Staying Present When You’re Anxious About Your Teen’s Future

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You leave yoga class, matcha tea in hand, and vow to approach the day with more gratitude. You walk slowly and mindfully as you savor your tea. You’re committed to following your young and perky yoga teacher’s instructions: Be in the moment. Be mindful. Be present. Be . . .

And then your cell phone buzzes. It’s your son’s guidance counselor. You’re pretty sure she’s calling to give you a heads up about the progress report that will be arriving in your in-box shortly. Despite its name, the report typically indicates a lack of progress. You had a strong suspicion that your son’s closed door, laughter, and Netflix password changes were indicators of his slacking off . . . again.

Disappointed, annoyed, and frankly, embarrassed (after all, who wants to look like that parent?). You imagine what will happen if you don’t develop an immediate action plan. Your fear-drenched imagination predicts that your teen will become like your underachieving, middle-aged brother-in-law who was a capable, but lazy teen who never launched. He still relies on his parents to bail him out because of his poor judgment and Peter Pan syndrome—your parenting nightmare!

As your anxiety accelerates, the calm of yoga class evaporates. You go into crisis mode and make a list of ways to stop your teen’s life from going off the rails. Starting today you’re going to:

  • Research tutors and executive functioning coaches to help with his horrendous study habits.
  • Remove all technology from his room and strictly monitor his social media.
  • Ground him on weekends and force him to focus on homework.
  • And most importantly, enroll in the unlimited access plan at the yoga studio. You need all the support you can get to deal with this parenting stress!

You tell yourself that this plan is motivated by love for your teen. I would say that it is based in love but is driven by anxiety. Unfortunately, worrying about your teen’s future 5, 10, 20 years down the road is making it harder for you to access the rational, thoughtful, and emotionally present parts of yourself. The more your anxiety spirals, the further you get from being the kind of parent you need to be: focused on who your teen is in the present.

I know this might sound counter-intuitive because so much of parenting is about thinking ahead and preparing. It’s normal to fear that if your teen’s irrational behavior, irresponsibility, and lack of planning persist, they will turn into a poorly functioning adult. But most of the time, it’s actually in the best interest of your teen, and your own sanity, to focus on their developmental needs and who they are right now.

Children’s growth is a process that includes developmental needs, expressions, and stages. In the case of teens, who are in the throes of massive neurological changes, some of their essential developmental needs are to exercise independence, create emotional separation from their parents, and explore their identities. All of these needs involve a laser focus on fitting in with peers and mastering social relationships. Understanding these needs are the first step in helping them find alternative (healthier, effective, adaptive?) ways to express them.

Let’s say for example your daughter is hanging out with a “fast crowd” known for their experimentation. Naturally, these friendships worry you. You immediately want to prevent her from getting into trouble and are tempted to intercede. Rather than punishing, shaming, or criticizing her, try to understand where she is developmentally right now. What does being in this group do for her? Does it help her feel cool, or like she fits in? Is there a part of her that wants to push limits or boundaries? These are all normal needs for a teen. You might not like how she’s fulfilling those needs, but in order to know how to parent her, you have to step back from your anxiety and look for a logical, developmental explanation.

I’m by no means encouraging you to indulge, excuse, or rationalize away concerns or issues that warrant your parenting attention. I’m suggesting that you use their present developmental stage as a backdrop for addressing those issues. Understanding doesn’t mean endorsing, agreeing with, or indulging your teen. It means validating their intentions, desires, and emotions. We all do things for emotional reasons. If your teen feels like you understand why they’re acting the way they are, their inner world will feel safe and valid. They’ll be more likely to come to you when they’re struggling.

The next time your teen does something that makes your heart pound with anxiety, remember the words of your Lululemon-clad yoga instructor: Be present. Once you’ve reeled yourself back from the edge of your teen’s apocalyptic future and into the present, try these steps.

Identify anxiety’s role in your reaction.
Acknowledge and manage your worry. This can keep it from occupying the driver’s seat of your parenting and help you be more rational. Try saying to yourself, “I know this makes me anxious. I know I worry about the future, but I don’t need to conflate love and worry.“

Consciously indulge your anxiety to understand its roots.
Allow yourself to go to the worst-case scenario. This step ensures that your anxiety doesn’t derail your response to your teen’s behavior. Ask yourself: What is my greatest fear? What’s the worst-case scenario? Does someone from when I went to middle school, or high school come to mind when I think about what my teen is doing? Why do I think that person acted that way?

Validate your teen’s underlying emotions and desires.
This may be the hardest step.  Ask your teen about the behavior you’re worried about while keeping in mind where they are developmentally. Discuss it with them in a neutral way (no snark, judgment, or sarcasm!). For example, if your teen is hanging out with the “fast crowd” you might ask: What is it about x that you like? How do you feel when you’re with x?  Do other people or activities give you this same feeling? Chances are that your teen will dismiss, minimize, or feign interest when you ask these questions.  Validating their needs and inquiring about alternative ways to have them met is a process you’ll repeat throughout their adolescence. Plus, learning self-reflection and self-examination skills now will serve them well in their adulthood.

Your teen’s desires, rather than your fears for their future, need your attention. I’m not making a pitch for limitless parenting, or permissiveness, or “Do whatever you want it will all work out.” But I can tell you that if you’re worried about your teen’s future, shaming them for trying to fulfill a developmentally appropriate need will definitely interfere with their healthy development. Teaching them to berate themselves for their mistakes will simply paralyze them and create more obstacles.

Being mindful, or present as a parent means being tuned into your teen’s current state. Their brain and their experience is not the same as yours, nor should it be. When you make an attempt to meet them where they are, it will smooth the lines of communication and create fewer battles. Approaching their behavior with compassion and understanding will help them gain insight into their own motives and learn how to be compassionate with themselves. It will also help you feel more in control as a parent because you’ll no longer be operating from an emotionally reactive place. Your response to their behavior will become more deliberate, thoughtful, and rational.

So the next time you come out of yoga class and your teen does something that could erase your savasana glow, stay focused on their needs in the present, not your fears for their future. Try to understand why they’re behaving the way they are from a developmental perspective and you’ll build a foundation for a more satisfying future for you both.

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