The Teen Years, Intensified

It’s official.  I am the parent of a teenager.  Correction:  I am the parent of a gifted teenager, which means all the basic teen stuff times three hundred and fifty-two.

Many of us think about parenting a teenager (particularly an intense teenager) and we instinctually groan, fill with dread, or cower in the corner.  In fairness, I’m only 1 week into parenting a teenager, so my story might be different if you were to talk to me in 2 years, but right now, I can honestly say I am super excited for my son’s teen years. 

I think teens get a bad rap.  Yes, they have hormones coursing through their bodies that can make them act a little erratic from time to time.  Yes, their priorities start shifting and they have the potential to make decisions with some pretty big consequences.  Yes, their eyes roll and their snark takes on a new level of intensity.  But, when we understand them and see the delights of this stage, all of those things are tolerable at worst and maybe even a little endearing from time to time.

Teens have an important developmental job.  They are learning to think for themselves and to separate from the adults in their lives to map out their own journeys.  The teen years allow our kids to come into their own and play with their identity.  This can be painful and cause chafing from time to time, but ultimately, if we can be mindful of their ultimate job, we can better embrace and support their journeys.

Luckily, our gifted kids often give us ample experience parenting teen-like behavior before they even come close to the teen years.  The negotiating and arguing and thinking for themselves that parents of typical kids experience during teen-dom often starts when our gifted kids are 2.  Or 1.  Or at least by 5.  This makes the teen years a bit easier because we’ve been practiced in the art of negotiating and explaining our rationale.  Many of our gifted kids force us to listen to their voices from a very young age, so by the time they are teens, we know how to validate them in ways that other parents may not.

Also, our gifted kids tend to be more self-reflective than more typically wired kids.  This can work to our advantage.  They may have a keener awareness of their strengths and limitations, their desires and goals.  Our job is to listen, provide guidance from the sidelines and when asked, provide opportunities for them to expand and grow or focus on their own path and interests.

Teen years go smoother when we fully accept our kids and their important developmental job as it is. 

They suddenly declare themselves pescatarian?  Support them in that.  You don’t need to alter your own diet if you don’t want to, but you can help them learn recipes, meal planning, and cooking to enhance their chosen lifestyle. 

They spend most of their time in their room?  Ok.  Let them.  Many of our gifted kids are introverted and their need for alone time and space may magnify during the teen years.  If you provide a loving and accepting environment, they will reappear in the living room at some point.  On their time.

They want to quit band, dress all in black, and dye their hair?  Why not?  Are these really battles worth fighting?  Allowing our teens to experiment with different identities while they still live between our walls ensures they have a soft crash pad if it all falls apart.

Model effective problem solving and executive skill development with them.  Help them lay out the advantages and possible consequences of a particular choice and then (barring genuine life or death safety concerns), let them decide their next step.  Let them fail.  Tolerate your own emotions as you watch them face the consequences of their choices.  Let them surprise you in their successes.  Greet them with compassion through it all.

Dig into the deep existential questions they voice and ponder.  Ask them the deep existential questions.  High school can be rough for these kids because they tend to be concerned about more global issues than who is dating whom and what Joe said at the party last week.  Give them space to explore those questions and help them find other intellectual peers, of any age, to explore those questions with when dad just isn’t the person they want to do that with anymore.

Embrace their sense of peers.  If they’d prefer to hang out with people in the mid-twenties who are also into the visual arts.  Let them.  A big chunk of identity forms in relationship to and with others.  Teens can be peer focused, it’s their job, but help your gifted teen broaden the understanding of peer and hook into the places that will most likely provide them those intellectual peers.

Encourage respectful discourse and self-advocacy.  Teach your teens the skills to voice their opinions and needs in ways that they will actually be heard and draw people into conversation rather than push people away.

Use this time to model pursuit of your own dreams, goals, social justice.  The teen years can be a great time to re-engage with your own passions or try on new passions.  Model to your teens what proper self-care and self-expression looks like.

And, above all, choose your mindset.  Yes, the eye rolls can be annoying, or they can be loved.  Some days my husband and I have an internal contest to see who can get the most eye rolls in a day.  (I won, by the way.  I’m masterfully skilled at being the embarrassing mom.  Just use teen slang and you’ll win at the eye roll game, too!).  Approach your teen and this stage of your life with lightness, love, compassion, and understanding.  Allow yourself to be excited to watch who they are becoming.  It really is a pretty exciting time.


This article originally appears as part of the WI Association for the Talented and Gifted (WATG) monthly newsletter.  Check out more about what WATG is doing, here, or, in the US, learn more about your own state's gifted organization.