of adolescence. Usually emotions are seen as the problem, not something to value. For example, when parents insist that schoolwork take precedence over everything else, and insist that emotions not interfere with their performance, teenagers often resist this pressure, or else they develop high levels of anxiety as they try to comply.

4 underappreciated aspects of adolescence

However, as Daniel Siegel writes in his book Brainstorm, “Adolescence is not a period of being ‘crazy’ or ‘immature.’ It is an essential time of emotional intensity, social engagement, and creativity.” A big part of valuing teenagers’ emotions is understanding why they are often so intense. Seigel describes four elements of adolescence that are often overlooked when parents see only the destructive potential of these emotions:

  1. Emotional Spark comes from the crashing together of the emotional and thinking areas of teenagers’ brains. This gives them the capacity to live life to the fullest, with passion and purpose, but can also cause teenagers to be moody or emotionally over-sensitive.
  2. Social Engagement is a product of the shift in adolescence away from parental influence and toward peer influence. Parents generally fear this, seeing the dangers of peer pressure. But social engagement isn’t all bad; it prepares young adults for deep and meaningful relationships, which are crucial to success in work, marriage, and all areas of life. Social engagement also provides adolescents with a powerful capacity to care about the problems of the world, from the suffering of strangers to the fate of the planet.
  3. Novelty-seeking is also seen as a negative by parents. It’s the search for new experiences, and impatience with old ones. This can lead adolescents to take unhealthy risks, or to seek out stimulation with drugs and other dangerous behaviors. But it also provides them with the courage they need to leave home and face the outside world.
  4. Creative Exploration. Unlike adults, teens are more open to new ideas, which provide fuel for innovations in technology, art, and business. On the negative side, this can lead to conflicts with parents and other authorities, and can be unsettling to adolescents as they reject the old without having anything new yet to stand on.

2 provocative questions

Siegel challenges parents to reflect on ourselves, and the society we live in, rather than always focusing on adolescent behaviors that bother us so much:

What if our world valued this energy in teenagers, instead of always trying to force them to follow adult expectations?

What if adults lived according to these “adolescent” ways of being, with more creativity, social engagement, novelty, and emotional spark? Perhaps adult brains would achieve their full potential for lifelong growth and learning.

Putting emotional connection into action

Here is one example of how to value the emotional life of adolescents. Imagine that a girl comes home from high school with downcast eyes and says, “I don’t have any friends.” Let’s look first at some typical parent responses:

  • “Don’t be ridiculous, you have lots of friends.” That may be true, but there is no understanding or empathy here, just dismissal of the emotion.
  • “It’s your fault because you are bossy.” That might also be true, but it will not be at all helpful for the child, because there is no connection between parent and child to soften the pain of that truth.
  • “It’s OK, honey, you’ll have friends one day.” Again, that might be true, but it doesn’t offer any support for the emotion that the child is experiencing right now.

What can the parent say instead? Using a soft and gentle voice, a parent can say, “Oh my dear, you sound so sad. You had a really hard day. It’s very painful to feel you have no friends.” This response can lead to an opening of a genuine conversation and a deeper connection. The girl may cry if her parents show this empathy. That is not a bad thing. She has something to cry about, and she needs her parents to listen, not to fix the problem.

An adult superpower

My colleague, Michael Thompson, frequently meets with groups of students in high schools and middle schools. (He’s braver than I am; I would find that very intimidating.) He often asks them, “What can adults do to help with social problems or other difficulties you face?” The students always shout, “Nothing! They should stay out of it! Adults only make things worse.” However, when he asks a similar question, from a different angle, he gets a different set of answers. He asks them, “What has an adult ever done that has been helpful for you in your life?” After a pause, the students begin to describe times when an adult listened to them. Not advice-giving, not guiding, not correcting, but listening.

Adolescence can be a stormy time, but it is also a time of incredible brain development and emotional growth. Teenagers may have trouble managing their volatile emotions, but once they do, they can meet the wider world with a spirit of creativity and energy. They engage with their peers and with the world around them, caring deeply about social causes and abstract principles such as truth and justice. They embrace the new—which can create conflicts with parents, who represent the old ways. But if parents are open, they can learn from their teenage children and recover the emotional spark, creativity, novelty seeking, and social engagement they may have forgotten with the responsibilities of adulthood and parenthood.

More from Lawrence J. Cohen Ph.D.
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