If you know what RBF and BRB, IRL and (my personal favourite) POS (parents over shoulder) stands for; if you find yourself listening to The Weeknd and Dua Lipa and commenting fondly about how uncannily like the 1980’s they sound; if you are familiar with the terms salty, co-ords, and lit, and how crucial it is to get your brows on fleek; if you’re at least passingly familiar with Love Island, and if your casual 'have a good day!' is regularly met with the response 'Don't tell me how to live my life!", then chances are you’re the parent of a teenager.
The teenage brain does not function fully as an adult’s until well into their twenties - some experts say as late as 27. The area of the brain that is last to develop is the prefrontal cortex which is the ‘control centre’ and among other things, is responsible for controlling impulses and emotions as well as empathy and judging whether something is risky or not. Conversely, the limbic area of the brain is overly sensitive (responsible for emotions, fight or flight hormones, impulse and temptation, pleasure and reward). With the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex and the uber busy limbic sytem, it is easy to see why teens behave the way they do, why they fly off the handle at seemingly innocent remarks from us, and why they can go through every emotion available in the space of just a few minutes.
According to the Young Minds website, the crisis in children and young people’s mental health is real and it is urgent. More children and young people than ever before are reaching out for help with their mental health. But for those who take that brave step, help is much too hard to find.
It is sometimes hard to know what to do when we sense that our children are struggling, especially as many of us grew up in the 1970s/80s when the term Mental Health was unheard of and we were expected to ‘just get on with it,’ much like we didn’t wear mouthguards for hockey, spent hours roaming on our bikes without helmets or phones, and could only speak to our friends on the hall phone after 6pm, and with a parent listening in the living room.
As parents, we are not always best placed to guide our children through tough times - we all bring our own ‘stuff’ to our relationship with our children - our judgements, values, expectations, worries and fears, which, as our children develop their own independence and assert themselves more, may clash with how they want to show up in their world. Our world is often not their world.
We all know what a filtered, image-obsessed, identity-distorted, screen-addicted world our teens can occupy and it can feel difficult or awkward to start up a conversation about feelings (ick!) especially when a question from us like ‘Are you OK?’ might be answered with anything from minor eye rolls to downright hostility to the perfunctory ‘I’m fine.’ It can feel like poking a hornet’s nest.
But it’s essential for our children, that we as adults, take the risk, and are willing to get stung. It’s our job to let our teens vent their feelings on us, without taking it personally and becoming defensive. Their behaviour is not about us, it’s about them (and whatever they are experiencing at that time). As soon as a parent enters their drama by shouting, crying or shaming the child, or by acting offended by their behaviour, we lose their trust and add to their feelings of shame and guilt. It’s important to remember to see beyond the behaviour to the scared/angry/hurt/confused child behind. Give them the safe space to express their feelings without judging them. Research shows that teenagers would like to be allowed to make their own choices and to talk more to their parents, but fear the guilt, shame and criticism that doing so might induce.
Teenagers do a really good job of beating themselves up all by themselves - let’s not be the ones to add to their pain.
You will teach them to fly, but they will not fly your flight. You will teach them to dream, but they will not dream your dream. You will teach them to live, but they will not live your life. Nevertheless, in every flight, in every life, in every dream, the print of the way you taught them will remain. Mother Theresa
Never ever criticise your child in front of their peers. This includes mild teasing and comments on their outfit/hair/language/music choice, which the sensitive teen brain can see as utter humiliation. If it’s really crucial (for example if you believe they might be about to do something that may be dangerous such as taking drugs), make an excuse to get them on their own for a few moments away from their friends, and talk calmly to them. Don’t judge - what you believe to be true could be wrong. Always give your child the benefit of the doubt, and make sure you let them know that you expect them to be trustworthy.
If you are worried about your child but find it hard to get them to open up and talk about their feelings, try starting conversations when you are not face to face. Eye contact is extremely difficult for teens - try car journeys or walking the dog - side by side feels far less intense.
Tell them you love them every day. Even if it’s through gritted teeth sometimes. If it’s hard to say it to them directly, send them a text. Or write it on a post it note and stick it on their bedroom door.
Be vulnerable. Share with them your own struggles in life and how they made you feel and how you overcame them. Being vulnerable does not lessen your credibility as a parent, it strengthens it. When a child is so in awe of his parents and sees them as bulletproof, it can be harder for them to talk about their own worries
Don’t try to fix their problems - it won't promote resilience and it may well backfire on you. Rescuing them disempowers them - let them feel their feelings and work out their own solutions.
Be present, phone down, laptop shut, paying proper undistracted attention. Resist the urge to advise. You don’t have all the answers, and your job is to help your child find their own. You are enough - you don’t always have to find the right words but you do have to listen.
If you can, make a habit of regularly playing board/card games that invite discussion and give the opportunity to gain new insights into each other. A great one to play at this age is any from the Sussed range, where you have to guess each other’s answers to questions such as
I’m best at a) giving people a second chance b) accepting people’s shortcomings c) encouraging people to get things done.
Similarly there are plenty of conversation-starter sets aimed at family discussions. I particularly like Teen Talk (Amazon) with questions like ‘If you could change one of your parent’s rules, which rule would you change? ‘What qualities do you look for when choosing your friends?’ ‘If you were given one minute on national TV, what would you say or do for those 60 seconds?’
And finally, parenting is never plain sailing, perhaps even less so during the teenage years. It can be a rough, brutal time, particularly if you have children with mental health challenges. Remember, even if you’re a single parent, you’re not alone in this. There are always people and organisations willing to help if you’re struggling. Be honest with friends and family if you feel like you're going under. Be kind to yourself and don’t beat yourself up if you sometimes lose the plot. Take time to meet your own needs - it not only sets a good example to your children, but enables you to be fighting fit for when you’re needed most. Mums and Dads, UR doing a SRSLY GR8 job 👍🏼
I run regular workshops for teenagers as well as one to one coaching, and am currently looking at setting up a 'Talking Circle' aimed at providing small groups of teenage girls with a safe, non judgmental, confidential space to share anything they would like to talk about. If you’re interested in any of this, please get in touch. My details are above. Alternatively, if you’ve found this article interesting, sign up for regular newsletters or leave a comment below. Thank You
Young Minds - www.youngminds.org.uk - the UK's leading charity fighting for children and young people's mental health
Positively Teenage by Nicola Morgan - a book aimed at teenagers but excellent for parents to read too
Teen Talk in a Jar - everyday questions for teens - available from Amazon
Sussed - a range of card games involving guessing the other players’ answers from your knowledge of their personality
The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read - Philippa Perry - the do’s and don’ts of parenting by a renowned psychotherapist