Parenting Teens by Parenting Toddlers

Parenting teens is a lot like parenting toddlers. Their process of individuation through saying no, isolating, or outright rebelling is frustrating and difficult to work with. And how you work through this process with your teen affects how they will grow up.

Toddlers and teens may not seem like they have much in common, but developmentally, they’re going through a very similar process both biologically and psychologically.

Toddlers are going through the process of individuating, or discovering who they are aside from their parents. You may recognize this as the main task of the “No!” phase. While infants are generally happy to go along with their caregivers, toddlers are learning that they have their own preferences and individuality. They’re becoming more aware that others are separate people with their own thoughts, emotions, and preferences.

Parenting toddlers in this phase requires patience and gentle boundaries. You want your child to explore and grow while still making sure they are safe. Most parents are familiar with how to support toddlers through the difficult phase of individuation. But even though teens are very similar to toddlers in their needs for individual development, parents are often reactive and fearful about the teenage years.

Teens are going through the exact same process as toddlers, although they aren’t small and cute anymore. They may or may not be saying, “No!” out loud, but they are separating from their parents either through isolating and withdrawing or joining with outside social groups. After puberty, many teens look more like adults than children, so it can be hard to remember that they still need the patience and gentleness their parents gave them as young children.

Consider these scenarios:

  • A two year old doesn’t want to stop playing with her toys to go to the store with her family. When her parents insist, she throws a tantrum.
  • A sixteen year old doesn’t want to leave her bedroom to go to her cousin’s birthday party with the family. When her parents insist, she refuses to go.

It’s hard for most parents to treat the sixteen year old with the same compassion and patience as the two year old. We expect tantrums and explosions from toddlers, and most parents know how to hold quiet boundaries while they cry and throw things until they are able to calm down and get back on track. But the sixteen year old has the same needs as the toddler in this case- to establish herself as an individual with her own preferences. She wants to be heard and respected. The parents have the same task as well- to help her express her thoughts and feelings so she feels heard and supported while maintaining adult control and ensuring the toddler and teen follow the rules and expectations of the family.

Parenting teens ideally should look a lot like parenting toddlers. Parents need to learn how to navigate teen individuation with the same patience, modeling, and safety with which they navigated the toddler years.

With that in mind, here are 3 lessons from parenting toddlers you can use in parenting teens through their second individuation phase and managing their withdrawing, sulking, and rebellion.

  1. Safety first. Too many parents of teens get caught up in the trap of focusing on power and control instead of safety. The goal of parenting is to raise an adult, not to maintain control forever. When a baby is learning to walk, we expect them to fall down and make sure their environment is safe enough they can fall without injury. Likewise with teens, as they learn how to make adult decisions, we can expect them to fail at times. Let them fail without stepping in to help, but make sure they are able to fail in a way that doesn’t injure them.
  2. Don’t take it personally. Your teen’s rebellion is not a challenge to your parental authority but their way of testing boundaries and developing independence. Neither isolating nor arguing are about you as the parent, they are a way for your teen to explore their identity apart from you.
  3. Keep seeking connection. Nearly every teen I’ve talked to in therapy has told me they wish they could talk to their parents about big things in their life. They want to talk through major life decisions with you. They want to process their feelings about their friends, about drugs and alcohol, about cutting and suicide, and about self-esteem. Teens often test their parents by bringing up small issues to see how you will react before they’ll risk venturing into deeper waters. If you want to keep communication open, watch how you respond in the little things to make sure they will feel safe talking about big things.

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