Secure Your Mask First: Why Parents of Teens Need to Put Self-Care on the Family Calendar

By Kristin Beck

One would think that all adults would be experts on teens, confidently dispatching advice, tenderly understanding the rough days. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that we were there. And yet, we wander blindly along with our children into adolescence, unaware of the tests ahead. When the chaos hits (and it will; adolescent hormones will make sure of it), you’ll reach into your quiver expecting to land a bullseye, only to discover there are no arrows. What you’ll find instead is a deflated bag of unprocessed injuries, confusion, good intentions, and maybe an empty Snickers bar wrapper.

Teens are raging, awkward, hormonal, fumbling, permanently embarrassed, hilarious, beautiful monsters. They save their worst for family time, when they let down their guard and dispense with the courtesies they’ve afforded the real world. We ache to help them navigate this time in their lives, only to be reminded that we “don’t get it.” Or worse, that we never got it, that we're failures at life. Meanwhile, we’re inevitably dragging around baggage from our own treacherous teenage years.

It’s a tough ride for everyone.

You talk to other parents of teens, who offer kind solidarity. But just knowing that others are suffering as well isn’t enough to steady you for the rollercoaster ride. So what is a parent to do?

Recall the safety instructions flight attendants review upon takeoff: “If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person.” Why? Because you can’t help anyone else breathe if you, yourself, can’t breathe. The same goes for parenting teenagers. Containing the maelstrom that families find themselves in during the teen years requires patience, compassion, and strength. If we as parents are bogged down by crappy self-talk, bitterness, or rigidity, we will not be on our game enough to properly administer the support our kids need. We need to strap on that mask and breathe deeply before engaging.

The oxygen mask as a metaphor translates as, simply, self-care. What is self-care? It could mean daily walks, or regular check-ins with trusted allies. Prioritizing sleep (however difficult a task that can be) keeps you grounded. Taking the time to journal your way through the intensity of the teen years is useful – and has the added benefit of providing you with a record of the triumphs, for you to return to and celebrate, and the bummers, for you to later unpack if needed. Working with a psychotherapist and talking it out helps. Compassionately asking the difficult questions of yourself – and trying to love yourself through the answers – is a great form of self-care.

Imagine what you’ll be modeling for your kid when you bravely fight to take care of yourself. However you go about it, do it regularly, and do it humbly. Your teen might not notice the difference, but you will. And the next time you catch a violent eye roll or a groan of disgust, it won’t be so destabilizing.