The following story originally ran on LDS Living in September 2012.
Ah, adolescence. Aggravating acne. Lanky limbs. Varying voices. Plump perms. (Those yelps you hear are our mothers: “Perms were in, we tell you. In!”) Fast-forward to 2019, and our tweens and teens are facing the same issues and insecurities we did—albeit with much better hair.
As your kids head back to school, here are 20 must-knows to help them grow through “the awkward phase.” When you arm yourselves with the right perspective, these “good times” can, in fact, be truly great.
1. Respect that what they are feeling is real to them.
Is it hard to believe your roller coaster of a child is genuine? Believe it.
“Parents might feel like their teen has experienced just about every emotion under the sun,” says Laura Walker, associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. “However, research suggests that teens don’t actually experience more emotions than adults do but that they experience them at greater extremes. So while this may seem like melodrama to adults, it feels very real to teens and should not be dismissed outright by parents.”
2. Know they are still developing their ability to reason.
Did you know the reasoning function of our brains doesn’t fully develop until we’re 25? Twenty-five, folks!
“Adolescents can feel everything we feel as adults—love, happiness, sadness, anxiety, stress. But they don’t have the logistical ability to work through those feelings,” says Dr. Keven R. Downs, a licensed clinical social worker. “Compare it to car insurance: it’s most expensive when you’re 16, and it drastically decreases in cost when you turn 25. And that’s because a 16-year-old drives on emotion, not logic. I’m telling you—insurance companies know what’s up.”
3. Help them grapple with emotions and confusion.
Once you’ve acknowledged the feelings, know what to expect.
“These changes are physical, hormonal, and social—and they’re happening all at the same time,” Downs says. “Your kids can have emotions ranging from simply feeling out of place to low self-esteem to complete anxiety.”
But the most common emotion? Confusion.
“Many of them have no idea what’s going on,” says Dr. Triston Morgan, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “All they know is they are uncomfortable, and they don’t like it.”
4. Embrace your child as they are now.
The biggest problem with this phase? Seeing it as a problem.
“This is a normal part of life. Embrace who they are in their awkwardness. Give them space, and give them time to grow, develop, and mature,” Morgan says. “Don’t try to push them out of it. Just go through it with them.”
5. Develop patience.
“Patience, patience, patience,” Walker says. “Teens don’t like to be patronized or not taken seriously, even though sometimes we might feel like laughing at their overly emotional responses.”
And if patience doesn’t come naturally, remember that we’re not all that different from our kids.
“It helps me to remember that the Lord probably has a similar response to our angst,” Walker says. “Nevertheless, He always responds in a patient and loving manner.”
6. Talk to your children and ask them frank questions.
Want to get an idea of what your kids are going through? Ask them!
“The best thing parents can do is encourage their teens to talk about their emotions and express them in a healthy manner,” Walker says. “Also, try not to overreact. If your child confides something in you and your response is over the top, there’s a good chance this will be the last time they come to you with a problem.”
7. Help your teens feel safe.
If your kids are going to open up, your home needs to be where the heart is.
“Make home a safe haven,” Walker says. “It’s important not to be insincere and excessive with our praise—teens see right through that. But it is essential children know that when they come home, they are loved and accepted.”
8. Listen and validate.
It’s important to note you won’t be able to “fix” what your child is going through—at least in the traditional sense of the word. “Simply listen to and validate your child’s feelings. Show empathy,” Downs says. “Oftentimes, kids just need to feel heard by their parents.”
9. Share your own experiences.
Even though it may blow their minds to know you were once a teenager, tell your kids the history of your own awkward adolescence. (If you walked 30 miles to school barefoot in the snow, great. But relatable stories of friendship problems and boy drama—or your own awkward photos—are even better.)
“Parents need to share with their kids their own experiences of growing up,” Downs says. “When they know you had struggles as a child and still turned out happy, it’ll help them see their problems are temporary.”
10. Use your words carefully.
If your child is struggling with his or her physical appearance, watch your words. Adolescents could earn PhDs in taking offense.
“It’s amazing how teens will remember one off comment about how they look. I have students who remember comments from Mom and Dad that were made 10 years earlier!” Walker says. “Also, if you are always putting down how others look, it will not take your children long to wonder what you think about how they look.”
11. Be sensitive of your child's body image.
When it comes to your child’s weight, be more than careful with the way you address it.
“Off-handed remarks about weight gain aren’t going to do your child any favors. They can hold on to those comments for years and it can affect how they feel about themselves and their bodies,” Downs says. “Certainly when there are serious health concerns, it’s not an issue that can be ignored. But the way you talk to your kids about their weight needs to be done with thought, care, and preparation.”
12. Avoid comparisons.
Another no-no? Comparing your kids to their siblings and friends.
“Stay away from this as best you can,” Downs says. “Kids will take those comparisons to heart—and not in a good way.”
13. Focus on the positives.
“You get what you focus on,” Downs says. “Focus on the negative behavior of a teenager, you’ll see more negative. Focus on the positive, you’ll see more positive.” Try having your child recognize a talent or two (or 10).
“Ask your kids to name their biggest strengths. Ask them to tell you what their friends like about them,” Downs says. “When these traits are recognized out loud, they have more impact. It’s like bearing a testimony—once you say it, you start to believe it.”
14. Help them understand the world is larger than their problems.
The world doesn’t always revolve around your child—a fact that could actually help them relax.
“We all focus on our flaws more than others do, so help your teens ask themselves if they notice others as much as themselves,” Walker says. “Once they realize they can’t even remember what the girl next to them wore yesterday, let alone how many pimples she was sporting, they’ll realize others are not as focused on them as they thought.”
15. Get to know your kids' friends.
Do you know who your kids’ friends are? If you don’t, drop everything and find out. “Young people look up to their peers, so it’s imperative they have a positive group of friends,” Morgan says. “In a lot of ways, those peers are going to help parent your child.”
16. Ask about your kids' friends.
Once you know who your kids’ friends are, ask about them often. Your children may not come to you talking about struggles they face, but they may be more willing to talk about their friends. And chances are, they’re going through all the same things together.
Sometimes, the way your child talks about a friend will reveal his or her own insecurities.
17. Pick your battles.
Pick your battles oh so carefully.
“Too often I see parents picking battles that have to do with clothing and hairstyles,” Downs says. “If your adolescent is pushing to dress a certain way—and it still fits within your family values and standards—don’t give it a lot of energy. You’ll both get frustrated without making any progress.”
18. Know you can make a difference.
You’re going to feel powerless at times—that’s just the name of the game. But don’t doubt you can make a difference.
“The biggest misconception about this time is that these mood swings and hormones are running wild, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Morgan says. “It’s just not true. Have an impact by building good experiences in their life. Focus on that.”
19. Don't take outbursts personally.
Perhaps the biggest advice for parents? Don’t take it personally.
“These young people are starting to define themselves in a social context that’s not just in the family, which is a little jarring for parents,” Morgan says. “It’s a sense of loss. They transition from wanting your approval and attention to wanting the approval of their peers. But this is just a part of life. The biggest mistake you can make is taking it personally.”
20. Enjoy your time together.
Despite its name, the awkward phase can actually be an enjoyable time for children and their parents.
“It’s a fun age because this is a time when kids start cementing their personalities. They start noticing the opposite sex in a different way, and they start figuring out what they believe. And a lot of kids have fun with it,” Downs says. “There can be hardships and overwhelming feelings of awkwardness, but children are resilient. And when you help them hold on to their worth and values, children are better for having gone through it.”