How to Navigate the Stress That Comes With Parenting a Tween or Teen
Middle- and high-school time is challenging in whole new ways for children, and for parents. The grown-up goal? Keep calm and enjoy the chaos.
I’ve been trying to think of my most mindful moment raising my 15- and 12-year-old sons.
Maybe it was when my husband and I were in bed the other night, hoping to drift off to a restorative sleep before midnight, and my sixth-grader burst into the room: “I lost my science folder! And I lost my writing notebook! They’re not in my locker and they’re not home and they’re not anywhere!”
Or maybe it was the day this summer when we had my 15-year-old son’s travel baseball game in Princeton, New Jersey (we live near New York City), and the 12-year-old’s travel game in Danbury, Connecticut, and after motoring the 120 miles from one to the other we realized we had left our younger son’s EpiPen in a bagel shop in Jersey. We went into panic mode because: severe food allergies. Drop kids at field. Find CVS. Make sure they can transfer prescription (check). Dash back to the game, clutching our $375 replacement meds and wishing it were happy hour already.
If you have older kids, you’re living your own version of this mad dashery. And if your kids are younger, you have some, well, thrilling days ahead. Parenting a teen is like being an on-call emergency physician with suddenly reduced hours. You aren’t needed as much—you find yourself with whole
afternoons to yourselves!—but then you are suddenly asked to respond to big problems (or things that seem like big problems to your child’s hormone-logged brain). And as you triage, you know you need to dial down the temperature, not turn it up, which isn’t always easy depending on your own anxiety level (disclosure: Mine is not great).
Of course, the goal isn’t just to stave off ulcers, but to enjoy life with our kids. KJ Dell’Antonia has literally written the book on that: How to Be a Happier Parent. In researching the book—and in her former life as lead editor of the New York Times’ Motherlode blog—Dell’Antonia came to realize that we get so caught up in how we think we should be as parents, we forget to simply appreciate the good thing we’ve got. She likes to remind herself in times of annoyance—“like when I’m hauling my ass to hockey practice that’s an hour away”—“We wanted these kids. We wanted this life.”
It’s a way to gain instant perspective. And it works equally well in exciting times and challenging ones. “When you’re continually aware that this chaos is actually something you wanted, you can find joy even when it doesn’t objectively look like things are going great,” Dell’Antonia says. So your child didn’t make the swim team or is in tears because geometry is impossible. Pay attention to those events and feelings. Savor them, even. If everyone is healthy and there’s a roof that is mostly not leaking over your heads, things are going pretty great.
Alas, it’s not always easy getting to that happy place. Modern life is putting us all into a state of constant overload, says Kristen Race, Ph.D., a Steamboat Springs, Colorado–based family psychologist and the author of Mindful Parenting. “Because of all the pressures that are put on parents and kids today, and all of the distractions, the alarm part of our brain—the fight, flight, or freeze part of our brain—is constantly being triggered. Much more so than it was a generation ago.”
What happens when you’re stressed out and your brain’s alarm is going off? You are trying to function while under “amygdala hijack.” That means the part of your brain that controls emotion, aggression, and risk taking—the amygdala—is triggered. And it essentially shuts off the prefrontal cortex, which normally would help you think through things, take reasonable action, pay attention, teach, learn, and connect (that is, be mindful). “The prefrontal cortex is a very important part of our brain that we need to have working both to parent effectively, and for kids to receive us effectively,” Race explains.
Meanwhile, our tweens and teens and even younger kids are under unprecedented stress. There has been a 20 percent increase in anxiety diagnoses in kids 7 to 17 between 2007 and 2012, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. Every year the American Psychological Association releases a “Stress in America” report. The APA’s 2018 survey reported that Generation Z (ages 15–21) is significantly more likely than Gen Xers or millennials to say their mental health is fair or poor (27 percent say so). It might be because they’re worried about mass shootings: More than half of Gen Z kids say they sometimes feel stressed during school about the possibility of a shooting. Social- media habits are likely exacerbating the misery: A study in Preventive Medicine found that teens who spend seven-plus hours on their phones are twice as likely to have anxiety or depression.
Add hormones into the mix and things turn even more woolly. “Teens feel more of a desire to take risks, which is developmentally appropriate but still triggers the alarm part of a parent’s brain,” says Race. The stakes are higher now. It’s the old adage: “Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems.” Teens are hanging out on social media, driving, going to parties, and that of course means near-daily chances to make a single misstep that could have devastating consequences. Is it any wonder that, according to my highly unscientific poll of friends with high-schoolers, the average parent of teens wakes up 137 times a night?
This is where mindfulness exercises come in, and they can be a game changer. Race, who leads seminars and retreats in mindfulness, recommends a simple exercise she calls PBR: Pause, breathe, and relax. She uses it all day long in frustrating moments, and her two kids turn to it too. There’s a physiological reason why simply taking a few breaths from the belly makes us feel better. “When we take those deep breaths, that triggers a relaxation response in our brain,” Race says. “So it allows our prefrontal cortex to come back online. And when that comes back online, we’re better able to solve problems.”
We’re also better able to listen to problems. Teens, after all, aren’t always after our advice (perhaps you’ve noticed). Sometimes they just need to vent. “If we can listen mindfully—empathizing: ‘Yeah, that really sucks’—it defuses things better than us trying to fix the problem for them,” Race notes. Your middle-schooler didn’t get to sit with her friend Jane at lunch? You might be tempted to jump into problem-solving mode (“Why don’t you sit with Eva instead?”), but you’re better off letting her get her feelings out and find her own resolution.
Also keep in mind that negative emotions are contagious. You can catch your child’s freak-out, and they can catch yours too. “If they freak out, that triggers your own stress response,” Race says. The flip side is also true. Kids pick up your zen, she adds: “Anything that you can do to remain calm in those situations is going to help calm them down. So you don’t want to get caught in the spiral of people freaking out. It doesn’t do anybody any good.” To not freak out, you may need to zone out or walk away, as my friend Julie Taylor, supervising producer on The Talk, does. She says that sometimes her 15-year-old daughter is itching for a fight. Rather than argue with her, Taylor says, “I do ‘opposite action.’ I walk away. My goal is to keep the peace as much as possible.”
If your child is facing a particularly tricky situation and you suspect he needs help, try asking, “Would you like some thoughts on how to handle this?” Race recommends. Maybe your child will be all ears, or maybe he’ll say, “Not now.” Because these are the start of the independent years, when kids are naturally pulling away from us and turning to peers to work out issues.
It goes back to what’s happening in a teenager’s brain. “From an evolutionary perspective, if you look back hundreds of thousands of years, it was when kids were teens or tweens that they were getting ready to lead the tribe and to go out and fight or hunt and gather,” Race explains. “They needed an increased tolerance for risk to do that. Their brains are preparing them to live out on their own. And that’s also the reason for the increased focus on peers—because peers are their future.”
Aha, so that’s why when I ask, “Hey, who wants to watch a movie with me tonight?” I get a resounding, “Nah.” One child is off to a friend’s house; the other prefers a virtual playdate through the XBox. “It’s hard when they start to pull away, but I think about how gratifying it is that they are venturing out,” my college roommate Catharine Gately, a single mom of two teens in Seattle and the owner of the storytelling company The Narrative Co., tells me. She keeps the big picture in mind: “I try to pay more attention to where they go and who they spend time with and hope they are consistently around good kids whose parents are engaged. Are they generally happy? That’s a good measure.”
Remember: You’re nailing it by giving them privacy. “It may not be what you want in this moment, but it is what you want for them,” Dell’Antonia stresses. “Think about yourself at that age. You don’t want to spend your Saturday night with your parents.” That’s not to say family rituals are finito. You can definitely still set some. They could be as simple as eating dinner together every Thursday, or setting a rule that whoever sits in the front seat with Mom has to talk and not be on a device, suggests Dell’Antonia. She also likes to cook with her four kids, and they host parties together. Race plans an adventure every quarter with her family. “It doesn’t have to be a vacation. We’ll do day hikes in the mountains. Everyone brainstorms what they are interested in trying, and it excites the kids.”
Connecting at this stage also means finding a way to disconnect from work. That’s no easy feat in 2019. As Race notes, “A generation ago we had a natural wind-down of our day. When our parents left work, work was over, and that was family time.” But we don’t get to be off duty anymore. “We see an email that pops up, a text, and it’s constantly pulling us back. So we have to create windows of time when we’re not accessible to work.” Set your own boundaries, such as: “I’ll check email right before leaving the office, but from when I get home until after dinner, I’m not reachable.”
Many working parents also find that having a transition ritual helps them move from work-stress mode to relaxed family-connection mode. It could be as simple as changing your clothes when you get home, or taking the dog for a quick walk to clear your head. While you’re walking Buddy, Race suggests trying another mindfulness technique: a listening exercise. Set a two-minute timer on your phone and simply listen to all the sounds you hear: birds, laughter, other dogs barking, cars going by. “What it’s doing is stimulating the prefrontal cortex,” shutting off nagging work worries, Race explains. And while chats around the family
dinner table are wonderful, they’re not for everyone. Some kids prefer to open up in the car, or after they’ve blown off steam exercising. Race reports her sister would hear footsteps coming up the stairs while she was in bed at 10:30, and she always knew it was the time her nephew wanted to talk. The more you can bend and make yourself available, the better communication you’ll have.
Finally, when you’re having one of those days—like when my son forgot one piece of his catcher’s equipment and I drove 45 minutes in the pouring rain to bring it to him, only to hear: “Game was canceled,” and “Mom, what took you so long?” Take a deep breath. Then another. Imagine yourself in Bora Bora. Look at a cute panda baby on your phone. Say: “I wanted these kids. I wanted this life.” Do whatever calm-down thing works for you. As Dell’Antonia puts it, “It’s not that you should keep a gratitude journal or you should treasure the ordinary. It’s just that you’re happier if you can.”
This feature is excerpted from Parents: The Mindful Life available at retailers and on Amazon.