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How do you Parent a Teenager?

Posted 10th January 2019

It’s a familiar situation – a child who has been generally sweet and co-operative (with some exceptions!) hits the teenage years, largely retreats to their bedroom & doesn’t talk to you any more.  Maybe they drop out of activities that they have always enjoyed, they spend hours on social media, their friendship group seems to have changed.  When you ask them how things are at school they seem inexplicably angry with you, or say “fine”, you have no idea what’s going on for them any more.  It can feel like you have lost the child you once had, and that there’s a stranger living in the house, one who can be very difficult to live with.

The first thing to recognise is that to a large extent these features are not only entirely normal for an adolescent, they can be signs that things are on the right track.  The developmental process that every adolescent (and their parents) have to go through is for the adolescent to separate from a childhood reliance on parents and desire to please / emulate parents and find their own sense of self.  The process of finding out who you really are, what you believe, where you stand on important issues in the world (and so on) is usually turbulent – you might feel that your teenager is picking arguments with you just for the sake of arguing, and they probably are.  Your teenager may well need to reject hobbies and interests that they have been passionate about for years; this can be hard for parents to observe and accept when you think of the hours of time that your child has put into pursuing their passion in (say) music or sport, only to suddenly stop training / practising and retreat to their bedroom and social media.  They may well find everything about you and your ideas  annoying.  This can be quite hard to take when you continue to care for them, provide financially for them & cook them dinners which they reject in favour of junk food.  But for your child to discover their adult self may well involve rejecting both their childhood self and your own ethos, at least in the short term.

This stage of life involves the parents changing just as much as the adolescent – how do you start to trust that your teenager does have their own mind, can make their own decisions and does (hopefully) have some common sense about how to keep themselves safe?  There are likely to be lots of arguments about independence, and you will find yourself needing to renegotiate many of the rules and boundaries that you have previously relied on.  You are likely to get both the message that your teenager wants more independence and also at other times that they are frightened by the amount of independence they are expected to have.  It’s very usual that they may fluctuate between these two apparently opposite positions, becoming an adult is very scary.  Holding fast onto the “It’s my house and my rules” ethos may just lead to more friction, your child is turning into an adult and some rules may need to change.

A good starting point is to try to put yourself in your adolescent’s shoes.  If they will still talk to you, set aside time to listen – many people find that in the car is a good place as no eye contact is needed, for others it might be out walking the dog or other places where there’s some sort of distraction.  You might be surprised by what they tell you and how they see things.  For example, when you ask them encouraging questions about the progress of their latest school project, do they feel that you don’t trust them?  Are they scared that their grades won’t be good enough, that their future will be bleak, they will never be able to live as a successful independent adult?  Do they feel quite as secure in their group of friends as it appears from the outside?  Resist the urge to offer much advice, especially if it’s clear this isn’t what is wanted.  Try to empathise with just how scary and chaotic the world can feel to an adolescent – partly because the world really is very complicated and partly because your teenager is just starting to be aware of some of the complexities of the world.  Many adolescents start to worry about very big issues such as climate change, the current political situation or terrorism, on top of more everyday issues such as school and family – these world issues can be terrifying, it’s no wonder many teens take to their beds for a while.

Of course for some teenagers this stage of life goes beyond the ordinarily turbulent and becomes more risky or more stuck.  The time to get some professional help or advice would include when your child is putting their health at risk, such as through drug use, self-harm, restricted eating & so on, or when you are feeling that the situation has become unmanageable and you or your child needs some help with this, particularly if you think that ordinary adolescence is tipping over into mental health difficulties such as depression or anxiety.  In some circumstances your child might need some direct support with this, such as therapy or counselling.  In other situations you might need some support as parents in order to help you to negotiate this turbulent time with your teenager, which might include helping you develop a better understanding of what might be going on for your child, helping you to agree your behaviour boundaries or exploring how to have difficult conversations with your teenager.  Whether you need some support for your child, for you as parent(s) or both, you can find this help in lots of places – this includes voluntary sector organisations such as here at The Bridge Foundation (Bristol) or CAMHS (national NHS service for under 18s).   Many schools also offer counselling services, which would be free for your child to access.  Over 18s can access the adult IAPT service.

It’s important to remember that the vast majority of teenagers come out the other side of this stage of life as reasonable adults, with their own ideas about life which may or may not overlap with your own ideas.  When they are able to do this successfully, emerging as their own person with their own mind & aspirations and interests – then your job as a parent has been well done.

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