Doors slamming, dubious mutterings and sullen silences, is how most parents wearily describe the adolescent phase.
Emily Madeline, an Abu Dhabi-based Canadian homemaker wishes she could escape every time her twin teenage sons start fighting. “They’ll fight about something minor like losing a video game and that ends in a wrestling match. What follows is yells and shouts, and then we step in and try to break them up. They get angry with us, too. Then they both go into their rooms and slam the doors shut,” she says with a sigh.
The girls don’t have it easy, either. Mahi Singh, a Dubai-based marketing professional says her 16-year-old daughter is in the phase where she would rather focus on being with her friends and gets rather snappish with her family’s presence. Singh is surprisingly used to it, “My elder daughter went through the same phase too. They all do.”
Why is adolescence so difficult?
“Nobody understands me” is the chorus for most teenagers.
For them, it’s true. The teenage years are filled with much anxiety, frustration and fear, which results in angst and anger. “From the perspective of the teenager, they would be experiencing, worry, irritability, insecurities,” explains Lavina Ahuja, a clinical psychologist from the German Neuroscience Center, Dubai. This results in them not feeling in control of their emotions, she says. “As they approach adulthood, they are trying to develop a new sense of identity, which is a difficult process for them,” adds Ahuja.
They see themselves as trying to manage everything, including schoolwork, changing friendships, new feelings, and the pressure to succeed in school, in order to secure a college education. Mai ElBadawy, a Dubai-based life coach explains that this pressure results in anger. "They're going through hormonal, developmental changes, and are facing pressure from school as well. Moreover, in some cases there are conflicts within the family, which can also contribute to anger," she says.
The demand for independence and autonomy
Moreover, many teenagers harbour a certain idea of independence, which is another reason why the conflicts between parents and adolescents intensify during this time. “They like the feeling of having their own space and circle, independent from parents,” explains Rachel Shaw (name changed on request), an American expat based in Abu Dhabi.
Mother to a son aged twenty-one and a daughter aged eighteen, she says, “This is the period when the presence of parents just seems embarrassing and annoying to them, as they want to fit in with cliques.
“My son went through the phase where he didn’t want to share anything with his sister, and would fight with her if she entered his room. He liked this idea of secrecy and privacy, and insisted on having a landline in his room at the age of thirteen,” she says. “If you’re a parent to a child whose entering adolescence, be prepared for a lot of tantrums and angst,” adds Shaw.
There’s a physiological reason for this turbulence phase too. “Teenagers’ brains go through tremendous growth and rewiring during adolescence,” explains Ahuja. “It is a phase of growth similar to that which occurs in infancy. In this phase of growth, the emotional regions develop rapidly, which is why teens experience intense emotions. However, the part of the brain that manages insight, judgment and behavioural control, which is the prefrontal cortex, will take many more years to fully mature. This is often seen as part of the why behind the teen angst.” The hormonal changes and fluctuations that occur during adolescence also makes teens more susceptible to venting their emotions, rather than pondering on them.
The power struggles
Like Linkin Park once sang, “Nobody’s listening.”
As teenagers often find it difficult to verbalise what exactly they’re feeling, their anger emerges in different forms such as sullenness, mood swings that lead to arguments with parents. This could lead to fights, with neither side listening to each other. There’s just hurtful words or silences on all sides.
With regard to parents, in this rather sensitive phase, they need to be cognisant of the words they use for their teenage children, explains British psychologist Terry Louise Washington in her book, Bridging the Gap Between Teenagers and Parents.
She notes down the several kinds of statements that are said between the two parties, which could result in a further breakdown of communication. Several examples would be statements like:
• This is my house and you do as I say
• If you don’t like it here, then leave
• You don’t have any choices
• I don’t want to hear it
• You will never grow up
• You will never keep a job
• Why can’t you act more like a sibling?
• I wouldn’t have done such a thing at your age
On the other hand, teenagers could probably use statements like ‘I don’t have to listen to you’, ‘leave me alone’, ‘Whatever’ and ‘who cares’, which further fuels the aggression between the two sides. When parents set arbitrary rules, this will result in hostility with the teenager, as they feel disrespected, unloved and under-appreciated, explains Washington. For example, no going out after 8pm. No phone calls during exams.
In their anger, if the parent demeans a teen, they will fuel their hurt and anger, and leads to a build-up of resentment. Do not compare the teen to their sibling, as that makes them feel less capable and worthless, she advises. The teens will retaliate by slamming doors, leave the home without permission, yell back or display a don’t care attitude’. As a result, the distance widens and leads to a toxic home.
Essentially, parents need to be cautious about the words that they use, evaluate themselves to see if they’re building a strong communication with their children, or instead, creating a wider gap. It is better to step away from the argument in the heat of the moment and address it calmly, rather than saying something that you will regret.
How to deal with teenagers
The parenting journey is a whirlwind of emotions, challenges and revelations, says Dubai-based Anamika Arun, a marketing professional and mother to a teenage son. “It’s a transformative experience for both. Just like they’re carving their identities, you’re also refining your role as a parent. It sounds easier said than done, especially when you’re trying to understand these new expressions of independence or rebellion,” she says.
Arun emphasises on the importance of understanding their world first, which helps them feel appreciated and that you’re engaged. “Having grown up in the 1980s, my idols, hobbies and aspirations are vastly different, as compared to my son. Bridging this gap required me to delve into his world, be it music, sports, online influencers, food or movies.” Pace it out and go slow, else they fear that you are imposing too much on them.
Dubai-based wellness expert and psychologist Jasmine Navarro explains some essential strategies in dealing with teenagers:
• Be an active listener. Take a step back and really listen to what your teen has to say without any judgement or need to change or fix them in anyway, says Navarro. “This can be so empowering for your teen as well as you. Listening to one another will deepen your relationship.” Sharing personal stories and experiences, as well as reflecting on each other's ideas builds and enhances trust. When you listen to your teen, they will also listen to you.
• Create a safe space. Allow your teen to feel safe, supported and respected enough to trust and open up to you. Knowing that whatever they say will not be judged or criticised is vital for their personal growth. Give them space to reflect on themselves and encourage them to share whatever is on their mind. Reassure them that they are not being judged for what they say. This deepens their self-awareness, allowing them to trust themselves, have less self-doubt and ultimately builds their confidence.
Allow your teen to feel safe, supported and respected enough to trust and open up to you. Knowing that whatever they say will not be judged or criticised is vital for their personal growth. Give them space to reflect on themselves and encourage them to share whatever is on their mind....
• Keep lines of communication open. Parents need to ensure that they make time and are available for open conversations, says Ahuja. As part of recognising that teen brains are still maturing, getting your teens to lean on your "mature" brains helps. Be a resource for them to talk to, and bounce ideas off, rather than a source of judgement and control.
• Encourage them to journal.
• Set limits and expectations. It is important to set clear limits and expectations for your teenager's behaviour. This will help them to learn how to manage their anger in a healthy way, sats Badawy.
• Model healthy anger management. Children learn by watching the adults in their lives. If you want your teenager to learn how to manage their anger in a healthy way, it is important to model this behavior yourself, says Badawy.
Set limits and expectations. It is important to set clear limits and expectations for your teenager's behaviour. This will help them to learn how to manage their anger in a healthy way
• Provide guidance instead of control. Be there when your teen needs you, but don’t try to fix them. It provides a feeling of safety for them. This allows them to feel free and enables them to explore themselves.
• Avoid comparisons and exerting high pressure.
• Encourage progress over perfection. When they are trying and things don’t go to plan, celebrate their efforts. It’s important to rewards their attempts and hard work over the result. If they’re not making mistakes, they are not trying anything new.
When you need to be concerned
Observe your teen and if they are indulging in destructive behaviour, frequent bouts of aggression, withdrawing from friends and family, then you have a reason to be concerned, says Badawy.
For the most part, teenagers go through their cycles of anger and angst. However, if you are concerned that their behaviour could be leading to depression and other mental health problems, ask yourself “Is my teen struggling in key areas of their life?” explains Ahuja.
Ask yourself these questions, says Ahuja.
Is there a reason or rationale for their upset?
If your teen has had an argument with a friend, or recently had a bad grade, they might be withdrawn, irritable, moody and sensitive, says Ahuja. “If you feel their distress is irrational and out of proportion, or shows up in all areas of their lives, with family and friends, then maybe it might be more than just teenage angst,” she adds.
If your teen has had an argument with a friend, or recently had a bad grade, they might be withdrawn, irritable, moody and sensitive. If you feel their distress is irrational and out of proportion, or shows up in all areas of their lives, with family and friends, then maybe it might be more than just teenage angst
Is it interfering with daily life and functioning? If they are upset for a long while after or their upsets tend to last very long and have a significant impact on them and their functioning, then there is perhaps more going on there.
How often are they distressed?
It is okay to take time and process, but if it happens very often that can also interfere with their ability to deal with ordinary life, explains Ahuja. “They might feel like they are constantly struggling and probably need some extra support and help,” she says.
How severe is their distress?
Teen angst shouldn't impact all the other things that are normally going on in a teen's life - school, studies, or friendships. If they are struggling to cope with everyday life and activities, that’s a sign that may be more than “typical teenage angst”, and they need help. “It’s important to note that depression doesn't always present as sadness, but instead, it can present as anger, irritability or withdrawal- from family and friends,” emphasises Ahuja.
If you think your teen’s mood swings are affecting important aspects of their lives like grades, activities, or relationships, seek professional help sooner rather than later.