Teens and preteens are challenging, changing, fascinating and tremendously fun to parent. Their views on the world are often very different from their parents and they often see situations differently from the adults around them. Last month I wrote about why that might be. This month I’m focused on some strategies that work to support you and your offspring to enjoy this time. The late Celia Lashlie in her book, He’ll be OK: growing gorgeous boys into good men, advocates providing very clear boundaries against which young people can push but not break through. Within these boundaries she suggests allowing children and teens to make their own mistakes so that they can discover their own limitations. Nigel Latta another author of numerous parenting books and a highly qualified clinical psychologist also advocates a not too tight and not too loose approach. During this time, it’s useful for parents to re visit their rules and expectations to make sure they are still fit for purpose. While a younger child might be expected to come straight home from school, if they are independently travelling, an older child might be allowed some extra time to socialise with friends on their way home.
Opportunities for frequent contact with your child can become more difficult to find at this stage. Gone are the night-time stories, bath time supervision and other routines that allowed you to spend time together. Parents of teens need to look for those opportunities and ring fence them. Dinner time as a family may not be possible every night due to sports, cultural or other activities but prioritize at least a few nights when your family eat a meal together and share how your day has gone. Take advantage of those times when you drive your child to a sporting or other event to have casual conversations.
It is important to be very clear about your expectations in terms of social issues that will be coming into focus for your child. What are your expectations around use of alcohol, drugs, and romantic relationships? Some of these conversations can be awkward and difficult to have but if you don’t talk about them your child will not only be getting this information from another source, they may see you as being unapproachable about these topics. We also deprive our children of a tool they can use if they are facing some peer pressure around a behaviour. The, “My parents said that if I do that I’ll be in big trouble” tool. Our kids need to know that in a difficult situation their parents are prepared to take the fall. The “my mum/dad is such a pain they never let me do that/go there/stay there”, excuse. My top tip for having these conversations is to go in and say your piece and then back away and leave it all to sink in. After a period go back in again and repeat or expand your point. This gives everyone time to digest what has been said and come up with questions or clarifications.
On that note it is also very important to be conscious of our own behaviour. A young person will be watching their parents to see how this adulting thing is done so consider modelling or showing them the behaviour, you are hoping to see your child replicate. Of key importance is that if you do something your regret in front of your child explain that you made a mistake and tell them what you have learned and will be doing differently based on this experience. No one is perfect but it’s what we do once we’ve made a mistake that makes the difference.
Enjoy this time and watch with awe as your child, preteen and then teen develop into the wonderful adults we hoped they would.
If parenting your teen is becoming a real struggle look for other resources for support. The parenting place run sessions specifically for parents of teens, https://www.theparentingplace.com/teenage-years/ your GP, school staff may be able to provide another perspective on the situation, an educational or clinical psychologist can also be helpful.
You are all the proud parents of either pre-teens or teenagers and as you will all be aware this is a time of tremendous developmental change. As a psychologist I’m fascinated by this period of change and am curious about the reasons for these behaviours. As a parent I was probably as bewildered and confused as anyone about what was with my teenagers.
Understanding what’s underlying and driving some of these confusing behaviours can be helpful in developing useful parenting strategies.
Developmentally adolescents are on the next stage in their journey towards becoming independent adults. Moving from being totally dependent on their parents as babies and toddlers towards developing the skills that will allow them to live independently. Teenagers are renowned for pursuing excitement, novelty, taking risks and preferring the company of their peers to parents and other mature adults. These traits can make them challenging to parent and war stories of difficult teenagers abound.
Neuroscience has been able to tell us that adolescent brains have already reached 90% of their full size, so it’s not that teenagers are lacking in brain cells. However, during adolescence the brain does a tremendous amount of re organising which slowly progresses over the teen years and into the early 20s. The advantage of this re organisation is that brain processes become much speedier and more reliable, but this comes at a cost of some flexibility, we lose the ability to so easily add to our behavioural repertoire. If we consider language acquisition, we know that babies are born with the ability to learn any language they are consistently exposed to. As we grow and develop our understanding of our primary language/s it becomes more difficult to learn an additional language. We do become much speedier and more efficient at understanding our primary language, but it comes at the cost of flexibility to add new languages.
These behaviours of seeking excitement, novelty and risk and preferring the company of peers are all symptoms/evidence of a much more flexible brain that serves the purpose of allowing teenagers to move into new and challenging situations in a way that many of us adults would hesitate to do. Hopefully with some more insight into why teenagers do what they do we can better choose parenting strategies that can support this transition into adulthood smoothly and with a little less conflict. Parental involvement that allows independence while providing the reassurance of connection is likely to be the most successful approach.
Next post I’ll be talking more about specific parenting approaches that work well.
Last post I talked about defining the problem, setting family/whanau expectations about school attendance and began to think about solutions. This month we can look more closely at how to put a plan together to help.
Starting the night before, ensure everything is organised for school uniform is clean and can easily be located, lunch is planned, homework is completed and packed into the school bag along with sports gear or other items needed for the next day. Parents could check the school calendar and highlight something fun that is coming up in the future. It’s important that parents model or demonstrate to their children that they believe school is a great place.
Get the bedtime routine started so that lights out can happen in time for a good night of sleep. In the morning, ensure that everyone is up in time to complete the morning routine so that getting to school on time is easy.
It’s hard to overstate how important it is for young people to get to school on time. The time before formal lessons begin is critically important for children to get themselves settled for the day. They have opportunities for socialising with their peers and with their teachers, they often have time for a quick game outside so they can get rid of any nervous energy that might have built up in the morning. The school day undoubtedly goes better if you arrive at school prior to the bell to enter classrooms for formal learning.
Some strategies that you might want to consider as you develop your plan are:
· Including some exercise in the morning routine. Exercise especially outside is a great way to burn off any nervous energy that has built up and supports us to regulate our emotional state. This could be as simple as taking the dog (if you have one) outside for a short walk or run around in the garden, walking, biking or scootering to school. If you live at some distance from school think about dropping your child a few streets away from school so they can finish the journey on foot.
· Help your child to plan to meet a friend or arrange to be dropped off at a friend’s house to travel to school with someone else.
· Sometimes a change in the routine can be helpful, especially if there is a bit of a pattern developing which starts at some point in the daily routine. A simple example of this could be that if your child starts talking about not wanting to go to school as they sit down to their bowl of cereal you could start the day with them cooking breakfast or lining up the cereal with milk, yoghurt, dried fruit and nuts to sprinkle over allowing them to create their own tailored bowl of cereal.. Another idea in this line could be that if mum usually does the morning routine you could try dad taking over for a few days or try getting a shower in the morning if you usually do that in the evenings. I like to suggest taking a playful approach to doing this so that if something doesn’t work then you can try something else.
· Another very helpful strategy is to ensure that your child has a plan once they arrive at school or for during the challenging times. If they need help with this, you or your child could ask if the class teacher could provide some ideas and support. This could involve knowing that they can go straight to class and help with a job like taking chairs off tables, opening windows, organising sports equipment then meet with a friend for a game either inside or out or going to the library or a quiet spot in the classroom to read. If the tricky time is during an academic subject, they could talk with their teacher about how they might ask for help in a way that suits them. If the tricky times are lunch or morning tea plans can be made to pair a student up with a buddy or to find activities that suit their specific needs.
School refusal is something that is best managed proactively so if your child says they don’t want to go to school, take a few minutes to chat with your child and help them think through how you can make a change to that thinking so that instead they are positive and even enthusiastic about attending school. Please contact your child’s teacher or me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if this is becoming a bigger issue for you and your child than can be solved on your own.
Robyn Stead, Child Psychologist and Educator, lives and works in central Auckland.