How Parents’ Calm Impacts Teen Behavior

The Gift of a Calm Attitude

To successfully launch into adulthood, young people need to develop their own thoughts, clarify their own feelings, and establish their own capacity to make good decisions. We want to offer our tweens and teens secure settings in which they can develop their ability to be in touch with their thoughts and feelings — to construct a positive attitude. These settings must be bathed in calmness. Radical calmness.

How State of Mind Affects Thinking and Feeling

How we think is tightly linked to how we feel. Why? Because we are designed to react to stress. Our physical and emotional stress responses were designed to help our ancestors survive — imagine them in the jungle sensing a tiger attack. They had two choices: run or fight. They chose to run. Their bodies and minds helped them survive. Blood shifted to their muscles and their heart rate quickened to efficiently pump that blood. Their minds went into “react” mode rather than “problem solve” or “feel” mode.

Our mind-body connection serves a purpose. It told our ancestors then and tells us now, when we are supposed to run. No one asked the tiger to sit down and think through the disagreement or to explore its feelings. Not many of us run from tigers anymore. But our stress response hasn’t changed. Modern day stresses have replaced the tigers, but they still activate our survival mode. A key to accessing the parts of our minds that allow us to think, feel, and problem solve, is to distinguish between real tigers and “paper tigers” — things that might stress us out but really pose no threat. From there, we have a chance of getting calm.

These points are especially true for young people whose brains are developing rapidly. Their emotional centers are maturing at a heightened pace making them particularly sensitive to others’ reactions. This partly explains some of the very best things about teens, including their high energy, intense feelings, and raw empathy. It also explains some of their challenges and why they need calm settings to access their greatest thinking powers.

We want to offer our tweens and teens the secure settings in which they can develop the ability to be in touch with their thoughts and feelings. Those secure settings must be rooted in caring and bathed in calmness.

Why Calm Adults Matter to Young People

  1. Emotions are Contagious: Adolescents are highly sensitive to others’ emotions. They feel deeply. Because we want them to think clearly, it is important they have the space for reflection. Let them “catch” our emotions — transferring our calm into their ability to think and feel.
  2. When we Listen, They Talk: Our goal is to have our teens choose to tell us what is going on in their lives. This positions us both to protect them and to guide them towards their better selves. Young people talk to adults who listen. They seek adults who act as sounding boards, who will (calmly) guide them to figure things out on their own. When what they share upsets us, or if we react too strongly, they stop talking. They do it both to spare us from pain, and to spare themselves from drama. When we stay calm, they keep talking.
  3. We Want to Teach Through Discipline: Well-disciplined young people make the wisest decisions and tend to be well mannered and respectful. “Discipline” means to teach, not to control nor to punish. When your teens make a mistake deserving of a consequence, you want them to learn. You want them to understand that consequences directly relate to their actions. On the other hand, if they feel punished or controlled, they feel like a victim and learn little. Or when we discipline while angry, we tend to pick harsher consequences, and they learn little. So, it is critical that consequences are made in a calm, thoughtful manner.
  4. We Want Young People to Problem Solve: Once young people are in late adolescence they have the ability to make decisions nearly as well as adults do. But that is true only in calm settings. Psychologists use the terms “hot” versus “cold” cognition. Basically, this means that how we make decisions and think (cognition) can occur in either a “hot” (emotional or stressful) or “cold” (calm, relaxed, without emotional content) situation. When we remove the emotional responses, we create a better opportunity for logical problem solving (cold cognition). We want our adolescents to develop thoughtful plans in calm settings in the hope that they will carry those decisions out even in challenging settings.
  5. We Want Young People to Consider Consequences: One of the most important developmental achievements of adolescence is the growing ability to link near and long-term consequences to choices. Young people gain the ability to consider consequences as they transform from being concrete to abstract thinkers. Concrete thinkers see things precisely as they are. Abstract thinkers grasp complexity and nuance. They can imagine how a choice made today shapes tomorrow. However, in times of high stress, no one can think abstractly. Survival is a here-and-now concrete need. When we practice radical calmness, we support our adolescents to develop and sharpen their abstract thinking capabilities.
  6. We Want Young People to Have Empathy: We may not always agree with the actions our teens take nor with the choices they make. When we need to correct them, it is important they know it’s because we care about them. When we get upset with them, it is important they know it’s because of how deeply we love them. When they understand the depth of our caring, they can better see our viewpoint and absorb our messages. When we act out of anger, their stress levels rise, and they lose the ability to understand why we feel the way we do. Our emotional reactions can backfire. In their minds, we transform from being the loving parent to the “tiger” readying an attack. Our anger lessens their ability to understand where we are coming from and therefore diminishes our critical influence.

Sometimes You Should React

We didn’t let our toddlers put their hands on hot stoves or wander into the street. We screamed. Yelled. Grabbed their hands. We reacted. And were absolutely right when we did.

There may be times during the teen years that are put-your-hand-on-the stove moments.  React. Jump in. Don’t let your teen get in a car with an unsafe or impaired driver. Worry about regaining your calm later.

All Other Times Model Your Calm

You are a 24-hours-a-day seven-days-a-week role model (like it or not). If you make it look like nothing flusters you, you’re losing an opportunity to guide your adolescent how to manage stress. And you’ll probably be faking it. It is a gift to talk aloud about how you “get to calm.” It’s okay to say, “Right now I’m so upset, that I can’t make decisions or give consequences. I want to think this through instead of just react. I love you. For both of us, I’m going to calm myself down. We’ll talk when I’m ready.” Then, go take care of yourself. Do what you need to do to process your thoughts and feelings. Come back when you’re ready to support your teen to learn to do the same.

Knowing that it is important to be calm, doesn’t make it easy. Not by a long shot. We are suggesting this because it strategically positions us to have the influence our children need us to have as we guide them towards adulthood.

About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional, and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit

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