How to Parent the Teen Struggle to Fit in and Stand Out

What parents can do to help their teens navigate teenhood.

Posted May 23, 2019

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Teens. We love our own dearly. They were once our babies who sat in our arms, fit on our chest, and fell asleep in our arms. When I look at my son, I hear his deep voice but all I see is that little boy who loved to play “mommy-saurus” with me and whose giggles made me giggle in return. 

For his upcoming 13th birthday, my son asked to see the Broadway Show, "Dear Evan Hansen." I didn’t know how hard this play was going to hit me. How much the battles of the characters were relevant to me, my son, and the teens that I work with professionally. With almost every scene, the tears just streamed down my face. Each character’s struggles were so real, so relevant, so raw, so honest!

The confusion and the overwhelm that comes with being a teen, trying to figure out who you are, fit in and stand out is real. It’s intense. It’s scary. Our children are practically born with a phone, iPod, IPad in hand and the amount of information they have available is immense, mind-blowing. Whether it’s access to political news, natural disasters, or school shootings, we, as their parents, don’t always have the choice of whether to share or not with our kids because it is all right there. And social media, oh, social media. Our kids know where their peers are, who they are with and what they were not a part of in almost the same minute that social gatherings and events are happening. FOMO (fear of missing out) is also real.

Do you remember how we found out when other kids made plans or had a party? We may have heard about it by chance Monday morning when others were talking about it. We found out about worldly or local events if we read them in the paper or happened to watch the news on TV (with a remote that was connected by a wire, and a TV screen that was not flat!)

Our kids also have access to so much information all the time. About everything, about anything. They don’t really have to seek it out; it’s all right there on social media, on apps on the phone. Let me share another one of my pet peeves. Remember when TV shows were on the television? Remember how we had to turn the TV on to watch the show? Well, my son is watching shows on his phone and IPAD and I’m finding out AFTER he’s seen them. Ugh…

During our kids’ pre-teen and teen years, there are some major changes that we are going to see and feel, as their parents. Let’s shed some light on these impending (or already here) changes, and how we can, as their parents, help out with sympathy, positivity and expressed love for them, even when they are not very loveable!

“Hi Mommy! Are you there? Okay, I have to go”

I think that pretty much Mahler’s developmental adolescent phase known as separation-individuation. During this phase of development, adolescents are focused on separating emotionally from parents and developing an independent identity (Mahler, 1972).  I have known about this for years through my professional work with teens, but I felt it once my son started middle school. His focus became friendships, his hair, his brand of clothing, his style, and girls.

Emotionally, our teens are scared of their changing bodies, their new feelings, their big feelings. They are making decisions, by themselves, and they are not sure what to do. Because our teens look older, we hold them to higher standards. We expect more from them. This shift in expectation, physical, emotional and social change, and new found independence, although wanted, is a big change and it can cause anxiety, confusion, elation, and tears all within the same hour!

Despite the mounds of hormonal fluctuation, tears, and rage, there is also a big need for reassurance, hugs, and bedtime tucks ins. The back-and-forth can be exhausting for parents. We are not sure when to push, to lean back, to hug, to close the door, or to sit at the edge of the bed and wait. But we just need to be there, without judgment and wait until they are ready to talk, or not. Sometimes our kids just need us to be physically present with them and that is comforting also. Internally, they are battling the need to separate from us, but at the same time, they want to be close to us and for us to comfort or reassure them.

Tell them:

  • It’s going to be okay
  • I’m here for you
  • You will get through this
  • I have faith in you
  •  Let’s think about your options
  •  What do you need?
  •  What do you want?
  • How do you think you can get through this?

Some other small ways of letting your child know that you are present and available:

  • Leave a little note that lets your teen know that you’re thinking about them. Yes, a physical note, like on paper and written with a pen. Tuck it in her lunch bag or on his nightstand. 
  • Ask about that math test or that social studies test so they know you are in tune with what they are thinking about, worrying out or working on.
  • Stop at Starbucks and grab a coffee or tea and just sit together at a table, even if only for 20-30 mins.
  • Know your teen’s friends’ names and ask about them

The Developmental and Human Need to Fit In

Our teens want to find and fit into his ‘tribe’ – a group of like-minded teens who had similar interests and who were accepting and inclusive. Given that adolescents are ever- evolving, that group of peers is also evolving. How many of you have noticed that teens may wear the same brand of shoes, clothing, phone case, or electronic devices? How many times have I watched my son change his clothes and insist on a certain brand of sneakers, tops, pants? It’s all part of the need to fit in and conform to what the larger group is doing, where they are going, saying, and wearing.

Schall, Wallace, and Chhuon (2013) emphasize that friendships gain greater importance than academics during adolescence, and the peers with whom our teens spend time is predictive of social and academic outcomes. For example, students' perceptions of themselves as being teased or bullied is predictive of high school attendance and drop-out rates. Teens who associate with other high achieving peers will likely feel a need to keep up, academically or athletically.

At the same time, our teens have a need to be liked by their teachers as well. They are sensitive to ‘not being liked’ and generally want to gain positive feedback from their peers and the adults in their lives. In fact, Schall, Wallace, and Chhuon (2013) correlate academic achievement with the perception of fitting in somewhere. Teens also need to know that we, as their parents, like them too. Although they value their peers, they value their parents’ approval as well. With that said, many teens share with me that they think their parents don’t like them because they often point out what they’re not doing or what they did wrong.

With that strong need for approval from peers comes moments of poor judgment. Saying or doing things because the “other kids were doing it” or not wanting to be the only kid who “wasn’t doing it,” whatever that thing is. Although they may "know better," the strong need to conform and be a part of a group hijacks a teens ability to say something or do something.  My advice is to walk away. You don’t need to say anything that will make you stand apart, but you also don’t have to participate. Walk away quietly.

As parents, we can show our teens that we “like” them by:

  • Pointing out that they worked hard to prepare for a test, project, etc.
  • Making a comment on how they made a good choice or decision.
  • Giving your teen a chance to speak with you about friendships without passing judgment.
  • Stopping what you’re doing, making eye contact, and listening when your teen speaks to you about anything.
  • Telling your teen that you like/love him/her regularly.
  • Sending a text that says “Hope you’re having a good day” or “Good luck with your math test” or a similar message.

Wanting to Stand Out

Now, what’s more than ironic about adolescents is that while they are fiercely trying to fit in, they also want to stand out. How many times have you walked into a room of teens and noticed red hair? Exactly. Once our teens have found their group and feel comfortable in their shoes (even though their feet are still growing!), they want to not fit in.

This is the time when our teens may want to try different opportunities (such as theater or run for Student Council or try out for a competitive league in XXX) and we, as their parents, can help to give them the momentum and courage to do it. So, let’s shape their need to stand out by finding positive ways to help them build their sense of self and offer them outlets to build their self-esteem and stand out in a positive way.

Ask questions, like:

  • What’s your passion?
  • Do you want to try out for the school play? Community theater?
  • Do you want me to help you write your speech? Help you make a poster? (if running for a Student Council role, for example)
  • Is there a sport you want to try out for next season?
  • Would you like to fill out the application for XXX together?

Adolescence is a time of major transition, emotionally, physically and socially. I can still remember the angst in becoming a teen and how it was the toughest change in my life. So much changes quickly. I wish I had someone to talk to who could have normalized my experiences. As we watch our own children turn into teens or become more “teen-ish”, let’s try to approach their emotional roller coasters, need to fit in, stand out and to be liked with a bit more understanding. It may make this phase a bit easier to parent if we can stay in tune with the battles that our adolescents are working through.

References

Margaret S. Mahler (1972) Rapprochement Subphase of the Separation-Individuation Process, The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 41:4, 487-506, DOI: 10.1080/21674086.1972.11926608

Jacqueline Schall,Tanner LeBaron Wallace &Vichet Chhuon

Pages 462-475 | Received 12 Sep 2013, Accepted 12 Nov 2013, Published online: 27 Jan 2014https://doi.org/10.1080/02673843.2013.866148