June 03rd, 2019

How to Live with a Teenager

Do you live with a teenager? Or do you have children that you get on with pretty well right now but are worried that this harmony may disappear if they morph into Kevin the teenager? Teens get a pretty bad press but it’s not a given that when puberty strikes your child will turn into an alien creature who bites your head off when you ask how was their day.

I am running a workshop on Teens and Boundaries tomorrow evening and when I was preparing for it I reflected on how the teenage years were in my own family. My three now-adult kids did not conform to the stereotype of rude, self-absorbed, risk-taking, idle adolescents. If you ask teenagers about their parents you may be surprised to find a stereotype there too. We don’t listen to them, we don’t understand them, we think we can control them (and we can’t), we think we’re funny (and apparently we’re not!) and we are SO unreasonable.

Of course adolescents are not all the same, any more than their parents. Some we have to force into the shower, some we have trouble getting out of the bathroom; some won’t do their homework while others are super diligent and work themselves into a lather about school work; many find it hard to get up in the morning but are on social media half the night; many will forget mathematical formulae but be able to recount word for word the script to their latest favourite movie; some will spend their free time lolling on the sofa while others are into every sport imaginable; some will hang out with their gang while others have just one bestie, and some have trouble making friends.

But one thing that all adolescents do have in common is great change going on in their lives. Their mission (and they can’t not accept it) is to transform from a child into an adult. This means figuring out who they are for themselves; they are no longer just a child, a member of your family. They have to work out a new adult identity, a set of beliefs and opinions, separate from parents and younger siblings, and learn to make decisions independently. And the hormones and brain changes of adolescence don’t make it easy.

Living with a teenager is much easier for our teens as well as for us if we accept the following realities:

  • Teenagers are self-focused. It’s a phase, not a permanent character flaw. Understanding this does not mean that you don’t require them to pull their weight. They need to make a contribution to the family even if they are under pressure at school.
  • They find it hard to focus on others’ needs. So if they’re hanging out on the common with a group of friends and they all decide to go to Oscar’s house they may forget to tell you about the change of plan because they don’t think about you worrying. They know they’re ok but don’t think about how it is from your perspective. If you lose it with them they can justify thinking that your reactions are unreasonable. But they can be encouraged to consider other people’s needs too if we stay calm.
  • Because of their developing pre-frontal cortex teens will be irrational and impulsive; their lack of experience and perspective makes them poor consequential thinkers. That is why they can’t have as much of a free reign as they’d like. Teens still need boundaries.
  • Because of increased dopamine in their brains teens will take risks, especially when their peers are present. It’s not that they don’t assess risks but the rewards they are interested in (the approval of their peer group) outweigh the risk posed by the behaviour. So if all their friends are jumping off a tall cliff into the inviting waters below they may not stop to calculate the chances of there being rocks below the surface.
  • While their rational brains are being refurbished their ability to regulate emotions is compromised so they may overreact to perceived slights. With their increased self-evaluation they expect everyone else to be judging them. This is not helped by the constant appraisal of social media, not to mention parental criticism.
  • The teenage brain is open to new learning. This means it can be a great time for developing passions and it also means that they are vulnerable to addictions.

Teens need their parents’ support to navigate through these turbulent times. They need us to be understanding and compassionate. They need us not to take it personally when they are hyper-critical of us (not easy with the sensitivities that can come with middle age) and to read every failure to do what we ask as a sign of disrespect. We have to think about other possible reasons for them not taking a shower/finishing their homework/ feeding the dog how and when we want them to. We have to support them in their mission to become responsible adults by giving them the right amount of independence. How much control we let our kids have is a judgment we make of each individual on a daily basis and it isn’t easy. We will get it wrong. Often.

Finally to parent a teenager successfully is about accepting that it is more about long term influence than short term control. Hopefully we will have laid the foundations of good communication and connection when they were younger (and if not, it isn’t too late). If there is a positive relationship between us then our teens will accept our influence, eventually, if not in the moment. That connection lies mainly in our listening to them, accepting their perspective, assuming their good intentions and acknowledging the good things they do. Even if we have to uphold a rule they don’t like if we explain our values respectfully (and they see us living by those values) then they will accept it if we empathise and acknowledge their perspective. “I know you think I’m being unreasonable about insisting you come to Granny’s on Saturday when you’d rather go to Sophie’s. I know it’s important to you. I get that. I want you to come with us because Granny hasn’t seen you for a long time and in this family we care about each other. How about I drive you around to Sophie’s after the lunch?”

I was lucky enough to discover The Parent Practice skills before my kids hit their teens and it was a lovely period for us where I really enjoyed their ideas, their sense of humour and their energy…if not their music…H

Posted in: Teenagers





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