We use “typical teen behavior” to refer to a broad range of things our teens do, much of it unbecoming. Whenever they appear moody, or stop talking to us, or resist our reminders about from everything from deadlines to hygiene, our go-to explanation is that they’re just being typical teens.
But are they? Or have we just become so accustomed to thinking about adolescents as defiant and non-communicative that we no longer take the time to try and understand what’s really going on when they seem distant from us or unhappy.
Take Kayla and her mom. For the past two weeks, sixteen year old Kayla has been coming home from school in a bad mood. She snaps at her younger sister and keeps to herself all evening long—unusual behavior for this happy, outgoing kid. Attributing her daughter’s moods and withdrawal to being a typical teenager, Kayla’s mom reacts with impatience, and waits for it to pass.
What Kayla’s mom doesn’t know is that her daughter is experiencing some real problems with her friends at school, who’ve been spreading rumors about her. Think about how differently things could go were Kayla’s mom to look at her daughter’s behavior outside of the convenient, but misleading, lens of adolescent angst.
For example, Kayla’s mom might approach Kayla with curiosity and compassion rather than with annoyance, making room for a conversation in which Kayla could share what was really going on. She might also resist the temptation to normalize Kayla’s behavior toward her sister and instead insist that Kayla treat her kindly, even though she’s struggling.
Here are some ideas to help you move past stereotypes in order to see your own adolescent as a true individual rather than a generic “teenager”:
- Accept their feelings at face value rather than automatically assuming they’re being a “typical teen.” You might say, “You’ve seemed down in the dumps all weekend. At first I thought you were just being, you know, a “typical teenager” but I don’t want to miss what might really be going on for you.” Kids appreciate having their feelings taken seriously, even if you’re not sure what to do about them.
- If you’re getting a lot of one and two word responses from your teens, consider how you start conversations with them. Questions, for instance, are boring, and make kids feel as if they’re reporting in. Tell a story or share some news. I think teens would talk a whole lot more if the conversation itself was more inviting.
- If your teens do decide to open up about their personal lives, be respectful enough to listen closely and patiently. Resist the temptation to interrupt, offer solutions, or tell them how it was no different when you were a teen. What kids want most at those times are your presence and your undivided attention.
Looking at our kids through the prism of teenage stereotypes diminishes both ourselves and them. Moreover, it sets in motion that self-fulfilling prophecy of the moody, uncommunicative teen. Honestly, though, enough teenagers show such notable capacities for engagement, generosity, and reliability that we should really be thinking twice about what adolescents are truly like.
Some of the bumps in our relationships with teenagers may stem from difficulties we encounter in respecting their ideas as they develop voices, perspectives, and plans of their own. Angry tirades only alienate them, and lectures bore them. Granted, teens are pretty good at getting their parents to feel powerless, or as if nothing they say is right. But that doesn’t mean we can’t respond with disarming candor and multiple invitations to communicate, authentically and honestly. Save being defensive for driving, and offer up your best self to your teenage sons and daughters. Be the first to respond in a way that says, I want to have a better relationship with you and am willing to look at my own behavior and change the things that are blocking that. The expression on your teenager’s face will be priceless.
— Janet Sasson Edgette