Why do I have such a big reaction to my teen?

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Teens seem to pull at our heart strings as well as other strings that we wish we didn’t have.  Like the string that makes us scream in frustration, or the one that makes us say nasty things we wish we hadn’t.  When I think of the parents that I have worked with in therapy I am always surprised by how such level-headed people can be pushed to such extremes by the behavior or attitude of their teen.  Why is this?

The answer to that one is long and complicated.  Those who have been blessed with more than one child know that they don’t come in the same packaging and that there is a separate manual for each child.  What they fail to mention in the manual is that each child has the capacity to “trigger” us in unique ways.  This “trigger” is a sub-conscious, and usually painful reminder of something from our own childhood. Some of you had a good childhood, some less good, and some terrible.  But no matter which, all of us survived it to a greater or lesser degree either by suppressing ourselves in order to keep the peace, to not rock the boat, or by kicking and fighting our way to independence.  We can all identify what the rules for survival were in our families, and which of our siblings succeeded and failed at following them.  We can also identify which of our siblings’ strategies helped them grow up, and which siblings still have some work to do.

Now we have brought our own child into the world and they are also choosing strategies to survive their childhood.   Their choices will “trigger” us differentially based on the choices we made as a child.  For  example, if we survived our childhood by pleasing mom and dad, our own little people-pleaser will seem to be a relatively easy child to parent.  Until he or she reaches the teen years and can’t tolerate the people-pleasing any more and breaks loose in a flurry of self-destructive behavior.  Our people-pleasing selves will have great difficulty understanding the source of our child’s pain. We’ll be triggered into “rescue-mode.”  On the other hand, if our child chooses the kicking and fighting route to surviving childhood and achieving independence, it is either going to remind us of the pain of our own teenage kicking and fighting, or it will activate our childhood fear that if you kick and fight you are breaking the family rules.  We will likely be triggered into “control-mode.”

Both “rescue-mode” and “control-mode” are reactionary and firmly lodged in our sub-conscious experience of the survival rules we learned as a child in our own family.  And unfortunately, both reactionary responses will lead us down a parenting path that will not be helpful to our child.  This is why parenting is so difficult, especially in the teen years.  Rescue-mode will lead us to increase our people-pleasing child’s dependence on us and delay them from achieving the autonomy they so passionately desire.  Control-mode will increase the teen’s need to kick and fight for freedom.  And if you have one parent doing control-mode and one doing rescue-mode – yikes!!  Fortunately, there is something you can do!  You can take responsibility for your reaction and mobilize it to find a more effective way to influence your teen.

When you notice your reactions as a parent you can seize this important information to become more conscious.  Your “reaction” can be a signal for you to stop and ask yourself some important questions.  What feeling is causing this reaction?  What is my worry, fear, feeling of guilt, shame, or anger?  Why is my child’s behavior triggering this particular feeling in me?  What information is this giving me about my own internalized “survival rules”?  What is being challenged here?  What does my child really need from me right now?

When we understand and use our “triggers” as information, we are better able to separate our reaction to our child from their behavior, focus the spotlight on us, and manage our own emotional reaction.  This puts us in a much better position to respond rather than react to those strings that our teen is tugging on.  And in turn, we will be better able to influence our teen to make good choices and grow up, rather than just “survive” their childhood to a greater or lesser degree.

Easier said than done?  Interested in more parenting advice and guidance.  Join Liz van Ryn and Tara McGee for Parenting the Extreme Teen starting April 25th, 2019.  Sign up here:



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