Childhood trauma is a hot topic lately — and for good reason. Our cultural awakening to the ways in which what happened to us as children makes us the way we are as adults has given so many people answers — or at least direction — needed to begin healing.
But as the spotlight shines on these discussions, a conversation that we’re stepping around and not directly addressing enough is adolescent developmental trauma — the stuff that happened to you in your formative teen years.
Bestselling author and journalist Neil Strauss made this point on Instagram recently, and the sentiment stuck a nerve with a lot of people.
Babies Need Us To Love Them Up Close — Teenagers Need Us To Love Them From A Distance
Strauss writes, “If infants have dependency needs, because they are literally dependent on adults for their survival, what then do teenagers have? The answer: Independency needs.”
As Strauss points out, when we are babies, we are vulnerable and depend on our parents to survive. Obviously, we don’t have the capabilities to make our cereal and brush our hair at the tender age of one. But our most essential need as babies is the need for love and affection, which encourages the healthy development of our brain, writes Unicef.
And it makes sense! Babies need to feel safe, and when you respond to their needs lovingly, this creates a safe environment that increases neuroplasticity — meaning our brain will be better at changing, adapting, and growing.
There are many ways you can help secure this bond with your baby, says Unicef, including these:
- Holding them close
- Playing with them
- Noticing what they are doing
- Having conversations with them
Teenagers have an opposite — a desire for independence, or anti-dependency, as Strauss calls it.
Unsurprisingly, teenagers need to feel independent and free to explore their passions and desires. And it turns out, how their parents react during these formative years can set the stage for their adult years in big ways.
How To Parent Teens To Avoid Adolescent Development Trauma
1. Put some space between you and them.
Separating from your teenager often requires handing out more freedom—and this can make any parent nervous. Yes, allowing your teenager freedom may make you feel as if it’ll end in disaster. As scary as it may be to allow your teenager freedom, it doesn’t have to end in a disaster.
As the CDC writes, “Remember that you are important to your teen’s healthy development and can help them make good decisions.”
So, just because you hand out more freedom to your teenager doesn’t mean parenting is no longer necessary. But it does mean you may have to take a different approach. According to the CDC, “Raising healthy and independent teens means encouraging them to explore interests and activities that may take them away from home.”
Though it may go against what you are used to, you must encourage your child to grow their wings and take baby steps out of the nest. This isn’t where you step out of the picture, however. Your guidance is still valuable.
Even with space between you and your teen, it’s critical to still:
- Be clear with your expectations.
- Set curfews with your teenager.
- Discuss situations they may have found themselves in.
Explore how their emotions and behavior affected those decisions, says the CDC. Using this parenting style allows your teenager to both keep their individuality and understand any consequences of their actions.
Finally, as you allow your teenager to go out and explore, be sure to communicate consistently. Let them know that you are there for them, says the CDC. Provide guidance when necessary and be sure to listen and understand your teen.
2. Let them be their own person — even if they’re still figuring out who that is.
The hardest part of parenting is letting go, and teenagers wanting more privacy can feel as if you lost part of your child through their need for independence. Though this may be a hard chapter it is a necessary one for healthy brain development.
Raising Children Network writes that your teenager’s need for privacy stems from them, “exploring new ideas, emotions, and social interests. Your child is also working out what kind of person they are or want to be.”
It makes sense to keep these fresh ideas and information to themselves as they become curious about the people they are becoming through these processes. As Strauss points out, you must slowly and age-appropriately let go of your dependency boundaries.
Though they are growing into adulthood, let’s not forget that their brains are still developing, and teenagers often don’t think through their decisions.
A give-and-take approach is often necessary during this stage. Monitor your children so you can guide and support them, writes Raising Children Network. But be sure to do it in an age-appropriate way.
The Raising Children Network suggests examples of age-appropriate teen monitoring can include:
- Checking in with them at agreed times
- Knocking on their doors instead of barging in
- Letting them talk to their friends in private
- Asking before looking through their things
- Checking to see if your child feels comfortable letting you in during their doctors’ appointments
3. Build them up.
Last but not least help build self-esteem within your teenager!
According to Newport Academy, “Self-esteem is directly associated with one’s mental health and well-being. A teen’s level of self-esteem determines how they interact in relationships.” Newport Academy adds that low self-esteem has been linked to depression in adolescents.
If you aren’t sure where to start, here are a few ways you can encourage high self-esteem in your teenagers, according to Newport Academy:
- Encourage them to avoid comparisons by pointing out that everyone is unique and has their talents.
- Teach them how to use social media responsibly by making agreements on how often they can best and safely use social media.
- Be sure to stay involved, communicate effectively, and be less controlling. According to Newport Academy, “researchers determined that teens whose parents were involved in their teen’s lives, but not controlling, generally had higher self-esteem than their peers with less involved parents.”
- Teach your teens self-compassion through practicing unconditional love.
- Encourage your teens to help others through volunteering. According to Newport Academy, “Volunteering offers mental and physical health benefits. “
According to research conducted at Penn State, “parenting can change a lot during the teenage years: parents often express less warmth and affection, spend less time with their teens, and become more harsh in their discipline. Parents that were able to maintain positive parenting and involvement paved the foundation for a close relationship when their teens became adults.”
Not only can you work toward raising a mentally healthy and independent adolescent, but you’re also setting the stage for a secure, warm relationship with them well into their adult years.
A Real-Life Case Study In Giving A Teen Space & Support
Joanna Schroeder — writer and editor here at YourTango, and a co-host of the YourTango “Open Relationships: Transforming Together” podcast — is a mother of two teen boys (and a 6-year-old daughter). She has a thing or two to say about the delicate dance that is giving her teens enough space to grow while staying active in their development.
Schroder gave us a real-life example of how this recently played out for one of her teenagers.
“When our son started dating and getting involved with girls in a romantic way, we were stressed. We had no idea how much to be involved,” said Schroeder.
“As a mom, it was hard to let him take the reins and find his way. Some people suggested reading all their text messages and DMs, but I decided against that.” Schroeder added, “At age 15, I believe they deserve privacy and autonomy unless they appear to be in danger.”
“As an admitted control freak,” Schroeder confessed, “It was hard to let go, especially when I saw one of the girls he dated using communication techniques with him that felt unhealthy. But I knew it wasn’t my relationship and not my business, so I stayed out of it until he came to me.”
Schroeder concluded, “Fortunately, he did talk to me when problems arose. He told me about challenges he faced, and I felt relieved that I’d never snooped or asked inappropriately prying questions because, when he was upset, he came to me. I’d earned his trust.”
So, as you give your teenagers more independence, be sure to express just how much you love, and support them, and believe in their ability to make the best choices for themselves.
Marielisa Reyes is a writer with a bachelor’s degree in psychology who covers self-help, relationships, career, and family topics.