My daughter’s eyes were filled with tears and my voice was louder than needed. We were arguing over something trivial - or so I thought. We were going ‘round and ‘round about the homework she was struggling with. She was convinced she wouldn’t be able to do it, and I was confident she could do it if she pushed through. It was a moment when I could see her potential more than she could. She felt like she was sinking, and all I saw was her refusal to stand up in the shallow water.
After going ‘round and ‘round, we were both exasperated. Heels dug in tight, I realized I needed to be the one to move first. All I could think was to ask her a question: “What do you need?” I pleaded. “I don’t know, mom.” And then the tears came. In that moment, I knew she had no idea what she needed, and it was my job to figure it out with her. This wasn’t about helping her with homework; this was about helping her find her way. Often, teens don’t know what they need. Most kids don’t, but when they’re young, we step in more willingly. Now that our babies are more at eye-level, we look at them expecting them to make adult choices, forgetting that sometimes they don’t know how to figure things out on their own.
Here are six things your teen may not have a clue that they need:
1. Physical touch. As our kids get older, we are less likely to hug them, snuggle with them, or give them physical reassurance. This is especially true with boys because of societal gender expectations. While much research has been done on the effects of physical contact for babies and young children, we forget that some of the same benefits apply to teens. As per the Parenting For Brain online article, “Hugging - 7 Benefits for You And Your Child (Backed by Science), “Hugging triggers the release of the feel-good hormone, oxytocin, that can lower the level of stress hormone and counter its anxiety effects.” This dual benefit helps teens in a way they cannot verbalize, making the situation they are facing easier to handle.
When my daughter is spiraling down emotionally, and I gently pull her into a hug, she immediately collapses against me, letting the burden leave her as she falls into me. For some, hugs may be too much, but other types of physical touch can benefit teens. A hand on the shoulder or a few minutes sitting side by side is enough to bring the same benefits as hugging.
2. Sleep and rest. The need for and benefits of sleep for teens has been highlighted recently with studies showing that teens are not getting enough sleep for proper development. While much of the recent research has focused on the sleep/school connection for teens, there is far more need concerning adequate rest. Thinking back to those crazy years when I had three kids in as many years, everything was a blur. I spent five years sleep deprived, and as a person who doesn’t function well without eight hours of sleep, some days were difficult. I was irritable, unable to solve problems, and couldn’t think clearly.
Now, think of those same effects on the physically and emotionally developing teen brain. I don’t need a study to confirm that my kids function better with good sleep. This can feel tricky with teens as changing physiology, more homework, and seeking independence keeps them up late. Shifting the focus from sleep time to rest time has helped in my household.
Encouraging your kids to get stressful tasks requiring a lot of thinking done earlier in the evening allows them to use later times for unwinding. And research is clear that the use of electronic devices late at night is not good for anyone. Finding things to do that are relaxing, like taking a shower or bath, reading, listening to audiobooks, journaling, drawing, or doing other non-stressful, quiet tasks are great ways to ease into a better sleep routine.
3. Expression. Often, teens struggle with appropriate ways to express their feelings. At times, their feelings are new and foreign or mixed up in a way that leaves them uncertain as to what they feel. Giving them ideas for ways to express themselves helps. And the best way to do that is by modeling. It’s no secret that telling a teen to do something doesn’t always work, but if they see people they love and trust doing something, they may give it a try. Modeling a variety of ways to express thoughts, ideas, and feelings will help them see they have many options. Much like a buffet, when they are presented with an assortment of possibilities, they may try a few until they find what they like.
Talking is the most obvious way we express ourselves, but there are many other possibilities. Writing, drawing, creating, cooking, and building are a few ways to foster expression. Some need something more physical so things like running, hiking, and swimming can help.
The key is to try many things and be okay when they don’t work. When teens see you finding your way, even with struggles, it helps them know there is nothing wrong or unusual with their own struggles.
4. Exercise. Very similar to expressing your feelings, exercise presents positive benefits that are often overlooked because we don’t know how to incorporate it in our lives. Teens especially struggle with this, even teens that play sports. While playing a sport is a physical activity that will benefit them, it can also become a responsibility or burden associated with pressure.
I admit, I don’t love exercise, but I try to walk or hike regularly. It has little to do with physical health benefits and more to do with clarity and mental well-being. Much study has been done on the benefits of exercise. According to an article on HelpGuide, “The Mental Benefits of Exercising,” it is proven that people who exercise “feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night, have sharper memories, and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives.” All of these benefits will help teens in ways they often cannot pinpoint. Giving them ample opportunity to try different types of exercise will also help them develop habits that will serve them later in life.
Even if they groan and complain, drag the family out for a hike or take them to the pool. Head to the park, shoot hoops, or challenge your teen to a 5K. Teens tend to let exercise go in a time when they need it most. You can make sure they still have the opportunity to get moving (plus, they may love the chance to beat you in a marathon).
5. Listen. This tip is the one most parents roll their eyes at and brush past. We often find ourselves in the ‘my-kid-never-tells-me-anything’ camp or the ‘my-kid-never-stops-talking’ camp: neither of which sounds very fun. We are often surprised to learn that our teen wants better communication with us, but sometimes we lack the time, interest, or skills necessary to effectively listen to our teen.
Listening is not always easy, and sometimes the results may not be noticeable, but fostering an environment of caring about what your teen has to say is helpful.
6. Grace. This idea is one you won’t find many places, but I have found it to be one of the most important things to teach my teen. Today’s teens are growing up in a high-pressure society. Final exams, post-secondary education, grad school, finding a high paying job all feel like necessities to make it in this great big busy world. Sometimes teens are so busy trying to be the best and to get ready for the next step that they become miserable.
Simple reminders and parent behavior make a big difference here. If the only things we ask about school have to do with their grades, sports, and post-secondary applications, we are showing our kids that those are the most important things in life. When they lose a game or get a low grade, it suddenly becomes devastating, but we have the power to change that.
One day, my daughter came home upset about her math quiz grade. She was crying because she wanted it to be higher, to be better, to be perfect. After listening to her talk for a few minutes, I asked one question: “Do you know what I got on my math quiz in seventh grade?” She looked at me with wide eyes, eager to see how we measured up against one another. “No,” she replied to me. “Neither do I.” She may have rolled her eyes when I said this, but it showed her that it’s okay to let things go sometimes. We need to give ourselves grace when we make mistakes because it enables us to learn from our mistakes and move forward without anger or bitterness. Look for ways you can teach your teen about grace; it may mean the difference between a stressful meltdown and a small bump in the road.
And one final note, this idea of grace works for you, too. As parents, we want so much to get it right, but the truth is, sometimes we will miss the mark. Give yourself grace in those moments and move forward. It’s worth it.
Rebecca is a former teacher who is passionate about authenticity, faith, and family. She writes regularly at myinkdance.com, has been featured on sites such as The Washington Post and Scary Mommy, and her books are available to purchase on Amazon.
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