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Help! My Adolescent is Out of Control!

By: Sarah Kahan, LMSW

Published in Building Blocks, August 28th, 2013

Do you notice that you dread spending time with your teenager? Would you rather do almost anything else instead? Are you wondering what happened to your angelic child who turned into a monster overnight? If you answered yes to any of these questions, know that you are not alone. Tensions often emerge within families once children enter the adolescent stage of development, and the process of building a good relationship with your teenager can be a very challenging experience.

Erik Erikson was an American developmental psychologist known for his theory on psychosocial development of human beings. He organized life into eight stages, from birth to death. Each stage of development requires a resolution between sets of opposites. While the actual ages may vary considerably from one stage to another, the ages seem to be appropriate for the majority of people.

According to Erikson, the psychosocial stage of development for adolescents ages 12-18 is “identity versus confusion.” He posits that adolescent children often explore their independence and develop a sense of self. Those who receive proper encouragement and reinforcement through personal exploration will emerge from this stage with a strong sense of self and a feeling of independence and control. Those who remain unsure of their beliefs and desires will feel insecure and confused about themselves and the future.

Here are some things that parents can do with their children to increase healthier communication. Through the improved relationship that we develop with our children, we can help them emerge from this stage with a healthier sense of self and a set of tools they could use for the next stages of their lives.

First off, spend time doing fun things with your child and get into their world. Too often, we spend too much time disciplining our children and not enough time trying to enjoy them. Find out what their favorite activity is, where they like to hang out, what their favorite food is, what kind of movies and music they like, etc. The more you know how to answer these questions, the more you can get involved and share with them some of these things. Please keep in mind that kids need their space too, so it’s important to find the right balance. They will let you know if you are being too intrusive, so pay attention to their cues.

Use a parenting style that encourages your kids to ask you questions, and show them that perfection is not expected or demanded. Children can sense when you are happy or disappointed in them. While setting clear rules and guidelines, make sure they are set with your child’s needs in mind. Saying “I told you so” sounds rigid, but getting into a dialogue with them about why the rules are this way engages and invites them to participate in the boundary setting. When consequences need to be enforced, they should be fair and explained so that children feel they are being enforced because they are loved.

Speak respectfully to your child. Children deserve respect just like anyone else. A helpful technique might be to envision your child as your niece, nephew, cousin or friend’s child. When you view your child in this way, you might feel less emotionally charged and more effective in demonstrating respect towards them.
Don’t attempt to control by using guilt, belittling, criticizing, threatening, punishing, etc. Natural consequences are a great way for kids to develop good coping skills and a higher frustration tolerance. Give them an allowance in order to help them develop independence. It also reduces tension around money issues since it will reduce the power struggle between you and them. An allowance gives them the ability to control how they spend their money, and if they did not spend it wisely, the natural consequences can teach them how to budget themselves better the next time. Conversely, allowance should not be withheld as a means to control.

Don’t react right away to negative behaviors; strike when the iron is cold. If your child did something that made you upset, wait to discuss it when both of you have cooled off. If an argument occurred, you could always go back to it when both of you are calmer and discuss it again. Now is a good time to mirror good relationship skills and repair some of the damage the argument produced. Normal relationships have ruptures. The idea is learning how to repair the ruptures that occur. Use validation and empathy, i.e., “I felt really bad that we argued. I really care about our relationship and I don’t like it when we argue.”

Pick and choose your battles. If you are dealing with a child who is struggling with religiosity, constant arguments about going to shul, dressing tzniusdik, etc. can erode the relationship and is often ineffective in changing the child’s behaviors and attitudes towards a Torah lifestyle. Improving your relationship with your child can indirectly be much more effective in getting him to lead a Torah lifestyle down the road. By the time your child is an adolescent, he knows exactly where you stand hashkafically, so stop trying to convince him to follow in your footsteps. Show your child that you empathize with his or her struggles. It does not mean you agree with what he or she doing, but it means that if you put yourself into his or her shoes, you can understand his struggles a little better. The empathy you show your child can go a long way in strengthening the relationship you have with him or her.

Raising a teenager takes patience, and sometimes the efforts that you put into building a relationship with them are not effective in the way you were hoping to achieve. Don’t forget the ultimate tool of all, and that is tefillah. We are only human and our job is to do our hishtadlus. The rest is up to Hashem.

Sarah Kahan, LMSW provides psychotherapy to individuals, couples, adolescents and their parents. For further information, please contact her at 347-764-9333 or kahan.sarah@gmail.com.

Since 1969, OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services has served as a dependable haven of individual and family support, helping people of all ages surmount everyday challenges, heal from trauma, and manage with strength and dignity during times of crises. Driven by service excellence, OHEL’s professional staff meet the myriad social service needs of the general community, while at the same time providing culturally-sensitive services to the Jewish community, including Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian speakers. Through highly-rated foster care, developmental disability, mental health, and other programs and services, OHEL provides supportive housing, treatment, care coordination, education, outreach and much more to elevate lives and strengthen individuals and communities in New York City, Long Island, New Jersey, Florida, California and worldwide on the web. David Mandel is the CEO of OHEL.

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