Why don't we get a 'parenting teenagers' handbook?
I will make a confession right away. I am not the perfect parent. However, what I have learned as a counsellor does help me to understand and communicate with my teenage children better.
Consider this quote "The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. " Sounds like something our parents said to us? We say about our youngsters? It was actually written by Peter the Hermit in 1274 A.D., some 745 years ago!
The first and most important thing to accept is that teenagers are individuals. They aren’t a different species and they aren’t actually any different to the generations of teenagers that went before them. They are however going through huge biological changes which go far beyond the physical changes we can see. We also need to stop assuming ‘raging hormones’ have taken our teenager hostage.
Research shows that the teenage brain is undergoing huge changes. It is basically being rewired, making new connections between different parts. The rewiring starts at the back of the brain and works its way to the front, so the prefrontal cortex is the last part to mature. This controls planning, making decisions and moderating social behaviour. So when your teen forgets they have to take their PE kit into school (again) or communicates with you using ridiculous noises, chances are they aren’t trying to annoy you. Their brain rewiring just hasn’t quite been refined yet.
Alongside this, another part of the brain, the limbic system, is also changing during puberty. This part deals with emotions such as reward seeking and risk taking. This makes our teenagers really susceptible to peer pressure - they want desperately to fit in. The rational part of the brain doesn’t always step in to tell the limbic system that ‘this might not end well’!
So what can we do?
As adults, we need to help our teens by modelling appropriate emotional behaviour. This can be really tough as their world can seem so alien to ours. I didn’t have to constantly look at pictures of my ‘perfect friends’ with their ‘perfect lives’ on Instagram or Snapchat when I was a teenager. If I fell out with my friends at school, it generally blew over by the next day. Now, social media bombards them with information and social contact 24/7.
They don’t need a lecture or to be told that things were different in our day. They need to talk about their experiences. So make regular opportunities for them to talk - mealtimes, car journeys, shopping trips, watching TV together. Let your teens tell you about their day, their worries, their upsets and their joys without fear of being judged, mocked or belittled. These are real and meaningful experiences for them. Exploring their thoughts, feelings and choices helps them to develop their emotional behaviours. Do this by really listening and working to understand how they are feeling from their perspective. They don’t always want your advice, they probably want your reassurance and understanding though. Above all show that you love them and will support them through the tough times.
Boundaries not rigid rules
Of course we need to have boundaries. Teenagers (like toddlers) constantly push the boundaries and seem to know exactly which buttons to press. But they actually feel more secure with clear boundaries and it is this secure base which lets them explore their new and uncertain world safely. But the “beacuse I said so” rules often have the effect of alienating teenagers rather than curbing their behaviours. Bearing in mind the risk taking, reward seeking behaviours they seem to be hot-wired to carry out, we need to protect them from harm. Talk to them about curfews, drinking, boy/girlfriends, porn etc. Have a two way conversation so they understand your concerns and you understand their perspective. Listen, don’t dictate. ’Laying down the law’ often results in them hiding things from you and leads to a lack of communication. Encourage honesty. Stay calm. Co-created boundaries are easier to enforce and more likely to be respected. Pick your battles - maybe you aren’t keen on the new boyfriend or the multi-coloured hair, but letting them learn from their own choices helps them to develop emotionally.
Let them Sleep
Yes, I know how infuriating it is when your 15 year old sleeps all day and is up half the night! Of course they have to conform to school hours and normal family life but outside of that, maybe we can let up a little. The brain rewiring actually affects their internal clocks (no, they are not just being lazy). They start to find it difficult to sleep before 11pm and wake before 8am. Some schools are changing school hours to take account of this and it seems to help motivation and memory. When it doesn’t actually ‘matter’, why not let them get that extra sleep (I think this falls under the ‘pick your battles’ umbrella).
Be vigilant about their mental health
Many mental illnesses start in the teenage years, as these areas of the brain are developing. The incidence of anxiety, depression, eating disorders and self harm rise sharply in adolescence. Sadly the number of teenagers taking their own lives is also rising. Mental illness, social media, exam pressures, social isolation and substance misuse are all linked to this. Watching your teenager struggling with mental illness can be terrifying as a parent. The temptation to try to fix it by imposing rules or simply hoping they will grow out of it are understandable. However, if you are worried talk your teen about getting professional help. They may well be afraid to seek help themselves.
Teenagers can be challenging but they can also be wonderful company, fantastic role models, funny, brave, strong and inspirational. They are people in their own right and they are our children.
Here are some agencies that offer help:
The Mix (support for under 25s), 0808 808 4994, themix.org.uk
Young Minds, 0808 802 5544 (parent’s helpline), https://youngminds.org.uk
If any of this sounds familiar and you would like to talk, please get in touch.