”Parenting teens is challenging. Where previously the markers of a good parent principally involved providing for your children and raising them up to be respectful and responsible adults – the yardstick for positive parenting has since gained some new notches. Raising the next generation introduces a new set of challenges and parents have had to adapt.” – Clare-Louise McGrath
The bumpy and often times challenging terrain that is the reality of raising a teenager has always left parents struggling to gain a foothold. And according to science, there is good reason for this. Developmentally, the brain starts to undergo structural changes once you reach adolescence. Pair an actively changing brain and body with heightened levels of hormones and you have conditions for the perfect storm. Although these issues are not new, the world that teens grow up in today, and the challenges they face, are so completely different from our own teenage experience that our reference book has been largely rendered useless. Thankfully, there are still some tried-and-true positive parenting techniques that can be incorporated to help remind parents that sunny skies are on the horizon.
It’s all too easy to dismiss your teen’s reactions and behaviours as part of the typical pubescent journey, but in order to better
understand and empathise with their feelings, you must take a look at what teens nowadays are up against:
The most obvious difference in the teenage experience today is the omnipresence of the internet. Digital developments mean screen-time is effectively all the time. If your teen is not staring at their laptop screen, they are scrolling on their smartphone, if not chatting with friends they need the internet for homework. Such pervasive use opens them up to every online experience, both positive and negative, and unfortunately the negative can be detrimental to teenagers.Exposure to cyber-bullying, unrealistic body expectations, violent and sexually explicit content are alarmingly commonplace and prey on teenagers’ vulnerability.There is also mounting pressure to share a perfectly filtered version of yourself online, which can leave teens feeling like they do not measure up against their peers. This is especially confusing during a time when they are trying to figure out their individual identity.
A university education was once a bonus, nowadays it is an expectation. With an increase in applications comes increased competition and universities and colleges seek out well rounded students: academics and extracurriculars are equally as important and the pressure to ‘do it all’ is very real.Parents list ‘sending my children to a good school’ as a primary child-rearing goal and go to great lengths to accomplish this.Although these aspirations come from a good place, they stoke the ever-growing achievement pressure that children experience. Schools also feed into this culture with rigorous sports and academic programmes that promise admission to the top universities.While academic achievements deserve to be applauded, it becomes a problem when the drive to succeed eclipses your teen’s happiness. In many cases the balance is disrupted, and teens struggle to separate their individual desires from what their parents or teachers expect of them.
Equipped with some basic understanding of the present-day teenage experience, here are some tactics you can employ as a parent to help ease the burden.
Parents are wired to revert into problem-solving mode when faced with an issue, however in doing so we often bypass ‘effective listening’ for ‘reactive listening’. Your haste to rationalise and offer solutions can quickly be misinterpreted as dismissal and can leave children feeling invalidated for their feelings. Worse yet, if parents are quick to advise on an issue which they have no experience with themselves, i.e. your teen encountered something online which hurt their feelings, their reaction can come across as lackadaisical. As our children mature into teenagers they become desperate to declare their autonomy and own their decision-making capabilities, and such parental tendencies become suffocating and can lead to teens bottling up their emotions instead.
Alternatively, practising effective listening, whereby we fully offer up the stage for our child or teen to talk through their issues, uninterrupted, and allow them to come up with a solution on their own is empowering. Furthermore, it fosters a problem solving approach which is an invaluable life skill. If your child seems uncertain of what they are feeling, feel free to prompt them by asking questions which encourage reflection, however, it is important to remain impartial from judgement, whether that be good or bad.
Van Achterberg, founder of Capitol Hill Child Psychiatry in Washington, DC, urges parents to drop everything if their teens want to talk. “Put down your cell-phone, computer, laundry or whatever pressing matters you have, because nothing is more important than hearing out your teenager when he wants to talk”. In cases where teens are not communicating enough, create the environment for a conversation to be sparked and for you to relate to your teen. By making the effort to spend time talking to your teen every day, you will find that communicating with them about the ‘big things’ will become much easier. Parents can also find other chances to connect, such as watching a film or TV show together, playing sports or running through the highs and lows of the day at the dinner table.
Providing your teens with greater autonomy as they grow, essentially means learning a new way to care for them. Teens will naturally push for independence while parents instinctually tighten their grip when they feel their teen pulling away. It is the parent’s difficult, but necessary, responsibility to renegotiate their approach to parenting. Where previously parents maintained a very hands-on leadership role in their child’s life, teens require more breathing room as they transition into learning how to manage their own lives, and you take on more of a coaching position. Strike a balance and come to a mutual understanding that meets the needs of both parties: parents are ensured of their teen’s safety, while teens are given more room to exert their new-found judgement. However, increased freedom does not come without increased responsibility. If your teen makes a mistake (or intentionally breaks the rules), impose fair consequences which will serve as a reminder for what happens when they fail to act responsibly.
Parenting your teen can often feel like flying blind, but there is some comfort in reminding yourself that no one has all the answers. Ultimately the best thing you can do for your teen is provide a loving, supportive environment that allows them to develop into the best version of themselves they can be. Remember that for all the stress that can be a part of parenting a teen, there are lots of eureka moments too. As your child grows and develops, so too does their personality, their passions, their commitments. Enjoy getting to know them.