Am I doing anything right? This question could easily be muttered by my teenagers or by me. Daily. Hourly. It is no small task to parent any teen, whether they have been your son or daughter since birth, or whether they came to you after separation from biological parents.
There are all kinds of reasons it can be difficult, as well as even more reasons it’s an amazing and joyous time: curfews, friend choices, new freedom, new responsibility, homework, sporting events, pushback on rules, increased wit (a blessing and curse!), letting them make choices for themselves, natural consequences, emotions that take you on a tilt-a-whirl, deep conversations, and glimpses of them as adults. It’s difficult to let go, and even more difficult to know when and how much to let go at different increments during these teen years; so, if you’re parenting a teen and feeling exhausted - but hopefully still smiling! - I want to take a moment to hold your hand in solidarity.
Since my family has adopted one teen and is in the process of adopting another, and we have seven kids altogether (our youngest is 10!), I think A LOT about these adolescent and young adult years. I research quite a bit, too. I listen to sermons and podcasts, I read books, and I probably contact my kids’ therapists too often with questions! I often feel like I could never learn enough to feel like I’m doing this whole “parenting teens” thing correctly. On top of this, I am an avid observer of my beloved children, and there’s something I have seen in all our teens that is amplified when they are youth with traumatic backgrounds: they are a child and they are an emerging adult at exactly the same time, and this can be very confusing for them. Uh - AND for us!
Living in the Both/And World
- They want their hair stroked at bedtime AND they want to be left alone.
- They watch cartoons AND they may choose music that is questionable and graphic.
- They want me to bring them an ice pack when they’re hurt AND they push me away when I try to console them as they cry.
- They choose children’s cereals AND they push heavy weights at the gym.
- They want parental affection AND they won’t pursue it on their own.
- They’re scared of growing up AND they want all the “freedoms” of adulthood.
- They still suck their bottom lip to fall asleep AND they may be caught vaping (not approved, not okay, and even more scary in this world of fentanyl-laced everything!)
- They act like they only want their friends AND they need mama or dad to lean on.
There is a lot of both/and in being a teenager. We can all remember this from when we were teens. The difference with our youth who have trauma is that there is an inner child that needs tremendous healing and reassurance, and we cannot always know when that inner child will come out begging for what they need (or what they needed earlier in life). This may occur in outrageous behaviors, such as tantrums that seem like a two-year-old has inhabited the teen. This may occur in heightened affection that seems out of character. This may occur when, at the store, they ask for a Lego set or a baby doll. This may occur when they ask for baby food, or they eat only a certain food for days on end (a comfort food from way-back-when). This may occur in language or shallow behavior that seems developmentally delayed. This may occur by choosing child rides at the carnival when they could go on a roller coaster. This may occur in bedtime rituals, like snuggles and reversions to sucking their thumb or rubbing a blankie on their faces. Sometimes we may throw our hands up and think, “What in the world?!”
Parenting the Inner Child
I have learned when they are showing me these behaviors, their inner child needs something in that moment. The young child is taking over to seek comfort, to get a need met, to test boundaries, and see what *this* parent will do, or to express something suppressed.
Obviously, this is all very subconscious, and I don’t think they even know what is happening. I will ask myself, “Okay, how can I meet this need, however ridiculous, right now? How do I speak to them so the inner child knows they’re safe, heard, seen, etc.?”
As a side note, I used to think it was a bit “woo-woo” to talk about an inner child who needs healing. Perhaps I even considered it a bit weak, especially if the resulting behaviors were giant tantrums. I totally understand those of you who may be wincing or cringing right now at this idea. However, my experiences and research and conversations have shown me this is just true. Even you or I will sometimes act out of a place of non-healing from childhood wounds, especially if innocence was taken too early due to experiences or other traumas.
Usually, the sooner I can respond to the inner child, the sooner the teenager will come back, the one who wants to talk about college applications and what kind of spouse they hope to have someday. For example, if one of my kids asks for stuffed animals, I will let them choose one very special one. I will help them put it on their bed and say how adorable it is and ask if it’s soft to hold. Sometimes they’ll offer for me to squeeze it. One of my teens has over a dozen stuffed animals and plushies, and I notice that she tends to want one when a major memory episode has happened, and this is something to soothe her and help her feel safe. I will share with her that I love to have a big pillow to squeeze at night, likely the adult version of a “stuffy”, as my kids call stuffed animals. I am speaking to her as a child with the stuffed animal and the person who will someday be a grown woman (whether or not she wants a bed filled with stuffed animals in her adult life will be up to her!).
At the same time that we are recognizing the inner child, we are getting these teens ready for adulthood. We teach them responsibility with alarm clocks, schedules, and routines. We give them household chores and point out specific cleaning needs to someday have a sanitary home. We help them fill out job applications and prepare for interviews. We teach them how to drive (Eeeek!), and show them how to buy a car and insure it. We show them a way to a successful enter adulthood with fulfilled and fulfilling responsibility, and help them to see it for themselves by imagining it for them before they’re even able to fathom it. Even though they have an inner child who needs healing, this does not slow down time and the necessity of learning the tasks of adulthood.
I wish I could tell you that I’m doing it all right all the time, and I have the miraculous answer. If I even tried to pretend, my kids would laugh and laugh! I have learned a lot for sure, and I’m doing better than I was in the beginning of this journey of parenting teens, but I’m always failing forward. I am looking for signs and triggers so I can parent my teen when they’re afraid or lonely, when a childhood memory surfaces, or when they just need the soothing of a child because, in some ways, they still are a child. I am also helping them level up to this next phase: young adulthood. I want to see them where they are, and I want to nurture and even challenge them to where they’re going.
Child → Healthy Adult.
This blog article was contributed by Cherie Johnson, Foster and Adoptive Parent at Nexus-Kindred Family Healing.
Nexus Family Healing is a national nonprofit mental health organization that restores hope for thousands of children and families who come to us for outpatient/community mental health services, foster care and adoption, and residential treatment. For over 50 years, our network of agencies has used innovative, personalized approaches to heal trauma, break cycles of harm, and reshape futures. We believe every child is worth it — and every family matters. Learn more at nexusfamilyhealing.org.