Many parents, especially mothers find parenting teenagers to be the most stressful phase of their lives. I’ve discussed here about how to connect with your teens. You can read Part 1 and Part 2 about Connecting with your kids. Mothers are working through other issues at the same time as this stage hits. This post addresses why parenting teens can be challenging and how couples can help each other through it without taking the stress out on each other.
As soon as puberty hits, many kids undergo tremendous psychological changes in addition to physical ones. Adolescent narcissism may kick in, where your child becomes obsessed with themselves, including their clothes, looks, and social standing. They may act irritable, secretive, and even slightly aggressive. Many kids become rude or cold toward parents that they had previously gotten along well with. All of this is to be expected in the teenage years, although obviously if you think that your teenager is acting extremely aggressive or hostile, or they seem depressed or anxious, you should consult a therapist. However, just knowing that something is a normal stage, or remembering your own similar behavior at that time does not do much to comfort many moms. Besides, I can’t remember that far back with my self-diagnosed brain fog. Why is it so hard for us moms to weather our teenagers’ behavior and personality changes?
Firstly, many women are going through perimenopause or menopause when their kids hit the teenage years. It used to be that parents had their kids younger, but now, having a child at 30 is very common, meaning that when this child is 15, a woman will be in her mid-40’s. There are many biological and hormonal changes at this point, which you can learn more about here. Depressed mood, and mood swings in general, are common at this stage. A woman is struggling with her own aging, mortality, body changes, sleep issues, fatigue, libido changes, and more. Her drop in estrogen means that she has less patience with caretaking as well. All of these changes hit right when a child grows more difficult and acts less appreciative. This can lead to tremendous fights between the mother and her teenage child, because both of them are undergoing hormonally driven mood changes at the same time.
Parents in this generation are more involved with (often, obsessed with) their kids than ever before, to the detriment of their marriages, social lives, and overall mental health. Driving teenagers to their various social obligations is a full-time job. I’ve written about the results of a “Child Centered Home” and you can read that here.
There are some teenagers that are lovely to be around, and are respectful, loving, and want to hang out with their parents. Ironically, this too can be very emotionally difficult for parents! Mothers in particular feel very sad about their kids growing up for several reasons. While most women see very real positives about their kids growing up, they simultaneously often feel sad. Women generally are more attuned to the passage of time then men. Women are also more prone to depression. And women often aren’t looking forward to time alone with their husbands to revitalize their marriage and intimacy. I can write a book about this empty nesting phase and the consequences of not taking care of your marriage.
In prior generations, fewer children were expected to go far away to college, or to move away from the parents’ town at all. However, I think that has changed in today’s society. This is a huge source of anxiety for many mothers in particular, who have based a lot of their self-identity on being a mother.
Mothers generally have more conflict with daughters, because they take more of an instructional role with them, and also because the girl triggers them to recognize parts of themselves they don’t like. If a woman had a difficult relationship with her own mother, then this conflict feels even more devastating, for two reasons. First, she had high hopes that her relationship with her own daughter would be better than the one she experienced growing up, and second, because rejection from her daughter will trigger buried feelings of rejection by her mother. A good nonfiction book about the mother-daughter relationship is You’re Wearing That? by Deborah Tannen.
Men can also have difficult relationships with their sons, and in certain situations, this can lead to the father taking a very strict, hard-nosed “disciplinarian” stance, which may be what he thinks is necessary. This can cause tremendous marital conflict because women are notoriously softer on their sons.
A last reason for sadness and grief at this stage is the death of potential. No matter what your teenager is like, that is pretty much who they are, for better and for worse. When you have a baby or a small child, it seems like they can be anything, and your relationship with them can also be anything. The older the child gets, the more obvious it is that they will have a certain personality, and certain interests, and not others. I have worked with many clients who have deeply mourned a child quitting an instrument, or sports, or anything else, because they loved watching the child and being involved with this activity was a larger part of their self-concept as a parent than they realized. This is the case for many parents who used to do this activity themselves, always regretted stopping, and now see their child going down the same path. If kids stop engaging in an activity you did together, whether you just drove them there, coached them, practiced with them, or anything else, this also immediately removes that time spent together from your life, which can be very upsetting.
Individual therapy can help with the complex feelings related to this stage of parenting. Just confiding in someone about your feelings can be transformative, and figuring out what is at the root of particularly painful issues can feel clarifying and validating. Also, this stage of parenting is an ideal time for couples to start couples counseling, to discuss and address parenting a teenager, and be guided through especially sensitive conversations by a professional. Men can be very bitter that their wives seem to be even more preoccupied with the kids than ever before, just at a stage when they had hoped that there would be more couple time due to the kids’ increasing autonomy. Wives can deeply resent their husbands for not empathizing and joining in their sadness about the kids’ growing up, and “minimizing” or “ignoring” any behavioral problems that come up.
Try to openly discuss these issues and your different perspectives as parents at this stage. As always, empathy is key for these discussions to go well. If this post resonated with you, it would be a good one to share with your spouse and ask which of these issues they feel are most applicable. This would be a hard post for a partner to take personally, as it describes fairly universal experiences, but if they do, that would be a sign that couples therapy may be needed to facilitate any communication or understanding around this topic.
Stay strong if you are struggling with this age! All stages have their positives and negatives and talking openly to other parents and/or to a therapist can really help you gain perspective on the transience of even the most difficult stages of life. Just talk about it.
Silvia Farag, MSW, LSW, PsyD Candidate runs the Christian Center for Counseling and works with adolescent and adult clients in individual, couples & family therapy. Her personal philosophy is that through human connection, we can foster the encouragement needed to take courageous steps toward creating positive change. She uses evidenced based and strengths-based approaches & believes in the inherent ability of everyone to overcome when they are willing to step into their potential. Therapy illuminates the path so the client can make conscious steps towards emotional health. Her attitude is one of respect and acceptance of each client’s individuality, allowing for the creation of a safe, therapeutic space. Silvia serves with Coptic Women Fellowship, an archdiocese ministry focused on enriching, supporting, and strengthening the lives of women, along with the clergy and several accomplished women of the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America.