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Hello? Are you listening to me?! – Insight into Teen (and Tween) Behavior


As any parent of a teen will tell you, it’s sometimes hard to get a teenager’s attention. They seem to be tuning you out. This lack of response can understandably be challenging for parents. It can be helpful to understand that teens’ brains are still developing and that their interests naturally and increasingly shift to relationships outside of the home. In fact, researchers(1) have found that in teen brains, the reward circuits and the brain center that prioritize important stimuli are more activated by unfamiliar voices.


This development, along with many others—such as teens wanting more autonomy and independence from their parents--are part of the major transformation that happens to children’s social interactions during adolescence. This transformation “helps teens engage with the world and form connections which allow them to be socially adept outside their families.”(2)


Although feeling ignored by your teen may be upsetting and frustrating, this and other challenging teen behaviors signal a move to independence on their way to adulthood. Below we discuss some other tween and teen behavior, along with how to approach them in a way that supports and protects your parent-child relationship.


Prepping for big changes ahead

Much of the adolescent behavior parents may fear has traditionally been viewed as “negative” and “challenging” because it comes with big emotions. Although these emotions may not be easy for parents to face, as with any stage of a child’s development, how a teen behaves is completely normal given the physical and emotional changes taking place. During this time, parents may feel anxious about these changes for the following reasons:


· They don’t know what is happening with their child,

· A child may act out,

· A child may adamantly resist parental input and oversight.


However, establishing a close relationship with your teen goes a long way in helping them navigate the intensity of this development stage and learn to take care of themselves.


To strengthen your bond so that your child will look to you for guidance and will confide in you when struggling, try to manage your expectations. Although they may be acting like small adults, try to remember that tweens and teens are still children and will act in ways appropriate for their young age. So, it’s helpful for parents to not expect them to be more grown up than their age warrants.


Once adolescence begins, children can display a range of emotions that accompany the physical and hormonal changes they experience. This is when parents can struggle with how to respond to their teen’s big changes. Here are some common teen behaviors that parents may struggle with, along with suggestions on how to respond:


Being Moody and Reticent

Your child may be moody, pout, and complain that life isn’t fair. Or perhaps he starts arguments with his siblings or you. In these instances, it’s tempting to try reasoning with your child, but often this makes the situation worse because he may become defensive and refuse to open up about what’s bothering him. It is better for parents to allow their teen to have their feelings, which are normal and okay. Give them a little space, ask if they’d like to talk, and if not that is okay too but that you are always open to listen.


There could be various reasons for this behavior. Perhaps your child just had a bad day at school and will feel better in the coming days. If this type of behavior is consistent, it could be that you have unrealistic expectations for appropriate behavior for his age. Alternatively, you may not be taking his newfound maturity into account and not giving him more agency around choices and decisions.


Having an Attitude With You and Not Their Friends

Sometimes your teen may be surly, impatient, uncommunicative, and abrasive at home, but animated, exuberant, and charming when with her friends. Often children seem like they have two sides by showing a brave and charming face to the rest of the world and then drop that façade at home, where they can show how they truly feel. This is likely happening because they are under a lot of pressure at school, on social media, and with peers to be a certain way. When they get home, it’s their space to decompress and relax. Although it may be difficult for parents when their child “let’s loose” at home, it’s important to remember that doing so is a positive sign. It means that she has a safe space to process her feelings. So, try showing your teen that you understand how taxing and hard teen life can be by simply listening to her, making her favorite snack, or some other small gesture to show her you care. If she doesn’t want or isn’t ready to talk with you, be sure to let her know that is okay and you are there if/when she is ready to do so.


Parents should keep in mind that the above behaviors, among many others, that they may witness from their teen are normal and expected during this stage of their development. It’s helpful to think back to your own teenage years and try to remember how difficult this time can be, given the accompanying school and social pressures teens face. With this understanding, you can approach your teen’s behavior not as something that needs to be changed but as an opportunity to connect and understand your teen better – strengthening your relationship. It is your positive relationship with your child that helps teens to face the inevitable challenges of life as they continue to grow and mature. Below is some guidance on how to do this:


Show an interest in your child’s thoughts. By showing your child that you are interested in what he thinks, you’re encouraging positive feelings about himself. You can do this by starting a non-pressured conversation with him about something that interests him. Get curious about why he likes it, why he doesn’t like it – and don’t criticize or second-guess as that can shut down the conversation. “Tell me more…” is a great phrase to encourage the conversation. As your child feels that talking with you can be enjoyable and he feels connected to you, he will want to do more of it because it feels good – helping him to feel more comfortable coming to you when something is bothering him.


Avoid “reasoning” with your child. Using reason when a child is feeling badly can backfire because he may experience this as you arguing with him and thinking that his feelings aren’t real or that they are not important. Instead, offer a sympathetic ear without challenging his perceptions.


Spend time with your child. One of the best ways to improve your relationship with your child is by spending time doing something she really enjoys. Having an enjoyable time together — even for just an hour or two a week can help a child feel more loved and cared for. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper say, “It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of relating to our children around tasks and duties and to overlook opportunities for happy, unpressured moments.”


Cut your child some slack. If a child is cranky and disagreeable at home but the other areas of her life are going well, allowing her to blow off steam at home is important. By offering her some space, you will make her feel understood and loved. Setting this example provides an emotional roadmap for teens on how to handle life when it becomes stressful, frustrating, and challenging. They learn how to treat themselves and others, with the same kindness and care you show them.


Seek help when needed. If your teenager is demonstrating behaviors that are overwhelmingly angry, sad, or anxious, reach out to a professional for help. With the proper care and support, you can help your teen with these overpowering emotions and improve and strengthen your relationship.


It is possible to navigate your child’s teen years with a bit more peace and understanding. You can do this by remembering to manage your own expectations of your child’s behavior and provide more autonomy for her choices and decisions, keeping in mind health and safety. Also, listen to your child when problems crop up instead of trying to reason with her. And, finally, spend some quality time together to strengthen your relationship. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain, “The most important determinant of the kind of adolescence a child will have is the nature of her relationship with you.”



Sources

Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.


Smart Love Solutions for School-Age Children and Teens: A Handbook for Parents, Teachers, and Caregivers, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Family Services, 2012.


(1) A Neurodevelopmental Shift in Reward Circuitry from Mother's to Nonfamilial Voices in Adolescence, Daniel A. Abrams, Percy K. Mistry, Amanda E. Baker, Aarthi Padmanabhan and Vinod Menon, Journal of Neuroscience, May 18, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2018-21.2022


(2) Teen Brains Tune Out Mom’s Voice More Starting at 13, Erin Digitale-Stanford, Futurity.org, April 29, 2022. https://www.futurity.org/teenagers-brains-mothers-voices-2733002-2/



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