I recently read a great article by Suzanne Phillips Raising Teens Without Ruining Your Marriage: Three Principles
What I loved so much about is that it highlights a core stressor for couples which is adjusting to the sheer chaos that emerges in relationships as children go through their teens. Whenever I work with couples I always find out in the first session about if they have children and their ages and what is going on for them.
There is a common wisdom that is starting to find scientific support for the view that the influence of parents on children is not a one way street – our kids affect us as much if not more than we affect them. In my clinical experience it seems that as children grow they trigger the unresolved issues from our own childhood from the equivalent age and stage.
What is happening here is that our Baby brain (brain stem) is symbiotic i.e. babies don’t clearly know that they are separate from their parents. This allows parents to imprint language, values, cultural mores onto their enormously open and expansive brain network and these values are received largely uncritically without a real filter. In adults the effect is less powerful due to our more developed Adult brain (cerebral cortex) however the effect does exist.
For example a woman whose father had an affair and left the home when she was five starts finding herself increasingly distressed as her child reaches school age, she stops having sex and they come and see me about sexual difficulties in the marriage. As we explore and make the link with her earlier fear she realises that withdrawing from sex is an unconscious way to protect her from rejection. Now being able to verbalise and voice her unconscious fears it becomes easier to ask and reconnect with her partner since ironically her unconscious self protection is actually set her and her partner up to re-enact history.
Teenagers present a more challenging version of this dynamic because they are grappling with multiple dynamics simultaneously: attachment, distance, sexuality, safety, exploration, limits, responsibility etc. With all these choices at some point it is guaranteed that they will push one or both of their parents buttons often triggering a (hopefully temporary) emotional regression. You can spot this easily enough – simply ask yourself, “Would my behaviour right now surprise my colleagues?” If the answer is yes you probably regressed. The next question is also simple, “How old do I feel right now?” Formost people an age or stage will pop into your mind e.g. I feel like a frustrated 8 year old or I feel like an overwhelmed teenager.
The good news is this – if you recognise this dynamic happening for yourself or your partner you simply need to give yourself or them what the younger self needs. It may be as simple as saying, “I’m too upset to talk to you right now – talk to your Dad.” Take a walk and come back with your Adult brain engaged. If you see your partner being trigger it often helps to breathe and gently touch them – for instance standing close behind them and gently resting your hands on their shoulders (non-verbally letting them know you have their back) – if you are unsure if it worked – ask (a little later) once their Adult brain is back online.