• Why Teens Act Out and How to Stop It—Mighty Parenting 210 with Dr Cam

  • teens act out

    We parents often call the teen years the most difficult stage of raising a kid; they come with everything from backtalk to door slamming, skipping curfews, arguing and emotional outbursts of all kinds. Our teens act out, and it’s tiring and frustrating and it feels like we say one thing and they hear something completely different. Dr. Cameron “Cam” Caswell and Mighty Parenting podcast host Sandy Fowler discuss how to use values-based parenting and the CALM technique to help us understand where our teens are coming from and how we can grow and learn together instead of trying to consistently fix or correct their behaviors.

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    A Favorite Quote from the Show: 

    We spend a lot of time trying to mold our kids into who we want them to be. This can blind us to who they really are.

    High Points From Our Conversation on Why Teens Act Out:

    Quote on why teens act out

    Teens are the most misunderstood age group on the planet. We expect them to be looking at and experiencing the world from the same lenses we are and have—but they aren’t.

    Teenagers are still developing. Their brains are still developing, their bodies are still growing, and they see the world through much more emotional lenses than we do as adults.

    When we go through a distressing or stressful experience, we have experience of prior similar situations to fall back on. To think, Well, this is awful, but I’ve survived this before, and it’ll get better. Our teens don’t have that experience to backstop them in those kinds of situations yet.

    Between the physical and mental development, the lack of emotional regulation, the emotional lenses and the lack of experience, our teens act out in big ways to situations that don’t seem like a big deal to us. Their problem-solving and critical thinking skills aren’t fully developed yet either, so they run into an issue and immediately make it huge.

    They feel like we don’t get it, like we don’t understand just how serious these issues seem to them (whether they are serious or not), and they tell us so. We then perceive these behaviors as disrespectful, rude, et cetera; our teens get lectures or discipline in response to trying to communicate and get more frustrated, and the entire situation just spins out of control.

    We have the same fight or flight stress response as our teens. When we hear a tone or perceive pushback, we get triggered. We start disciplining and setting boundaries in a defensive response to what we see as a challenge to our authority as a parent.

    Actually, much of the time, our egos trip us up a bit when our teens act out. We put a lot of weight into our teens’ behaviors as indicators of how well we’re doing as parents. Their success is our success and we reflect that back onto ourselves.

    We become very reactionary and the extra emotion in the situation just adds gas to the fire. Our fight or flight gets sparked and goes up and we get more emotional and that’s a state that’s hard to come down from—and that’s with our fully developed pre-frontal cortex and previous experience. Our teens don’t have that and we get mad at them for not calming down when we’re making it harder for them to calm down.

    The louder and more emotional we get while telling our teens to calm down, the more difficult it’s going to be for them to even try. As an aside, have you ever actually calmed someone down by yelling “calm down!” at them? Doesn’t usually work. It’s like telling somebody to stop the car while you’re hitting the gas pedal.

    We have these expectations as parents, that our kids are going to just agree with what we say and be cooperative and not have their own opinions and not push back and just take our word for it. But they’re human beings. They don’t do that. We don’t ultimately want them to do that because we don’t want to raise people that go out in the world and get manipulated by everyone.

    Something we have to realize is that our teens are coming at these situations from their own perspective with their own thoughts and feelings. And when we try to forcefully verbally control them, we threaten their own sense of control and autonomy and then our teens act out. We read that as disrespect, and they read it as controlling, and nobody sees eye to eye in the situation, even if everybody wants the same thing—we don’t want to yell or nag, and our teens don’t want to get in trouble. We’re just approaching the issue from two different directions.

    The traits we want in an adult are actually very annoying when they’re minors, especially when they’re young. We want them to be independent, strong, follow their own directions, defend their own morals and decisions, and question other people.

    We spend a lot of our energy trying to mold our kids into who we need or want them to be. This can blind us to who they really are. 

    We end up butting heads with our teens when we’re trying to mold them into people that can fulfill their potential, but forgetting that they’re their own people, and they see these attempts as an inability to accept them as they are now, that their value to us is in their compliance with our rules and expectations. Then they start resenting us, often shutting down on us, and reaching out to others who they feel will accept them.

    How do we get on our teen’s side? How can we communicate—through words and actions—that we are on their side, that we want to be on their side and open the environment to them and help them grow without controlling all their growth? How can we be sincere, so they actually feel we mean what we say?

    We have to work hard at matching our actions to our words, because a lot of the time, they don’t (whether we realize that or not). 

    Dr. Cam breaks this down into a technique she calls CALM. Four habits that parents can develop to create a genuine connection with their teen:

    C – Curiosity
    • Be curious about your teen
    • Focus on why they’re doing/not doing something rather than the behavior
      • When we address the why, our teen’s need, the behavior doesn’t have to exist anymore, as it was a protective mechanism or a coping mechanism for the need
    • Focus on who your child really is and on what they love
    A – Accountability
    • Take accountability 
    • Instead of focusing on your teen, focus on yourself
    • If parents show up and act differently in a situation, then the teens will also act differently
    • “I don’t like the way my teen talks to me. What am I doing that’s triggering them to talk to me that way?”
    L – Long Game
    • Play the long game
    • Identify your core values and focus on those
    • Get your kids involved in defining those core values 
    • Check yourself to see if you’re being true to them
    • If you’re butting heads, ask yourself, why are we butting heads? How can I help my teen succeed in this situation?
    M – Mindful
    • Practice mindfulness
    • Be present and aware of how you’re showing up
    • Our lives don’t always reflect how important our kids are; they end up getting what’s left of us instead of the best of us
    • As you change how you’re showing up to situations with your kid, as a change in your perspective or speech or behavior works, move on and expand to changing something else

    Every teen wants a better relationship with their parent, but often teens don’t believe their parent wants a better relationship with them. Teens act out and think they’re broken because we spend so much time trying to correct or fix them. Let them lead. Let them teach. Let them take responsibility. Let them stumble. Let them get up. It’s okay to fail because it’s an opportunity to learn.


    The Surprising Reason Your Kid Is Acting Defiant and Difficult | Bill Beausay | Episode 58 

    When Your Teenager Is Pushing Your Buttons | Hunter Clarke-Fields | Episode 121

    Dr Cam’s tips

    Dr Cam’s podcast  

    Our Guest Dr. Cam:

    Dr. Cam discusses why teens act out

    Cameron (Dr. Cam) Caswell, PhD, the “teen translator,” is an adolescent psychologist, family success coach, host of the Parenting Teens with Dr. Cam podcast and Parenting Teens Power Hour, and is the author of Power Phrases for Parents: Teen Edition. For over a decade, she has been helping parents build strong, positive relationships with their teens through improved communication, connection, and understanding using her PRIME Parenting Framework. Dr. Cam is the mom of a teen too, so she not only talks the talk, she walks the walk!

    To learn more or connect with our guest visit www.askdrcam.com.

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