Although power struggles between children and parents are a normal and predictable part of social and emotional development, they typically escalate when children start to grow into teenagers. The strength of some teens’ emotional reactions blow their parents away. Just as power surges occasionally knock out your home’s electricity, creating at least temporary havoc, so can these emotional outbursts bring normal life to a sudden halt.
The sudden intensity of power struggles often come as a shock to parents raising their first teenager. Sometimes the first kid glides through adolescence with very little drama but the second-born makes the challenge. Emotions escalate and often cruel words are spoken on both sides. Kids accuse parents of being mean, unfair, crazy, out of touch…parents call their kids selfish, disrespectful, lazy and disobedient. Is there any way to avoid the pain, the guilt, and the worry of this stage of development?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes and no. Some of the reason that power struggles can escalate to new levels has to do with the biology of adolescence itself. As boys (starting anywhere between 9 and 15) and girls (starting anywhere between 7 and 13) move into and through puberty, they have their own internal surges to contend with–namely the flood of hormones necessary to ensure normal development. Because of hormones, your son or daughter will have stronger emotions than ever before, feeling overly sensitive, highly anxious or becoming easily upset.
Although it can be difficult for everyone involved to deal with all of these new emotions, it is helpful for parents especially to remember it is the “puberty brain” trying to adjust. Your kids are typically not trying to hurt you on purpose, and it is just as confusing for them as for you. This means that your son may not even realize why he is arguing about an issue this week that didn’t bother him last week.
Rapid mood changes are part of the process which can add further confusion, because sometimes the angry, rebellious 14 year-old becomes a vulnerable and needy 9 year-old again. In one moment, your kid can’t stand you, and in the next, she wants you to tuck her in bed. Parents don’t know when it’s OK to be close and when they’re not wanted.
Once again, there’s good news and bad news. Young kids are very black and white in their thinking. As critical thinking skills begin to develop during puberty, kids are now able to think in gray areas. With this increase in thinking complexity comes a lot more questioning of authority. Whereas a six year-old may well do something because you asked them to, a twelve year-old will want to know why and will argue with you. Power struggles often start when parents continue to expect compliance without conversation, compromise, and even argument.
Most parents are terrified their kids will give into peer pressure and begin using drugs and alcohol, become sexually active too soon, or will stop caring about school. One of the important ways that kids learn to develop strong values is by talking about them–yes, arguing even–with their parents. If your teen trusts and cares about you, he or she will question your beliefs about politics, religion, rules, and values. Parents want to encourage this dialogue which means learning to listen–even when your teen is emotional or passionate in their tone of presentation. Learn to ask probing questions. Avoid the temptation to talk down to your teens. Any whiff of condescension will only infuriate them.
The capacity to reason and to make good (typically less risky) decisions comes from the frontal lobes of the brain. Although teens might well reach their full height and weight by 16, we now know that the prefrontal cortex is not fully wired up until long past adolescence, around the age of 25. Nature designed the brains of teens to be highly responsive to everything in their environment which, on the positive side, promotes curiosity and learning. On the down side, teens often lack the insight to see the long-range implications of the choices they are making.
1. Expect power surges when your kid is in puberty.
2. Don’t take it personally. There’s a whole lot of biological changing going on.
3. Set clear rules and boundaries with appropriate consequences when calm and unemotional.
4. Agree to disagree with each other but practice listening so that you stay connected and communicating.
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Last reviewed: 25 Mar 2013