“Toddlers and teens are the same.”

Part of an occasional series about phrases that this therapist finds himself repeating, often.

As a clinician in private practice, one of the phrases that I frequently hear myself saying is this: “Toddlers and teens are the same.” Normally this comes up with those who are attempting to parent an adolescent, being frustrated by them, and feeling at a loss as to what to do.

I ask them to think back to what it was like to parent a toddler. For those of us who have passed this stage, we may have some fond memories of their first artwork, the sweet hugs, walking then running. Now because we are not in the middle of that stage, we can see the good in it.

But, when you are the midst of parenting an adolescent, all those “cute” efforts at independence such as “I do it” and “NO!” and “I want ______!” are … much … less … endearing. The typical adolescent's language is a lot more, uh, colorful too!

So let’s step back into our “best parenting self” and remember what the toddler is trying to do:

Toddlers are trying to establish independence.

One of the reasons that “no” and “I do it” become favorite phrases for toddlers is because they are beginning to feel that they are a separate self. For so long they were held by another, fed by another, toileted by another. So much about their bodies and movement was limited. As they have begun to walk and talk, they are working to extend their independence.

So you see that toddler stretch out, maybe even walk away, but typically with an eye back to make sure that the safety of a parent is there. Your teen is not that much different than a toddler in this way.

Let’s think about this through some examples of favorite toddler phrases.

“I do it!”

Toddlers really want to show you that they are competent, able beings. Yes, it may be quicker and easier for you to tie their shoes or get them dressed. Yet they are well aware that they need to begin doing these things. So when parenting a toddler, we should adjust our expectations to allow extra time for “I do it” to emerge and run the show for a bit. This is a struggle for the toddler to show their ability.

So when you are parenting a teen, remember that they too need to be able to display their abilities. This works best when the task is challenging, but not excessively so. You should not be SO invested in the outcome that you will be angry or upset if it does not get done or is not done to your specifications. Think back to when they were a toddler. We understand that they are learning; they are NOT finished adults.

“Mine!”

“Mine!” is about boundaries. The toddler is separating what is theirs versus someone else’s. At some point, toddlers realize that there is a scarcity of toys, of food, of crayons. They are also beginning to have a sense of their own self as something separate from the parental self and any other “selves” running around them. This is a time to teach sharing with others, but it is also a time to have a healthy respect for their boundaries too.

Teens are doing something similar in that there is once again a struggle with where they start and the parent stops. These efforts at a separate self tend to manifest around ideas, music, and clothing. So with a teen too, we approach this with some teaching, but also gentleness.

Remember that it is not your job to squash that fragile self, but to help it grow.

“I go! or I want!”

The toddler sees this outside world and wants to explore it. That is a good thing! They do not have the anxiety that we tend to have as parents where we worry about all of the “what ifs” and possible scary outcomes of that exploration. So as much as possible, we should facilitate that exploration.

With adolescents, that gets scarier. It is one thing to make room for a toddler to explore, but the teen wants to explore everything. But once again we think back to how we handled the toddler. We allow them to explore, but within a defined space. Take a lesson here that with your teen it is important that they get a chance to reach out into the world, but within some clear, healthy, safe guardrails.

“NO!”

This is an important one for a toddler, the ability to say “no”. And while there are certainly times whereas parents we have to override that “no”, we should try as much as possible to honor it. Remember that our response to their “no” teaches them whether their wants and needs matter. This is also foundational to their own feelings about their bodies and their ability to say “no” here too.

For the teen, the ability to say “no” is important too! We may not like the “no”. There may be consequences to that “no”. But doing our best to respect their expanding boundaries is important as they go out into a world where there will be lots of other people who attempt to override their “no”.

Finally, we should also remember that when our adolescent is upset, there are some parallels there too. Toddlers need regular meals. They need to play and rest. Teens often need just as much rest/sleep as a toddler!

And sometimes teenagers need the comfort of being held. Granted that “holding” may not be physical at this stage, but can still be the warm, relational, quiet presence of a receptive adult.

clinical social worker, spiritual director, author, husband, father, son, runner in Georgia, co-author of When Anxiety Strikes from Kregel Publications.

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