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.
Robyn Stead, Child Psychologist and Educator, lives and works in central Auckland.