Handling our teenagers successfully involves setting a healthy example, patient teaching, effective communication and nurturing. Having an understanding of the changes and the common characteristics and behaviours, can make it less scary and difficult. Letting go, negotiating, encouraging and empowering our young people, is vital for peace and harmony.
At around 12 years for girls, and 14 for boys, adolescents experience substantial changes which are hormonal, physical, intellectual, emotional and social in nature. The transformation occurs at different ages, and each young person has a different response and experience. Most are developing more strength, energy and achieving more and more. Anxiety about approaching adulthood is common, as is grief at the ending of childhood. Our young people show a great need to spend increasing time with their friends. Gradually they separate more and more from their family, and their behaviour becomes less predictable and more volatile. If parents /carers and other role models can treat teenagers properly, these young people will most likely grow into respectable, responsible adults. They are becoming aware that mum, dad, teachers, leaders and institutions have problems of their own, and that they also find certain issues difficult to handle. Adolescents are beginning to decide on their own values.
Peers are very important, and adolescents need to spend more time with them, in order to work out where they fit in to the world. Belonging to a group is vital to their self-esteem. Girls, in particular, need close friends. Most teenagers are starting to become very interested in the opposite sex, and will spend a lot of time thinking about attracting the other gender.
Adolescents don’t tend to show that they need their family as much, but it still needs to provide a nurturing nest.
Boys and girls can start to become quite critical, and like to disagree with family members to a greater extent. But this doesn’t mean that they refuse to take on the other member’s opinions. They become more self-absorbed, and are capable of greater abstract thinking. Working out how they fit into the world, and what is happening in the world, occupies a fair amount of their energy. They can be fairly moody, unpredictable and emotional on the whole, and can act like an adult one minute, and a child the next. Lectures from parents aren’t usually received with much enthusiasm.
As they enter the teenage years, young people naturally want to be more and more independent and self- reliant. This ensures that they can (as they approach adulthood) leave the nest, without too much trauma. It also prepares parents and siblings to come to terms with separation. Many teenagers will withdraw, others will speak in monosyllables, and others will challenge and/or irritate their family members.
When we ask our young people to do something, we need to give a reason in a calm manner. Making suggestions based on real outcomes works well for adolescents eg. “Excessive drinking can lead to serious liver disease and brain malfunction.” It’s very helpful to tell our young people how we feel about something; the dangers and the problems we foresee. Generally, they are not as focused on the consequences of actions, as adults are. Eg “Wearing a helmet will protect your brain effectively while you are skateboarding.” It is vital that we talk about relevant issues by answering their questions honestly, and by broaching specific subject areas such as sex, safety, drugs (including alcohol and tobacco). It’s easier and more meaningful if we can teach our values spontaneously. However, unless we have our own values clarified and in the forefront, it is difficult to do this. If our teenagers aren’t particularly receptive to our words of wisdom, it is still smart to persevere, in short bursts. They are very adept at acting as if they don’t need our advice, but this usually is not the case.
Careful listening to our adolescents is highly important. This means deliberately refraining from being judgemental, from jumping in to solve problems, from catastrophising and from minimising or mocking what they are saying. Our body language needs to similarly convey full and active listening. When talking to our teenagers, we and they will greatly benefit emotionally if we can remember that encouragement is preferable to criticism, that natural and logical consequences are better than nagging; that persuasion is better than being dictatorial; that a calm voice and demeanour is superior to yelling. Letting our young people know how we feel using the format ‘When…I feel…’is valuable eg “When I haven’t heard from you after _ days at camp, I feel worried.” This gives our teenagers an opportunity to think of their own solution to a problem, and they will be less defensive and angry. Remembering that we have the power to refuse to continue arguing, is very useful too. Teenagers (and adults) can be brilliant at provoking arguments. There is nothing wrong with agreeing to disagree. It is a mature way of settling a conflict, if an agreement can’t be reached. If we can ask lots of sincere questions, our teenagers will be encouraged to problem solve and to think laterally. Setting up regular times to converse is very worthwhile eg. Mealtimes, car travel times. We need to show interest in their hobbies, sports, music activities and so on.
Our young people need to know that it is okay to make mistakes. This will have the effect of inspiring them to try new experiences, and we need to support them in their efforts and progress. Fostering thinking and problem solving in our young people will be of great benefit to them, and we would be wise to be forgiving when they make poor decisions. Everybody has different interests and talents, and our offspring need to be given the opportunity to find out what their’s are. They will benefit greatly from learning to accept and be themselves. Our teenagers, just like ourselves, need large doses of fun. This will help them to concentrate more easily on work, and is great for their emotional and social wellbeing. It is vital that we continue to invite our children to participate in family activities regularly eg dining out, board games, bowling, holidays etc. Of course, they will decline much of the time, but that’s okay. We can encourage our young people to think ahead and plan for their future, so that they are motivated and hopeful in their outlook. We all need to set short and long term goals, and move towards them a step at a time. Adolescents still need to feel loved and accepted for the people they are, and we can demonstrate this with plenty of hugs, encouraging words and unconditional love. Achievements can also be acknowledged in positive ways. Home needs to be a safe comforting place for all the family, where all members are accepting, loving, welcoming, supportive and interested in each other’s growth and wellbeing. Young people need to be persuaded to look after themselves, and to find a healthy balance with regard to exercise, nutrition, socializing, work, volunteering and leisure. Screen time needs to be restricted to a couple of hours or so a day, till the mid-teenage years, so that our young people have the opportunity to do other important activities. If the television(s) and computers are owned by the parents, this is easier to do. If they are about to do something dangerous, or considering it, we must explain firmly the reasons for abstaining. We can deprive them of something they value highly, as a consequence, if the action is abusive to people or animals, or damaging to property. However, it is better to inspire co-operation, than to deny a privilege. If we have already established a good rapport with them, they are far more likely to be obliging. If it is illegal, we need to let them know this fact, and what will happen if they are in breach of the law. Sometimes they will listen better to another trusted adult. Privacy is important for adolescents and we need to respect this. Eg, Knocking on their door before entering, and not going through their drawers or cupboards, without their permission. Treating teenagers respectfully, similar to the way we would treat a friend, is wise.
Gradually let go
If parents can gradually let go more and more, and expect greater independence from their offspring, they will find that they will show more responsibility, resilience, confidence and competence.
It can be difficult to accept some of the fashions and behaviours that our teenagers take on board. However, it’s critical that we only make a stand when they are being unsafe, abusive or offensive to others. We need to have regular family meetings and discussions, in order to decide together on fair rules, and to help our young people to seriously consider safety, good health and financial responsibility. It is preferable to come up with win-win outcomes so that everyone is satisfied. The limits that we put in place early on in the teenage years will change, as our offspring develop more maturity and responsibility. Flexibility is the key. Eg home return time at night, staying home alone, travelling on public transport etc. Our teenagers will grow into more caring, kind, considerate and responsible people if we are able to separate their wants from their needs. We can provide the basics such as shelter, food, clothing etc, but we need not feel obliged to provide the latest brands, or the current fashion. It they want these things, it is their job to earn the money to pay for them, unless it is their birthday or Christmas. It is imperative to refuse to be swayed by forceful, emotional and guilt inducing arguments. Eg But all my friends are allowed to go (or do this)!!
If we can be as democratic as possible, our adolescents will feel more empowered and be more co-operative. Social equality, mutual respect, shared responsibility, co-operation and self-discipline are all essential ingredients for a satisfying and fulfilling family life.