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Why parents can’t understand their teens

I just googled the search term ‘why parents can’t understand teenagers’. The results were interesting. First of all, Google wanted to make sure I didn’t mean ‘why parents don’t understand teenagers’. I didn’t. But searching for the reason why parents can’t understand teenagers, I only came across reasons why they don’t. And in the top ten of search results, there were also some sites with complaint from teens that their parents ‘just didn’t understand them’.

But you see, it’s not just a matter of not wanting to understand, or not trying hard enough. It’s also a matter of not being able to. And that has to do with our emotional memory.

Can you remember what it felt like to be a teenager?

Did you know there was such a thing as an emotional memory? It’s a memory of the feelings and emotions you were experiencing at a certain moment, the thoughts you had at a particular time. As it turns out, our emotional memory is usually limited.

Just see for yourself: take an old photo album of yourself, for instance with pictures of you as a teenager. You will probably remember the event at which the photo was taken and some of the facts, but can you recall how you felt at that time, what emotions you experienced? You’ll find that you probably can’t, at least not from too long ago.

It’s one of the reasons why parents can’t understand their teenagers, because they honestly can’t remember what it feels like to be a teenager. They have forgotten their own emotions, thoughts, and feelings from that period, they can’t remember their self from that time.

In this really interesting book called Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain’s Potential, Richard Restak M.D. discusses how you can unleash your brain’s potential. He’s a renowned neuropsychiatrist and has written 18 books till date on the brain. He’s the one who introduced me to the concept of emotional memory. Here’s what he writes about emotional memory and intergenerational conflicts:

For instance, although all of us have gone through the turmoil of adolescence, very few of us can reexperience the accompanying emotions that we felt at the time. This failure is at least partly responsible for intergenerational conflicts. As adult men or women, we can no longer imaginatively reexperience via emotional memory how we felt decades earlier. We lack the ability to ‘enter into’ the dreams, insecurities, and desires experienced by a teenage son or daughter.

I’m a parent, but my son is only three, so I have no firsthand experience of parenting a teen. But I have felt sometimes that I had less trouble understanding teens than their parents did. And this book made me think why that is.

As youth workers, we are constantly around teens and students. When I read about this concept of emotional memory and how that affects parent’s ability to truly understand their teen, I was wondering if it’s the same for youth leaders. Dr. Restak shows in his book that your brain can be trained, including your emotional memory.

I know I think a lot about my ‘teenage years’ and try and recall situations and events constantly, for instance as illustrations in sermons (I had great success once with showing a picture of me and my first boyfriend…). Are we as youth leaders unconsciously training our emotional memory, which helps us to understand teens better than their parents can? It’s an interesting thought, no?

Either way, grasping the concept of emotional memory may help us to accept that parents aren’t always able to truly understand what their teens are going through, simply because they have forgotten what being a teen is like. It seems that the eternal ‘you-just-don’t-understand-me’ complaint from teens has some merit after all…

What do you think of this theory? Have you ever experienced not being able to understand teens? Do you agree with my thought that youth leaders might have an easier time because we train our brains to remember? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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0 thoughts on “Why parents can’t understand their teens

  1. I am absolutely going for this I am a teen and going through troubles with my mom and i absolutely think that is the problem……..she has totally forgotten that she used to be a teen also…..she is forgetting the troubles her mom used to have with her.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Ashley! It’s tough isn’t it, to get your mom to understand you.You know what you could try? To explain how you feel to her, not in anger but at a moment where you feel calm enough to explain it to her without getting angry. Or write it down so you can think about the words. Just tel her what goes though your mind, how you feel. And try and talk to your mom about what life was like for her when she was a teen. Get her to share some stories and memories, maybe even look at some pictures together. It might help her to get some emotional memories back and thus make her understand you better.

  2. Thanks for posting this. But I’m not even sure IF my mom ever had those fun times when she was a teen because my grandma raised them to be proper women and stuff like that and she keeps going on about how they just concentrated on school and stuff.
    And one time I asked her if there were times where she just hung out and had fun with her friends and she told me she never did haha.

    1. Sorry, I had to laugh a bit at what you wrote 🙂 Maybe your mom did indeed not have fun times because she was raised in an environment where this wasn’t possible or allowed. Then that’s something to actually feel sorry for because she missed out on some wonderful experiences that are a part of being a teen. Maybe some understanding from you could help her in this? It does make it more difficult for her to understand you though, I can see that…

  3. My moms problem is very diffrent .she doesnt understand me when i need help ,but the problem i have with her is that shes allways seeing just bad things at me.she thank me maybe 3 times and I had to remind her.she is neverrrr seporting me and i dont know what to do baecuse my dad isnt realy by my side.he just want me to be perfect

    1. That sounds like a really tough situation Lea and I’m so sorry for you. It’s hard when you’re a teen and your parents don’t have your back and I can understand that makes you very sad and frustrated. Would you like to talk to someone maybe, see if someone can listen to you and help you? If you want that, just send me an email at and I’ll set you up with a youth worker to talk to, okay?

  4. […] written about this before, but emotionally parents really can’t understand their teens. The way our brain is wired makes it pretty much impossible to remember feelings, so we can’t […]

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