Unraveling The Knots To Help Your Teen: Family Dynamics And Mixed Messages

by Kira Olson
Director of Regional Outreach at Castlewood Treatment Centers

Families are imperfect. As a parent, you will say things you don’t mean and respond in ways you hadn’t intended. Teens often react based on emotions or hormones. While misunderstandings are normal, many mixed messages can be reduced through awareness and intentionality.  Improved communication not only repairs family dynamics and teens’ self-esteem, but it also models healthy skills for teens to apply in other relationships and environments. Here are some tips for families as they work together to unravel the knots and reduce mixed messages:

Reduce cliff hangers. Your teens have needs and so do you. There will be times your teens’ concerns will be put on hold due to an important phone call, a work deadline, or another priority. It’s important to communicate that “not now” does not mean “not ever.” Let your teens know that you plan to revisit the topic as soon as you are able. Learning to delay instant gratification and practice patience can be helpful to teens’ development. They may also learn to find additional resources to answer their questions or realize that their priority at the time was not as urgent as they thought. By following through on revisiting those concerns, parents can model healthy boundaries and communication, as well as demonstrate reliability.

Drop the poker face. Just as you can read your teens, your teens can read you. Don’t waste energy trying to hide how you feel to “protect” your teen. This doesn’t mean you should tell them everything. It means if you have a headache, let them know that you don’t feel well. Acknowledge your difficult day at work. When parents respond to their teens’ questions with “I’m fine” or “I’m not angry,” teens may inadvertently learn to distrust their own judgment.  They perceived something was wrong, yet their intuition was unintentionally invalidated.  Incongruency between nonverbal signals and verbal feedback affects trust between parents and teens.

Nurture self-love.  If you don’t love yourself, it’s hard to love others, and the motivation behind what you do for others can also become toxic. Invest in yourself by making time for exercise, socialization, and rest. Practice positive self-talk. Your teen is learning how to talk to themselves by observing how you talk to yourself. In my work with eating disorders, the language parents model at the dinner table often contributes to the teen’s relationship with food and his/her body. Ask yourself, “How am I talking to myself? Would I be talking to a friend the way I talk to myself? What might my teen pick up from what I say?” You won’t always say the perfect thing, but that is not the goal. When you make mistakes, acknowledge them and apologize. Bring it into discussion with your teen as an opportunity to teach and to strengthen your relationship.

Slow down. As a parent, there is always something to do, whether for a friend, partner, your teen, or your job, in addition to finding time for yourself. Slow down. Trust that what needs to get done will get done. Your teen wants YOU. They will ask for money, clothes, and other material things, but ultimately, they want to know that they are loved and provided for. They would prefer time with you over anything. I have heard teens say, “My mom worked hard to put food on the table, but she was never around. I really wished we had spent more time together.” But you’ll rarely hear, “I wish mom worked more.” By slowing down, you also model values and priorities, like a healthy work-life balance, for your teen.

The key is consistency. Teens need consistency for a sense of safety and structure. Discipline should be consistent and logical. Consistency involves following through on what you say you’ll do. For instance, if you say you’ll be at your teen’s game, be there. If you say there will be a consequence to an action, hold that consequence. You are modeling commitment, follow through, and intention. You are also communicating love and care. While being consistent, it’s also important to allow for flexibility. Flexibility means a willingness to acknowledge mistakes and recognize a teen’s viewpoint. Rules, such as curfew, for instance, might change as the teen gets older, develops more freedoms, and earns trust. Flexibility empowers a teen in his/her growth.

Sit back and allow your teen to be a teen. Overreacting can cause problems such as rebellion or unnecessary conflict. There is a balance between taking action when necessary and recognizing that your teen is a teen. It is natural for teenagers to struggle with sexuality, identity, authority, and expression. This is a time of change, transition, and development through puberty, academics, and peer relationships. They are attempting to differentiate from their families and discover themselves. Familiarize yourself with the brain development and expected developmental stages in adolescents. Talk with experts so you feel confident in knowing when to react and when to allow room for exploration.

Avoid the blame game. Problems or struggles at home are a combination of biological, social, and psychological factors. Avoiding the blame game will help family members take responsibility for their own actions and problem solve as a team. A family is a unit; however, blaming isolates and disempowers that unit. Each member always has an option in the way that they can contribute to a scenario, whether directly impacting it or deflecting it.

The best way to avoid mixed messages is to be you, because that’s who your teen really wants.  To be you involves caring for yourself, authentically communicating, and being aware of potential pitfalls. Family dynamics are complex. All you can do is your best when it comes to unraveling the knots and communicating with your teen.

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Would you like additional guidance in this area? Teen Therapy Center provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.

Darren Wiegert

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