Why do parents don’t understand their child
As children grow into their teen years, communication between parents and their children often becomes more challenging. Parents may feel like they don’t understand their once sweet child who is now often moody, argumentative or withdrawn. Teenagers also frequently report feeling misunderstood by their parents.
Normal developmental changes
This rift between parents and teens is largely due to normal developmental changes that occur during adolescence. As teens go through puberty, their bodies and brains are rapidly changing, which leads to shifts in behavior, interests, identity and relationships. Parents can feel left behind by these fast transformations.
The teen brain
Some key aspects of brain development help explain common teen behaviors that baffle parents:
Poor impulse control
The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls planning, decision-making and regulating emotions, is one of the last areas to mature. This makes teens prone to impulsivity and poor judgment. They may act recklessly or angrily without considering consequences.
Heightened sensitivity to rewards
The teen brain has an overactive reward system and immature brake system. This combination causes teens to pursue pleasurable rewards at the expense of other important goals. For example, a teen may choose to play video games rather than study for an exam.
Susceptibility to peer influence
As teens become more independent from their parents, they increasingly look to their peers to fulfill their need for social connection. But peers often promote risky behaviors. Teens are hardwired to conform to peer pressure due to heightened activity in brain circuits related to social evaluation during this developmental stage.
Understanding these normal biological changes helps explain some frustrating teen behaviors. Teens really aren’t capable of adult-level judgment and impulse control. A teen who is defiant or makes a reckless choice isn’t necessarily being malicious – their brain development has simply not reached full maturity.
The growing independence of teens
Teens are also asserting their independence and developing their own identity during this life stage. They may adopt different viewpoints, values and priorities than their parents. Teens are spending more time with peers and less time with family. They are also exposed to more varied social contexts and perspectives through school, extracurriculars, media and technology.
Parents often grieve the loss of the trusting, affectionate young child who wanted to spend most of their time with mom and dad. Adjusting to teens’ need for more privacy, autonomy and separation from the family can be very difficult for parents.
Tips for bridging the communication gap
While the parent-teen divide is inevitable to some degree, the following tips can help open up lines of communication:
Listen without judging
Let your teen finish expressing themselves before you respond. Don’t interrupt to correct facts or challenge their opinions. Reserve judgment and simply listen to gain insight.
Ask open-ended questions
Questions that can be answered in just one or two words shut down conversations. Ask open-ended questions to promote deeper discussion about how your teen thinks and feels.
Schedule one-on-one time
Make spending meaningful time with your teen a priority amid busy schedules. An outing or relaxed time at home without distractions can facilitate trust and candid conversations.
Validate their feelings
You don’t have to agree with their opinions to acknowledge that your teen’s emotions are real. Let them know you accept how they feel, even if you don’t approve of how they act on those feelings.
Focus conversations on your teen’s interests
When you show genuine curiosity about the music, activities, topics and people your teen cares about, it validates their growing autonomy and selfhood. They’ll be more likely to open up.
Set clear expectations and enforce fair rules
Teens still need parents to set age-appropriate rules, boundaries and consequences. But don’t dictate every detail of their lives. Collaborate to find compromises when possible. Explain your reasoning clearly. Apply agreed-upon consequences consistently.
Model healthy behaviors
From maintaining self-care routines to having difficult conversations, let your teen observe how you cope with stress and conflict. Teens learn a lot from watching their parents’ habits.
Express unconditional love
Make sure your teen knows that while you may not always like their actions, your love for them is unchanging. This security empowers them to share openly without fearing the loss of your affection.
Why parents struggle to relate
Beyond normal developmental changes in teens, many additional factors can challenge parents’ ability to relate to their children during the adolescent years:
Generational shifts in culture and technology
Parents may feel disconnected from youth culture or unfamiliar with the social media platforms and devices that dominate teens’ social lives. It’s impossible to guide teens through unfamiliar territory. Staying engaged with aspects of teen culture can help close this gap.
Unresolved feelings about own adolescence
A parent’s difficulties during their own teen years can bias their perspective of normal adolescent behavior. Painful memories may resurface through interactions with their child. Examining these past hurts can prevent parents from overreacting.
Limited energy and availability
Single parents and dual-income households often face heavy demands on time, attention and emotional reserves. Parents overwhelmed by their own stress have less capacity to patiently connect with teens. Practicing self-care and seeking support helps.
Parents may expect academic excellence, perfect behavior, zero risk-taking, and constant togetherness from their teens. But these high standards often set teens up for failure and parents up for disappointment and resentment. Adjusting expectations to align with teens’ developmental capabilities is essential.
The bottom line
Some parent-teen conflict arises from normal developmental changes beyond anyone’s control. Much discord also stems from gaps in mutual understanding. While challenging, committing to improve communication, gain insight into your teen’s world, and understand the science behind adolescent brain development can help bridge this divide. And over time, the teen years do pass. Maintaining an open, loving connection sets up healthy relationships for the future.