What did strike me, as I watched this movie with my 11-year-old, was how the point at which tweens and teens (I have one of each) start to separate from their parents and orient toward peers can be painful for caregivers. Like Mei, children need to grow and separate into their own beings, but it can still sting when kids question our parenting and rules. Watching this movie with my quickly maturing daughter reminded me that family growing pains are a good, normal thing.
“A key milestone for teens is the shift from relying exclusively or largely on parents and family members to turning to peers,” says Scott Hadland, chief of adolescent medicine at MassGeneral Hospital for Children.
So how do parents navigate the balance between encouraging and providing support, while also holding feelings of independence loss and uncertainty?
Acknowledge your inner panda
Mei turns into a red panda in the face of heightened emotion. Parents raising adolescents also experience strong feelings of being overwhelmed and confused as they try to navigate different parenting models as their kids change and grow.
“We are trying to create a relationship for which we have no model,” says Lisa Heffernan, co-author and co-founder of the book and parenting community, Grown & Flown. She shared that parents feel uncertain because they often do not want to raise their own kids how they were raised, and also are being told to not be a helicopter, lawn mower or snowplow parent.
While this unstable ground can be hard for parents, Heffernan recommends remembering what is constant across generations: “Think back to being that age. It’s so easy for us to forget that we felt the same strong feelings and focus on friends. It’s not only normal, it’s desirable.”
Set expectations around biological realities
Understanding changing adolescent behavior involves setting expectations based on brain development. While the area of the teen brain wired to seek rewards is fully developed, the areas associated with long-term planning and executive function are not. “It’s normal for teens to have all gas pedal in terms of risk taking, but very little brake to keep their risk taking in check via planning,” Hadland says. The next time your kid pushes your buttons by pushing boundaries, take a deep breath and remember that they are acting based on their brain’s capacity at that moment, and that brain development continues into their 20s.
Earlier onset of puberty is another biological reality to consider. “Teachers often ask me why their 8-year-olds are acting like teenagers. It’s because some kids are going through puberty earlier,” says Rosalind Wiseman, author of “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World” and co-founder of Cultures of Dignity. Talk with your kid early and often about the physical and emotional changes coming down the pike. This will give them the information they need and deserve, and will also help you adjust to forthcoming changes.
Focus on the process, not the product
In “Turning Red” Mei is conflicted by the desire to explore with her peers and also please her mother. “Mei reminds me of the girls in high school who are killing themselves to be perfect, who feel anxious and want to do well to please their parents,” Wiseman says.
Wiseman encourages parents to set reasonable expectations as kids explore changing relationships and try to figure out their place in the world. “It’s difficult for kids to be self-compassionate when they have high expectations, and stress over high expectations can lead to resentful, anxious kids,” she says.
Instead of focusing on metrics and braces, Wiseman recommends supporting kids to pursue meaningful relationships, understand that one’s path is messy, treat people with dignity, be curious, and learn how to contribute to the world in a meaningful way without being a billboard for perfection . “Childhood is not a performance,” she says. She encourages parents to have kids share about their processes, and any struggles, instead of the product. “If adolescents feel that you care more about the product, when things don’t go their way, they won’t talk to you about it.”
Exercise your role as a parent ethically
Focusing on your role as a parent can defuse pressure for a teen. Simple language like, “As your parent, it’s important for me to talk to you about this,” conveys that you are exercising your role as a caring parent, while also making the teen feel less singled out personally, Hadland says.
It’s important to be respectful, particularly given that this generation of adolescents sees people in positions of power not respecting and treating people with dignity, Wiseman says. “It’s not just in the news. They know that adults are advocating at school board meetings in ways that are bullying and mean and disrespectful. They see coaches belittling players.”
Wiseman suggests that in moments of difficult adolescent behavior, the goal is to be an ethical authority figure. “As soon as you hear yourself say things like, ‘I am your mother, don’t speak to me like that!’ you have been emotionally hijacked,” she says. Step back, because productive conversations can’t happen when either or both parties are angry. “Instead, say, ‘I’m not going to speak to you right now the way you are speaking to me. Tell me when you’re ready to talk.’ “And then when you do have the conversation, start by listening to their concerns.
One fear Heffernan sees in her parenting community is a concern that kids will reject their family’s values and the way they have been raised, which is why it can feel difficult to watch kids lean more on peers than on parents. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. They need to be who they are going to be, not a carbon copy of you,” she says. Heffernan recommends picking your battles. “If your kid’s room is a disaster and their hair and clothes aren’t how you like it, but they continue to act on the values your family holds dear — for example, treating others with respect — that’s a win.”
Operate from a place of curiosity and caring
Being curious about your child and creating a space for them to share their challenges is key, Hadland says. If an adolescent storms home and goes to their room, instead of assuming they don’t want to engage or demanding answers, Hadland recommends validating their experience and showing you are there for them. “Knock on their door and say, ‘Hey, it seems to me that something hurt you today because you seem upset. I am here to talk about it when you are ready.’ ” Hadland notes that the moments that feel like classic difficult teen behavior are when they are hurting and need their parents more than ever.
The wait may be messy but is worth it
“Soiling the nest” refers to the phase where teens intensely push parents away to assert themselves, Heffernan says. “They act horrible to push us away, and also because leaving and separating from us is painful for them.” Heffernan repeatedly hears parents in her community report surprise when their kids come home from college for the first time — at how a wonderful adult has emerged from a teen who was incredibly difficult just three months prior. “The speed with which teens come out of the ‘soiling the nest’ phase is shocking,” she says. “They just want us to acknowledge their separateness and adulthood, and then it happens.”
Letting go and trusting kids to find their way is powerful and won’t always be easy. What is easy is taking things personally. “We take challenging moments so personally, but it’s not about us. It’s about their journey to adulthood,” Heffernan says.
At a key moment in “Turning Red,” Mei’s mother says, “The farther you go, the prouder I’ll be.” That stopped me in my tracks as I thought about my two children — one of whom will leave the nest this fall. That right there, I realized, is the goal.
Christine Koh is a former music and brain scientist turned author, podcaster and creative director. You can find her work at christinekoh.com and on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook at @drchristinekoh.
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