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Teens; a Reprise of the Toddler Years

by Kristina Weidenfeller
Friday, September 22, 2023

Twenty-three years ago when I was starting my career in education, I swore I would teach elementary, maybe high school, but NEVER middle school. My first job? Middle school. They’ve been my favorite ever since.

One of the first things I learned about working with teens is that teens are challenging to parent. Parents would come to conferences in tears.  I would try to assure them that everything would be okay.  I would share the one piece of wisdom that I had heard would help: “Keep a toddler picture of your teenager in your wallet.  Anytime you feel frustrated, hurt, or hopeless by what your teen just did, said, or didn’t do, look at the picture, count to ten, and then respond like you would to that sweet little toddler face.”  Although toddler behavior can be equally frustrating, their size helps us remember that they are just learning. Teens are learning too. 

Toddlers and Teens exhibit similar behaviors externally because they are coping with similar conditions internally.  Both ages are experiencing intense growth, physically, emotionally, and intellectually.  Their minds and bodies are exhausted.  Even though both require more sleep to combat the increase in energy expenditure, getting sleep during regular sleep hours can often be a struggle. As a result, being tired, sore, hungry, and overwhelmed, makes every little thing, well, a “thing.” Tying shoes? Too hard.  Eating Breakfast? Ew.  Putting trash in the trash can?  Impossible. As the “things” become overwhelming they may spill over into a tantrum.  Toddlers and Teens can fall asleep anywhere, anytime, or be wired until the wee hours of the morning.  Sleep often occurs following bursts of wild energy or illogical grumpiness. Both groups refuse to be helped and wholeheartedly devalue any suggestion/recommendation/or pearl of wisdom you may want to share. In moments like this, there is no reasoning with a toddler or a teen. Apply food, sleep, and have patience at the ready. 

How are toddlers and teens different?  Teens are too big to carry out of a public place if they have a tantrum.  Teens also have more experience with your “buttons” and a larger vocabulary with which to break your heart, and, because they look more and more like adults, it feels and seems more and more like they actually mean what they say.  A toddler saying, “Go away!” is almost funny, whereas a thirteen-year-old saying the same words feels like a gut punch. 

Toddlers are mainly developing vocabulary to describe their external environment along with physical needs and basic words for their emotions, such as happy, mad, sad, or excited. Teens are trying to learn vocabulary to describe their internal and interpersonal environment such as frustrated, disappointed, nervous, excluded, embarrassed, ashamed, proud, empowered,  capable, independent, and needed.  For teens, understanding their emotions, processing their emotions, and forming their sense of who they are in the world, separate from their family is their “big work.” 

Rapid growth physically and mentally creates confusion in the body. Both toddlers and teens are clumsy while they adjust to their “new” bodies. They tend to be adventurous, exploring their environment fully; including climbing as high as they can, running as fast as they can, carrying the heaviest weight that they can, etc..  It is a way for them to test out their new abilities.  For caregivers, it can be scary.  Toddlers and teens can amass a great deal of injuries and broken items.  As adults, our natural response to a toddler running into something or breaking an object is, “Uh-oh!” but, for a teen, our knee-jerk reaction is often, “What were you thinking?!?” Both individuals are testing the limits of their abilities and the environment, both need grace.  As for what they were thinking? It’s generally nothing, they’re not thinking, they’re trying.  

“Watch me! Watch this!” Toddlers and Teens like to show off what they can do, and they love to tell stories that revolve around their favorite main character, themselves.  With toddlers, the stories may have an element of fantasy, with teens we may call it “an altered perspective.”  In either case, the stories may be long, repeating, and get more exciting as they continue.  Grab the popcorn, get comfortable, and be a great audience member.  They are busy forming those stories that make them, them.  In these moments, remember to face the speaker, make eye contact, nod, and not get hung up on facts, or reality.   

Teens and toddlers are both striving for independence.  Toddlers are looking for more physical independence, doing the tasks that they see the adults in their lives doing like making food, cleaning, and self-care.  Teens are too, but those tasks are bigger and usually done with peers.  For parents, it may be difficult to watch either your toddler or your teen try something new, or do something on their own that they have never done before. What if they fail? What if they get hurt? It happens, and it is how they learn.  They are creating themselves through their experiences, we have to let them have those experiences. If we don’t, they will rebel anyway.  It’s their job to gain independence. 

Finally, a difference that cannot be disputed is that teenagers are being assaulted by their hormones.  Luckily, due to the magic of hormones, most of us don’t remember exactly how horrible it felt (think pregnancy brain).  We think we do, but we don’t. Our brains have chosen to make memories for us that it feels will suit us for “survival.”  We remember things about hurt feelings, toxic friendships, or feeling left out.  Teenagers are social beings and these memories are intended to help navigate relationships in the future.  As humans, happy memories are more difficult to recall, because there was no danger to us. Hormones make everything a little more complicated for teens; hair is growing in weird spots, your body is morphing, and your feelings are only the “really, really” variety, such as “really, really happy” or “really, really, sad.”  In parenting teens, “emotional rollercoasters” are similar to toddler tantrums; stay present, don’t take it personally, and wait for it to resolve on its own before trying to have any follow-up. Their brains are trying to sort it out, without enough sleep or fuel, and amid hormonal onslaught. 

In summary: 

Toddlers  Teens
Intense growth x x
Intense brain development x x
Hunger x x
Exhaustion x x
Big Emotions x x

Developing Vocabulary to describe their world

x x
Figuring out relationships x x
Need our patience x x
Need hugs x x
Need to feel heard x x

Want to show you what they can do

x x
Need extra time for transitions x x
Want help doing it themselves x x
Are totally awesome to watch learn x x
Puberty/hormones! x

For caregivers, watching a toddler or a teen struggle through intense, rapid change is both scary and exciting.  It is difficult to not rush in to save them.  When you have a toddler, you are usually present to see all the events that they are experiencing, and even though you may get angry at the kid that didn’t share with yours, or be embarrassed if your child takes someone’s toy, you are able to take the event in context.  With teens, quite often you are only privy to the perspective they share with you; a story about themselves where they choose to cast themselves as they want to be seen. The feelings you experience will be the same, except you will have a lot less information to act on.  

Caregiving is the hardest, and most rewarding job there is.  Toddlers and Teens need their caregivers’ grace, patience, and presence, so that they, the individuals, can do the work of forming the adult they will be.