For parents, the teen years can be nothing short of tumultuous. Teenagers’ intense sensitivity, hair-trigger emotions, and seemingly unhinged behavior can make parents feel as if they have no power in the relationship with their children, or even worse, that they are losing a part of themselves.
“Parenting a teen is a particular type of two-dimensional birth. And just like birth, it involves magnificent pain and equally magnificent pleasure,” writes Christa Santangelo.
While teenagers’ risky behavior can lead to power struggles, it is also an opportunity for parents to look within, confront their fears and transform their life, as well as that of their teen.
In her new book, A New Theory of Teenagers: Seven Transformational Strategies to Empower You and Your Teen, Dr. Christa Santangelo, a Yale trained clinical psychologist with twenty-five years’ experience treating troubled teens, offers parents a wise and comprehensive guide to turn what is often the most challenging time into a time of growth, transformation, and healing.
“It is often the most exasperating teen moments that can be the catalyst that opens new spaces in the parental psyche,” writes Santangelo.
In these moments, parents often realize that those who love us can hurt us the most. Yet Santangelo contends these moments can also be our most powerful healers.
To begin, parents must be willing to grow internally, to expand their sense of self to incorporate those parts of themselves that have been neglected — their traumas, unmet needs, fears, and innate need for connection.
But the only way a teen can learn to tune into her limbic rhythms and listen and respond to her internal needs is through the steady hand of a parent who knows the joy that comes from deep, sustained human connection.
The effects of fostering — or failing to foster — human connection can have widespread implications. Santagelo writes, “If you are alienated from your teen, they may be alienated from the gems of social fabric. And unless you embrace your teen emotionally as they change and give birth to this new (and possibly, in our eyes, strange) creature of a self, you will fail to be their refuge. And we all know the value of refuge in times of great chaos and uncertainty.”
In order for connection to emerge, however, parents must learn to endure emotions. They must learn to confront their shame, guilt, sadness, and anger. Santangelo writes, “Repressing emotions can have negative health consequences, because that denial leaves us without a compass with which to navigate our lives.”
When parents pause to contemplate how interactions affect them and how they are feeling — what is known as the “reflective capacity” — parents can learn to step back from their immediate and intense reactions to their teen behaviors and develop more open, thoughtful, and helpful responses.
One exercise Santangelo suggests is that parents name a feeling that may be blocking their ability to be present with their teen, name a problem that may be related to this incapacity, and make a commitment to a daily practice that will increase their capacity to feel discomfort and grow from it.
It is also crucial for parents to learn to see teens’ behavior in the larger context of their need to exercise their burgeoning independence, feel a sense of autonomy, learn new things, and make mistakes from which they can grow – and the first part of this is paying attention to the extreme reactions they have to their teen.
Santangelo writes, “Often these reactions are the sum of early experiences and emotions. The inner child is a metaphor and tool for identifying this set of primitive or early emotions; listening to this part of you with your adult self is the solution.”
Teenagers require a sort of holding on while letting go, and in the process, challenge their parents to confront their own – often hidden – fears and insecurities. It is a dance where both parties are transformed. As the teenager grows, expands, and becomes his own, a parent must also expand, look within, and confront those parts of herself that have been overlooked.
By discovering the profound purpose that brings them together, new possibilities arise for connection, awareness, and profound transformation. As Santangelo writes, “How you engage with your teens’ troubles can be medicine for your own soul.”
Drawing on her rich and textured multi-dimensional approach, illuminated through the powerful stories of her clients, Santengelo offers parents a paradigm shift in how they parent, live, and love — one that will turn moments of despair and frustration into profound moments of growth and transformation.
A New Theory Of Teenagers: Seven Transformational Strategies To Empower You And Your Teen
Seal press, November 2018
Paperback, 208 pages