The teenage years are said to be some of the most challenging ever for families, let alone the adolescents themselves. With hormones raging and the desires for independence and belonging conspiring to create havoc, it can be tricky knowing what will benefit or hinder your relationship. Our tips can help you steer a course through these years of change.
Spend time together
This is paramount. Research shows that young people who regularly sit around a table with their parents are more resilient and have better social skills. This is because they learn how to talk about controversial subjects without getting angry.
Education and parenting consultant Gill Hines says that, as well as regular meals, it’s wise to mark special occasions to keep your child feeling part of the family. She says, “As teenagers get older, they might want to spend New Year’s Eve or Christmas Eve with their friends. Be clear about which events this is OK for, as you don’t want them to lose touch with the good things that come with being part of a family.”
It’s interesting to note that when people – both adults and teens – are asked to list the top ten moments when they were happiest, happiness expert Andy Cope reveals, they mention shared experiences with loved ones, not products or consumer items. Cope says, “Ultimately, the biggest tip for parents and their children to be happy together is to have shared experiences. Do things together.”
Cope also advocates plenty of hugs. “For a hug to really count, it has to last seven seconds for the emotional contagion to work. When your teenager comes home from school, don’t just grab them for a quick hug; grab them for seven seconds and squeeze! They might moan to start with, but not after seven seconds, because they’ll have melted.”
Communication forges bonds. Hines recommends talking in the car because you can do it without eye contact, which boys prefer. Girls are more partial to chatting in cafés.
Talk about all kinds of things – not just school and behaviour. Ask their advice occasionally. This shows them that they can solve problems, which creates new neural pathways in the brain. Hines stresses, however, that you must stay a parent. “Don’t try to be a friend. Your job is to maintain boundaries, guide and provide unconditional love. Friendship comes later when they are an adult.”
But what can you do if your teenager prefers sulking to speaking? Consultant clinical psychologist Emma Citron warns that it’s vital not to dismiss negativity as hormonal. “If they are moany or sulky, then there’ll be a reason for it,” she says. “Even if that reason might not seem important to the parent, it is to the teenager. So listen to them, talk to them about it, support them.”
Another tip is to offer sympathy without advice. Hines explains. “If they come home from school and say, ‘Ooh, she said this. And he did that’, the best thing to do is not offer advice but just say, ‘Oh, poor you, that sounds absolutely awful.’ Sometimes they just want your sympathy. If you keep trying to fix things, they’ll stop telling you stuff.”
Nip bad behaviour in the bud
Habits started during the teenage years can become lifelong problems. So what can you do if your teenager’s behaviour is challenging?
Hines advocates allowing “a certain amount of attitude” because young people have trouble reading emotion. But abusive language is unacceptable. “If they’re being rude or hurtful, first of all you stop them. Then, in a calm voice, you let them know how that made you feel and why. There’s no point in criticising something that’s already done. So advise for the future. Say, ‘I really don’t like what you just said. It hurt my feelings. I know you’re having a hard time right now [to show some empathy and kindness], but next time I talk to you when you’re reading a book, perhaps you could talk to me in a more polite way, so we both feel good at the end of it.’”
Janey Downshire, co-author of Teenagers Translated: How to Raise Happy Teens, believes that underlying emotional need frequently drives behaviour. The parent’s response will escalate or deflate the situation. “Don’t ignore the child or pander to the behaviour, but be counter-intuitive,” she says. “If they’re angry, be calm. If they’re frightened, be anchored, like a rock. Their regulation dial will regulate down to the adult they’re engaging with.”
Clinical psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew recommends re-framing what you see as “bad”.
“For example, being stubborn is also being determined,” she says. “Can any of your teenager’s habits be seen in a different light? For behaviours that you find totally unacceptable, be firm and consistent with them when explaining why.”
Andy Cope says it’s important for teenagers to go to school with their brain alert, which means sleeping well and having a purpose. “When you’re happy, your brain switches on. It’s more creative, it can see solutions.”
He adds that sometimes it’s hard for teenagers to see the usefulness of school. “So we do this exercise in schools where teenagers have to write down in one sentence what they want the outcome of their life to be. We ask them to write it on an A4 piece of paper and stick it on their bedroom wall, so it then becomes their purpose for going to school.”
Cope recalls meeting a Year Ten pupil in Leicester in the UK, who was biding time until working for his dad as a lorry driver. “But we came along with this exercise and it completely switched him on. He’s now at Bristol University studying medicine. He’d never, ever considered that before.”
Hines warns against nagging about homework, though. “It’s a killer. You have to get them to want to learn. You do that by encouraging their aspirational thinking.”
One of Hines’s clients has a 14-year-old son who was doing badly at school. “One of the things we talked about was where he saw himself in ten years, and then again in 20 years. He didn’t have a clear career path, which is quite right and proper for a 14 year old. But what he wanted from his life was to be doing something where people could see him. So we then chose several celebrities that he really liked and we looked at their life histories. And what we saw was that these people had worked hard to get where they were. He’s since knuckled down.”
Encourage exercise and hobbies
Exercise has myriad benefits for teenagers. Well-known educationalist and historian Sir Anthony Seldon, author of Beyond Happiness, believes that most teenagers don’t get enough exercise or sleep.
“They need to be having three periods of exercise every week for their brains and bodies to work properly,” he says. “The body needs to move. Look at how a dog is when it comes back from a walk. Our bodies are the same as theirs – we need to rest, exercise, water and stretch to get the best out of them. The interconnectedness between the body and the mind is profound.”
Downshire explains that any hobby that has a physical aspect involved is good, because it gets the natural chemical dopamine flowing, which the body needs for rebuilding. “[A hobby is] about teaching the brain to focus on a task and get lost in that task,” she says. “It’s as if the brain were a muscle – it’s exercising the ability to focus and get absorbed in something.”
And don’t forget to do your bit. “You should be praising your child for effort, rather than talent,” says Cope.
“If you’re watching your son play football and he puts the ball in the back of the net from 30 metres, you shouldn’t tell him, ‘Oh, you’re the next Wayne Rooney. You’re a genius.’
“You should say, ‘You put that in from 30 metres. Well done. That’s because of all the hard work and practice you put in.’
“That develops a growth mindset, where the child associates success with hard work and effort. Growth mindset children tend to stick at problems longer and are more resilient.”
Lead by example
Your influence is powerful, yet as Seldon says, “You have to be a nudger, not a megaphone. Megaphoning causes angry reactions and damages relationships, because the child doesn’t feel respected.”
Finally, clinical child psychologist Carol Burniston reassures, “If you were friends when they were little, you will be again. Accept you’ll never be ‘cool’. Above all, make fun of yourself – it costs nothing and often breaks the tension.”
Is your teen being bullied?
WHAT IS IT? More than arguing, bullying is a powerful individual or group repeatedly picking on someone to intimidate them. It ranges from name-calling to rumour-spreading, and typically with teenagers it can be via posts on social media or threatening or demeaning phone text messages. Teenagers who are bullied become subdued, less confident, develop sleep problems, withdraw into themselves and spend more time alone. They suffer stress, with risks to physical and mental wellbeing if the matter is not dealt with. Yet they find it hard to admit they’re being bullied because of embarrassment or fear of escalating the harassment.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
1. Emphasise bullying should never be tolerated. Diminish the bully’s power by pointing out that their behaviour is cowardly, particularly if they’re hiding behind technology. Make it clear it’s not your teen’s fault.
Encourage your teen to talk through the problem with a family member or school counsellor.
Bring in the authorities as soon as it comes to light – for cyberbullying, there are ‘block’ and ‘report’ features on social media sites. Schools also have policies to prevent bullying.
Don’t retaliate, but record when and where each incident occurred; keep offending texts and take screenshots of posts for evidence.