Parenting teens can sometimes feel like being on a roller coaster. An event of major conflict and defiance can cause a rupture in your relationship that feels like a game changer.
One mother described her relationship rupture this way. She and her husband were at dinner after her 16-year old daughter had just returned from a month-long educational trip abroad that her parents had paid for. At the end of their meal, her daughter announced she was going over to a friend’s place across the city. When they reminded her of the fall term at school was starting soon and asked and her to return home by midnight, she defiantly and disrespectfully told them she would be home when she wanted. ‘I am 16, I don’t have to obey your rules!’ It felt to her mother like being punched in the stomach. She felt sick with worry, discouraged that there was no gratitude for the summer trip or respect shown to them. She felt angry and lost as she saw her daughter storm away on her bike, with no promise of returning at any particular time that night.
If you are (or once were) the parent of a teenager, this kind of situation may sound familiar. Teenagers sometimes ‘push our buttons’ and when we are spoken to with disrespect, it is natural for us to react. It is often very tempting to react and treat them with the same disrespect that they are showing to you and give them a ‘taste of their own medicine.’ Or, to just get angry back and tell them we won’t be spoken to like that.
It is not easy to remain clear and calm during these incidents, even when we know reacting angrily may only make matters worse. As I wrote in How Do You Get Respect From Your Teenager?, we do not want to destroy their respect for us by retaliating to their attacks with insults, sarcasm, rolling our eyes, or saying something under our breath. We lose respect from our teenager when we act like a teenager ourselves.
Parent Teen ‘Relationship Ruptures’
According to Dr. Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell in their book Parenting from the Inside Out, a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. If we repeatedly react rather than reflect and respond during these moments of frustration, we are apt to create communication breakdown and power struggles. We can be much more effective parents when we remain collaborative with teenagers by staying engaged during difficult conversations. Becoming aware of our own emotional reactivity or ‘hot buttons’, can help us know how to remain calm. Then we prevent what Siegel and Hartzell call “relationship ruptures”.
Parent-child relationship ruptures naturally occur in oscillating needs for connection and autonomy. Attuned parents can deal well with this normal tension between each person’s need for connection and their time for solitude. It is normal for there to be a growing desire for more autonomy during the period of adolescence. During this adjustment, significant parent teen relationship ruptures can occur when setting limits and trying to stay close.
Limit setting by parents is crucial for an adolescent’s learning when the part of the brain responsible for judgement is still developing. Negotiating curfews, deciding on what you are going to pay for and what they can afford, when you will drive them and when they will find their own way, helps judgement develop. However, it also often creates emotional tension – including relationship ruptures.
Toxic rupture is the term Siegel and Hartzell give the disconnecting interaction that an emotionally-reactive parent creates when they lose control. It is when we take ‘the low road’ of impulsive, repetitive responses which lack self-reflection or empathy for the teen’s point of view. When we yell, threaten, say “you always…..” or “you never……” or call our child names, we can create a toxic rupture to the relationship. Our over-reaction is usually connected to an overwhelming feeling which is often based in our own shame. We likely feel helpless to affect our child’s behaviour. In this cascade of frustration, humiliation and rage, we can feel our own ineffectiveness or even defectiveness. We can hear ourselves saying the things we were told as kids and promised never to do when we became parents. This over-reactivity is usually connected to our own childhood history.
Repair to the relationship can only happen when we take some to reflect after the incident. With reflection, we can strive to take ‘the high road’ which involves being emotionally calm, centred, rational, reflective and flexible. With our greater emotional maturity, we can take the initiative to repair the rupture. With thoughtfulness, we are able to focus on both our own experience as well as that of our teenager’s. I know how incredibly difficult taking ‘the high road’ is to do. It may require some thoughtful preparation with your spouse and discussion about what you will say to try and repair the rupture.
How to Take ‘the High Road’
- Think of an example of a relationship rupture with your own teen. What happened? How did you feel? How did your child respond?
- Was a ‘hot button’ pushed and a leftover unresolved issue from your past activated?
- Was there any toxic (yelling, threats or insults) element in the rupture?
- If you took the low road, where did that path take you in your mind or memory?
- How did you recover from taking the low road?
- Can you recognize any patterns in ways that this old issue interferes with you having a collaborative connection with your teenager?
- What aspects of the repair process are most difficult for you? How does shame play a part for you?
- How can you make a repair within yourself? What defences of yours keep you from being aware of your feelings of shame?
- Think of ways in which your own childhood history has given you a sense of disconnection and shame. Let those images and sensations come into your awareness. Don’t censor them, observe them. When ready, ask yourself how you will heal these old wounds.
It is not easy for any of us parents to be introspective and accept our part of the conflict when we feel our teenager has advantages not offered to us at their age. The mother in our story sought professional help for dealing with their daughter. It soon became apparent that as parents, she and her husband did not agree on how to handle situations like this. This disconnect was also compounding the problems. With help, they began to develop a more mutually supportive and united effort to handle her defiance in the future.