A New Theory of Teenagers

Seven Transformational Strategies to Empower You and Your Teen


By Christa Santangelo

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A guide for families to thrive in the midst of the tumultuous teen years — and the culmination of the author’s twenty-five years of experience in both conventional psychology and alternative methods

In her decades of practice and academic research, Dr. Christa Santangelo, a psychologist and assistant clinical professor at the University of California-San Francisco, has seen many relationships devastated by the emotional hurricane that teenagers can inflict on a family. Yet Dr. Santangelo also understands how that conflict can be resolved and a new way forward mapped together between parents and teen. In A New Theory of Teenagers, she gives parents the advice, tips, support, and big-picture overview needed to see the teen years as an opportunities for growth and positive relationship changes. With counterintuitive steps (such as “Endure Emotions”), she offers hope and empowerment. Dr. Santangelo asserts that parents have a far greater impact on conflict with their teen than they may realize, metaphorically handing parents back the power to shift the situation to harmony.

And, Dr. Santangelo does it with a fresh and multi-dimensional approach to the parent-teen relationship by integrating conventional psychology with alternative methods including yoga and meditation-intended to work on building trust, sitting with and understanding emotions, and seeing room for positivity in the midst of it all.



There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

—Zora Neale Hurston

I WROTE THIS BOOK. OR DID THIS BOOK WRITE ME? AS A psychologist trained at Yale, and an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, I specialize in adolescents and their families. In addition to studying traditional methods of psychology (psycho-analytic attachment, cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapy, and others), I have also trained in mind-body medicine: yoga, meditation, and energy healing. After two decades of listening to tales of love lost and love found between parents and their adolescents, I thought I knew something about the parent/child relationship.

So where were all those brilliant philosophies and practices when I got a text from my daughter’s babysitter after a long day with patients? “Your daughter is in the ER. Come quickly.” Heart racing, body in fight-or-flight mode, I flew the few blocks to the local emergency room to find my darling daughter hooked up to every imaginable machine and tube. “Mamaaaaaaaaah,” she wailed as she caught sight of me through the maze of wires and beeping monitors. My mind was racing, and any emotional clarity I had was held together only by sheer necessity and faith. Immediately, I questioned myself. Was it my fault? Why did I have to be a working mom? Bad choice. Idiot. Would she be okay? How much trauma had she endured?

The specter of losing a child may be one of the most primitive fears a parent can face. In small doses it motivates us to be the best parents we can be. In large doses it threatens the delicate relationship we are forging with this developing human in our midst: bringing our own trauma to our child is too heavy a burden for their small psyches to bear. Thankfully, my daughter fully healed after this rope-swing adventure gone awry, with the help of an angelic team of competent doctors. She was fine. I wasn’t!

I wrote this book as much for me as for you. What I have found over the course of treating hundreds of teens and parents is that our teens are our mirrors for our deepest selves. They reflect our fears, our love, and any other emotion we are embodying or projecting. The challenges our teens face are often reflections of our own unresolved dilemmas, whether mild or severe: repressed hurt, unacknowledged insecurities, unspoken anxieties. All of these things we so skillfully bury suddenly become unearthed by the presence of a teen. But by looking inward and employing certain strategies we can empower our teens and ourselves.

Parenting a teen is a particular type of two-dimensional birth. And just like birth, it involves magnificent pain and equally magnificent pleasure. It is also a teen’s job to birth herself and to continue to love herself through the process. As a parent, you may encounter aspects of your budding adult that you find unlovable, whether you wish to admit it or not, and the birth can become complicated. Power struggles, despairing parents, and alienated teens are some of the manifestations of this stifled process. Of course there are moments for appropriate reactions to their annoying, egregious, rude, and otherwise objectionable behaviors. And some teens come by their challenges through their own biology, character, or other means, which have nothing to do with the parent. But I have found these cases to be rare.

My observations have led me to the belief that if parents fail to look within to see where their fears or issues may be complicating the process of their teen giving birth to himself, not only might their teen’s evolution into adulthood become stifled, but they will also have missed an opportunity for transformation in their own life. The challenge is that our fears are often unconscious, so it takes some time and strategic intervention to find them and bring them forward so they do not interfere with our relationships. Ultimately, your teen’s problems—substance abuse, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and even less serious ones like poor communication and existential confusion—are like rich soil for both your child and yourself.

Parenting is a journey with potential for unimaginable rewards. Your teen is learning through experimentation, which often leads to uncomfortable outcomes, from disappointment with friends to terrifying visits to the emergency room. However, with the right, conscious engagement and self-awareness, you, as a parent, can also grow. If you’re willing to traverse to the dark side—the shadow, some call it—of your own heart and mind, and unearth aspects of yourself that may be uncomfortable and even nearly intolerable, new life can be brought to the surface. As a parent, you wish to be in control and to know it all; this helps you feel safe in this daunting endeavor of ushering the life of your precious child. However, it is often the most exasperating teen moments that can be the catalysts that open new spaces in the parental psyche.

Not only do you influence your teen by your very being, by your past, by your internal world, without saying a word, but they, in turn, influence you. As a mother, I have deep empathy for what it takes to be a parent in a way that feels useful to our children and sustainable and growth-enhancing for us.

Dostoevsky said that hell is the inability to love, and I agree. Witnessing the rancor and alienation of parents and teens, whose ties are so deep and potentially nourishing to one another, has a particular sting. Is it possible for members of our own family, our own children, to be so far removed from our emotional reach and even to be deeply destructive? Sadly, we all know that the answer is sometimes yes. There are two sides to this coin: those who love us can hurt us the most; those who love us are our most trusted healers.

The parent/teen relationship, particularly the conflict, is the opportunity for growth. This is what I have learned after nearly three decades of listening to lives unfolded before me, layer by layer. Taken together, some common themes emerge. I have distilled decades of listening and observation into seven transformational strategies that I have seen change lives. This book explains important theories about teen development, describes scenarios that cast light on common parent/teen problems, and offers exercises for developing a better understanding of your teen and yourself. By employing the seven strategies, you can help resolve your teen’s biggest problems and increase your experience of joy as a parent.

The connection between you and your teen requires a new lens. And you, as a parent, require new skills. This book outlines this dialectic process: the growth of your teen, how you create the space for this new birth, and how you change aspects of your self in order to stay connected to this new being. It’s a tall order, being a parent of a teen. So this book is here for you.

This book is also intended to be a “limbic education” of sorts. The limbic part of our brain is responsible for the connection or attachment that makes mammals unique in the way that they rely so intimately and profoundly on each other. It is also responsible for the profound love, poetry, and mystery of the human relationship. The limbic system directs how mammals emotionally dance with and influence each other. This book is about how parents and teens must honor and understand this emotional dance or risk losing the most important bonds they have and also risk losing aspects of themselves.

What this ultimately means is that love—that deep human connection, the ability to know each other and be known—will always trump the pleasures of outward success or anything the brain can devise. It’s just true. What matters is the quality of our human relationships and how they make us feel, whether our hearts are warmed, filled, joyous, or not. So why not figure out a way to really connect and stay connected to this precious being, your child, rather than get lost in the mire of pain and struggle? The latter is so easy to do!

These principles, based in the parent/teen dyad, describe profound findings about how parents and teens in particular affect each other. The relationship is not unlike other close, intimate bonds, but it has the particular stamp of the adolescent: rapid movements from childlike outbursts to mature philosophical clarity, from outrageous despair to exquisite hope, from a vague sense of where they left their backpack to a rock-solid set of beliefs that are their own creation. It’s a dazzling ride! In these pages I offer “teen tips” for parents that I have collected through many years in academic, hospital, residential, and private practice settings, carefully observing what helps teens grow and thrive, and also how they fail. Healing is iterative and takes time, but it’s worth the effort. Healing an alienated teen and their parent is the first step toward healing the collective wounds of the world.

The societal polarities that create suffering in our world—rich versus poor, black versus white, you versus me—are collections of broken bonds that often start in the first unit of human experience: the family. Thus, the most serious pain and the most sustained healing can often be delivered in the familial environment. Almost every political figure who has inflicted unimaginable pain on masses of people has also endured trauma and deprivation at the hands of their family. Unless a bond—a connection—exists, there is no incentive for human change. Thus, the wild seas of the parent-teen relationship provide an opportunity to change patterns on an intimate scale that can then reverberate to other relationships. If I am a mother whose anger at her teen becomes bitterness and separation rather than healing and reconnection, my role as a link in the chain of human-to-human love is lost.

It’s important to note that while this is not a how-to book regarding parenting and technology, there is no question that technology is transforming the parent/child relationship. As we become more efficient—more like the computers on which we rely—how we retain what is uniquely and inexorably human and how we stay connected to our teens are questions that appear in the dilemmas parents and teens often face. We can only go so fast and still retain a connection to ourselves and to others. How to compete with the dopamine hit of the Instagram “follow”? Teens are technology natives; their parents, for the most part, are foreigners. What does this new technological revolution mean for love? And how do you connect with your teen, who is embedded in this environment, when you, no matter how much you embrace technology, are not?

I posit that we need to grow internally—emotionally and spiritually—as swiftly as we are living externally. So as we expand horizontally via the internet and the forces of globalization, we also need to go vertical: this involves pausing to think and feel, it involves meditation, and it involves understanding the role of one’s own unconscious in relationships. I believe that just as there is a technology that governs the internet, our phones, and all things fast, so too is there a necessary process to slowing down and forging sustaining bonds with our children. We ignore these processes at our own peril. I am a devotee, in my personal and professional life, to limbic rhythms—those natural patterns of connection that mammals create that have become largely invisible in the fast world. These include presence, touch, meaningful communication, eye contact, hugs, and empathy. Families and our world require the safeguarding of these activities as our analog becomes digital and children become part of their devices.

We have to come to terms with this and many disjunctions and paradoxes about parenting today. This book will reveal and propose solutions for them. We need to find ways to connect with this world and the teen in it. Does your teen even know that she should slow down? The only way she will know is by the steady hand of a parent who is connected to herself and who knows the fruits of deep, sustained human connection. If you are alienated from your teen, they may be alienated from the human gems of this social fabric. And unless you embrace your teen emotionally, as they change and give birth to this new (and possibly, in our eyes, strange) creature of a self, you will fail to be their refuge. And we all know the value of refuge in times of great chaos and uncertainty.

Thus the ability to cultivate a connection with your teen, which requires inner work, is even more central in these times. They are embedded in the fast, perhaps less authentically connected world of technology, with little inspiration to do it any other way. Here’s an analogy: your teen is on a train with all their friends. The train is going to a destination they will enjoy, and they’re having a good time. But as they travel, they pass many places where, if they were to stop and have a picnic under a tree with you, other aspects of their being might have the chance to emerge. These aspects of self require more time and reflection and the perspective, history, and experience of someone who has been there, someone like you, can offer. This book is about making time to go visit that tree first by yourself, and then giving you the tools to be there with your teen. After all, if you are not connected to yourself, how can you expect anyone else, particularly your adolescent, to be connected to you?

I wrote this book as a kind of letter to myself and to all parents. We have precious little time to influence our children. As my own daughter rebels against me, she teaches me about my mothering challenges, like working too much and being in a chronic rush. Through her mirror, I see when I can pause and seek to grow in myself, whether that means slowing down, enjoying the moments with her, meditating, or revisiting my own childhood hurts. There are always significant rewards for both of us. When I see my therapist to work out my own emotional triggers—the ones only my daughter can elicit—I am giving her the greatest gift I can, which is my full presence as a human so that I do not have to unconsciously invite her to act out what I have decided not to face. None of this is an overnight, quick fix. But you know what they say about anything that’s worthwhile? It takes time.

The philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti wrote that “truth is a pathless land.” These pages are a path of sorts, one marked by the paradoxes that lie at the heart of the parent/teen relationship and the truth that emerges when we can contemplate infinite possibility. Finding the details in enlarging the lens, letting go while holding on, and other practices will reveal the truth at the heart of your teen’s journey and will inspire you to take a look at your own. The theories and encounters I describe are offered as a means of support for you and your teen to heal, grow, and find profound purpose in your relationship with each other.

Sometimes you need a guide so you can guide your teen. These strategies will encourage you to look in some possibly dark and fearful places while someone holds your hand. Some parents might learn how to let go of control and surrender. The mother who is self-critical and a perfectionist might need to see how she can tolerate imperfection in herself so that she can stop criticizing her teen and holding her to impossible standards. The father whose main coping mechanism is alcohol might come to understand that his son’s marijuana addiction may not be solved if he continues with his own addictions. The mom whose body image is a bit shaky might learn ways to love herself so her teen can actualize her gifts and get over her obsession with her own body. The father whose unresolved grief makes him “inauthentic,” according to his son, may have to face his own pain so as to have a renewed and satisfying relationship with his son and with himself.

I work with love lost: transforming broken ties between parents and teens first into connection and then into profound change for both. These pages reflect broken hearts and the medicine for mending them. My mission is to help you expand your soul—whatever that means for you—through moments of illumination, laughter, and tears. My hope is you will recognize yourself in my patients’ struggles and achievements as they embrace grace, gratitude, and acceptance. And my belief is that if you open yourself to this journey, you will turn problems into gifts, love lost will become love found, and you will come to know that your teen is your teacher.




What is to give light must endure burning.

—Anton Wildgans*

THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT THE TRUTHS THAT EMERGE when we are willing to expand, to learn, and to grow in the messiness. It’s about the place where teens’ troubles and parents’ growth converge, and both begin to see the world in a different way. Your teen’s conflict and the particular pain it causes you can lead to either explosive outbursts and ultimate stagnation or genuine change. The parent/teen relationship and the therapist/patient relationship are similar: both are crucibles in which heated activity has the capacity to produce great transformation. The heat that produces change lies in the emotional exchanges—sometimes the harmonious ones, but most often the challenging ones.

Ann came to me with concerns about her fourteen-year-old daughter, Jen, who was failing out of school and cutting herself. Jen had previously been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder; she was now exhibiting signs of depression. But as we peeled the layers back, I came to understand that Ann herself had issues around shame. Raised in a family rich in material wealth and poor in love and connection, Ann inherited a “false self” mantle that drove her to rely on external success and the pursuit of perfection in place of any authentic experience of self. As her daughter grew from a “good little girl,” as Ann described her, to a challenging teen, Ann interpreted Jen’s normal teen behaviors—oppositionalism, sass, moodiness—as a confirmation of Ann’s failure as a mother. Because her sense of being good was so heavily dependent on all things outside of herself, including her children, she experienced what she saw as negative changes in her teen as her fault. Ann’s own parents had been alcoholic and absent, so her conclusion in the midst of her daughter’s challenges was that she herself was not worthy of love.

Shame is this consummate feeling of worthlessness. And shame is like the red wine stain on the white rug: it’s tough to get out. Unlike guilt, which suggests that we feel bad about something we did, shame is about feeling that we are essentially bad. It’s the difference between “I did something bad” and “I am bad.” So every time her daughter did something “bad,” Ann felt the pain of her core wound: I am bad. This reduced her capacity to be helpful to her daughter and instead unleashed a powerful cocktail of anger and blame, which only drove her daughter further into despair—and further away from her mother, who should be her ally at this perilous time of her development. The core wounds of mother and daughter were colliding, and without illumination and strategies to heal, the consequences could be dire for both of them.

Ken Winters, a psychologist who specializes in working with adolescents, describes raising a teenager as dealing with someone whose emotions make them like a “child driving a Formula One race car.”* Unfortunately, in order to experience positive emotions, we must also feel negative ones. They are all connected. That’s why people who become very happy can also become very sad, whereas folks who stay somewhere around the middle tend not to be able to reach either the highs or the lows. Repressing emotions can have negative health consequences, because that denial leaves us without a compass with which to navigate our lives. Medicating our emotions with alcohol, sex, or other distractions may offer a short-term stay against pain, but they come with their own complications.

Studies have shown that suppressing emotions is actually unhealthier than was previously understood. Even if you successfully avoid contemplating a topic, your subconscious may still dwell on it. In a study from 2011, psychologist Richard A. Bryant and his colleagues at the University of New South Wales in Sydney told some participants, but not others, to suppress an unwanted thought prior to sleep. Those who tried to muffle the thought reported dreaming about it more, a phenomenon called “dream rebound.”

Suppressing thoughts and feelings can even be harmful. In a 2012 study, psychotherapist Eric L. Garland of Florida State University and his associates measured a stress response based on heart rate in fifty-eight adults in treatment for alcohol dependence while exposing them to alcohol-related cues. Subjects also completed a measure of their tendency to suppress thoughts. The researchers found that those who restrained their thinking more often had stronger stress responses to the cues than did those who suppressed their thoughts less frequently.

So if just not thinking about our negative emotions and the things that provoke them doesn’t work, what else can we do?

One common tactic for dealing with unwanted feelings is to project our emotions onto those around us—usually our spouse, our friends, or our children. As we soothe ourselves with the narrative of how someone else is the problem, we can count the ways they have wronged us, identify as the victim, or be in a constant rage about the indignities we’ve suffered because of other people. The problem with projecting as a way to handle emotions is that while it does do the job of protecting us against some of our pain, it also alienates the people with whom we wish to be closest.

We also know that the longer we have not faced an emotion, the more difficult it is to shift. One mother I worked with had never spent time alone in her life. She went from her parents’ home to her husband’s to having children, always finding safety in a very close connection to someone. This posed a problem when her twelve-year-old daughter, with whom she’d always been extremely close, started to show the normal signs of pulling away and spending more time with friends. Though she understood intellectually that her daughter needed to strike out on her own, on the inside she was experiencing profound feelings of anxiety and disorientation. So she found herself sending mixed signals to her daughter, flipping back and forth between complimenting her on her independence and making comments intended to make her daughter feel guilty for wishing to spend time with her friends instead of her mom. This woman was at a crossroads: either stifle her daughter’s natural growth, or face what she perceived to be the unendurable loneliness that had lurked inside for her entire lifetime.

For many people, the idea of getting in touch with their feelings is at best unappealing and at worst a form of punishment. I call what I ask my clients to do “work” because it is. And like any effort worth undertaking, the work of feeling what is there to be experienced can yield great benefits. The dad of an eighteen-year-old admitted to a lifetime of suppressed emotion that he described as like the basement where you store all the stuff you don’t want anymore. When his son attempted to speak to his father about his feelings, Dad said he went into a panic: it was as if he’d been asked to do something that was altogether impossible but that he knew was absolutely necessary. Clearing out the basement became a useful metaphor that invited Dad to take the project of getting to know his emotional world—his basement full of stuff—one emotion at a time. For most patients, feeling all the hurts and injustices at once is overwhelming; facing one’s feelings is best done slowly, with a trusted person and in a safe environment.

The resistance to emotion can be subtle or deep, slight or profound. It can show itself in behaviors like parental anger and rigidity, or in depression and an inability to find empathy for our teen. Our unacknowledged stories can have an impact we won’t even recognize until it’s too late—like one mother who told me she’d essentially missed her daughter’s childhood. “I just wasn’t present,” she said. Our resistance to knowing our own pain can also result in more dramatic experiences, like estrangement or ongoing conflict that feels like it has no resolution. If we are raised, for example, by narcissistic parents, we don’t understand how to put our child first. So every need, demand, or challenge feels wrong or like an assault.

I tell the parents I work with that, unfortunately, no matter how emotionally depleted their own childhoods were, it is their job as the grown-up to rise to the occasion and take charge of the healing process. I don’t let the teen completely off the hook either; the growth is in tandem. However, it is the responsibility of the adult to integrate complex emotional challenges and emerge on higher ground. Sorry for the bad news. But it’s not all bad! And it’s not all the parents’ fault.


  • "Dr. Santangelo wisely guides parents and others who work with teens in developing their own strengths for this challenging time. A New Theory of Teenagers is both an innovative and supportive guide for this journey."—Lynn Ponton, MD, author of The Romance of Risk and The Sex Lives of Teenagers
  • "...Inspirational and enlightening ... avoid the 'amygdala hijack' in stressful situations (with your teen)...new ways of looking at age-old interpersonal challenges with teens and important others in our lives."—Thomas Monaco, Executive Director, Experienced Professionals Career Management, Columbia Business School
  • "Dr. Christa Santangelo expertly weaves her vast experience working with adolescence and their parents, her knowledge of research, and understanding of human emotions, thoughts and behaviors to present us with this profound, easy to read and enjoyable book on how best to deal the turbulent teenage years.....This is a must read for all parents!"—Rhonda S. Adessky, Ph.D., clinical director, the Training Center for Mind Body Skills
  • "Parents who are open to alternative healing will appreciate Santangelo's wisdom about parenting teens. Those open to the concepts of mindfulness, meditation, and yoga to connect mind and body will find it to be a welcome resource."—Booklist

On Sale
Nov 27, 2018
Page Count
208 pages
Seal Press


Christa Santangelo

About the Author

Dr. Christa Santangelo, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice and on faculty at the University of California, San Francisco, where she teaches and trains psychiatry residents. Dr. Santangelo has been in practice for twenty years and during that time has utilized approaches to change which include short-term solution-focused work, cognitive-behavioral strategies, analytic, mindfulness-based, and others. She was trained at Yale University and holds advanced training in yoga/meditation and using mind-body approaches to healing.

Learn more about this author