“I love teenagers!” Yet … I find that whenever I say this phrase, people look at me and chuckle, as if waiting for the punchline. There is none.
It’s true! I really do love teenagers! Every year I get to spend a week in January with a few hundred teenagers in Australia. It is truly one of my favourite weeks of the year. In other months of the year I get to spend time connecting with teens in schools in other countries. My favourite weekends are those when my own teens/young adults bring over a bunch of their friends, and they’re all laughing, loud and crazy. (And I get to feed them lots of food.)
In my day job, I seem to keep gravitating toward settings where I can work with and support teenagers.
I find myself frustrated though, because somehow it’s still socially acceptable to belittle teens. Verbal teen sledging is like a national sport. Headlines and conversations always go something like … “This generation is baffling” or “Teens are out of control/lazy/selfish.”
The latest favourites seem to be: “Teen selfies are creating a generation of narcissists” or “All teens are addicted to games/phones/social media/ [insert your own here].”
These “angry/defiant/moody/uncommunicative teen” stereotypes have me worried.
We need to stop with the generalisations. They don’t help anyone and, instead, they simply act to further the divide between teens and adults.
It’s no wonder parents of young children look at me wide eyed and say things like “I’m just dreading the teen years.”
I’m not pretending that the teens I have worked with over the past 20+ years have never struggled with life issues. Or that my own teens are perfect little darlings, who never answer back, always pull their weight and are forever cheerful. Then again, adults aren’t much different either.
I often feel as though we expect more from our teens than we expect from ourselves.
During their teen years, our kids go through changes. Massive changes, in fact! Their brains are changing, but not all in the same way or at the same time (see more brain stuff here and here). Add to this their changing bodies and the development of a strong desire to become independent of us. (As there should be. Who wants a 30-year-old man-child still sitting in your lounge room playing Fortnite all day?)
Of course, there will be challenging times, with some struggling more than others. Particular periods are hard – really hard. Anywhere there are a bunch of humans living in a confined space is never going to be easy. There will be days (maybe weeks? Months?) when you second guess yourself, and wonder, “Am I doing this right?”, “Am I just messing them up?” or “Will they be OK?”
But may I encourage you? I believe in the potential of this generation. For the most part – they will be okay!
How might we change the teen stereotype?
It starts with us – the adults
A Resilient Youth Australia survey of 78,000 children and teens, found a significant drop in resilience between 10 years of age and 15 years old.
The revelation for me was that 15-year-olds are far less likely to feel “very hopeful” or that they have an adult who listens to them.
More than 40 per cent of the students felt they did not have anyone who knew them very well – someone who understood how they thought or felt. Almost one quarter said they had “no one to talk to if they were upset, no one they could trust and no one to depend on”.
This drop in confidence towards the mid-teen years can align with how parents often feel less close to their children during adolescence.
At least one thing is clear: Our young people need us – desperately!
The good news is young people really do want to hear from adults
Despite what we hear about the current generation gap and terms like “screenagers” and “Generation Me”, Mission Australia’s annual surveys of thousands of young people do consistently indicate that “friendships and family relationships” rank as their two most highly valued items.
“Friend/s and parent/s” were the two most commonly cited sources of help for young people. Yes, they actually ranked higher than the internet!
There it is – you matter in your teen’s life, so you must step up!
So how might parents enjoy more their children’s teen years?
Begin with self-awareness
As parents, it helps to become aware of our own baggage – every one of us has some. The baggage of life such as those things which affected us in our own teen years, and the insecurities or issues we are still working on. Sometimes we unhelpfully project them onto our children, when their struggles are completely different to ours.
Also, be OK with the fact you may be uncertain about your parenting decisions at times. You are allowed to make mistakes and ask for advice.
Follow self-awareness with an awareness of teens’ needs and development
Know what teens need. Mission Australia, with the Black Dog Institute, regularly list the top issues teens face.
This helps us begin conversations with the young people in our lives, about how they might support their friends and whether they need help themselves.
When young people get to know how their generation is feeling, this normalises their own struggles and helps them not to feel alone.
Here are six tips for leaving behind the stereotypes and better supporting our teens:
1. Just stand beside the emotional roller coaster – you don’t need to join the ride
It is completely normal for teens’ emotions to be quite fluid. Adolescence is a time when many experience their highest highs and lowest lows. It is dizzying and exciting when given more independence, but also quite frightening at times.
The generalisation is to blame teen emotion on “raging hormones”, when it is so much more complex than that. Teens are trying to work out who they are, which is why self-scrutiny can be heightened. Some of the moodiness comes from their insecurities and wondering about their future. Teens can feel deeply and are still learning how to express themselves appropriately – especially if they feel disempowered, guilty or overwhelmed about their world.
AVOID – dismissing their feelings as silly or inconsequential.
DO – acknowledge their emotions.
In the same way that you need support when things get overwhelming – be available to them and be kind.
Let them know you are waiting in the wings if they would like support, to talk, or just a cup of tea.
DO – step away.
Wait for the big emotions to pass, before trying to engage in controversial or heated topics.
2. On communication – be quiet and listen more than you talk!
AVOID – the lectures.
Don’t grill them with questions, or offer instant solutions whenever they tell you something.
DO – listen more than talk.
Our teens need to feel heard. They need to really know that their opinions matter to us. If they know that we respect their opinions and won’t laugh at their questions, we will find that they open up and begin to communicate, a little more each time.
When they do open up (and it’s usually at 11:59pm), drop everything! Use those times to soak in the opportunities to let them connect with you. Just sit back and listen. Don’t be afraid of the pauses. The pauses allow your teen to sift through and gather their thoughts. It implies comfort in your presence.
DO – apologise when you mess up.
Modelling how to ask for forgiveness is one of the best life lessons you can give your teen.
DO – use humour.
This is the best bit. Teens are hilarious and quick witted. Send your teen funny memes, or tell them embarrassing stories about your youth. Teens can sniff out ‘the lecture’, but if you tell them anecdotes of your own funny, awkward or painful stories from your teen years, they usually respond well to that. You need to be a bit vulnerable to give teens permission to be vulnerable with you.
DO – Talk about some of your current daily struggles (without adding too much detail to burden them).
Adults are human too. Shielding your teen from every challenge you face sets them up to feel inadequate in their own adult years.
3. Boundaries – know they will shift and change
AVOID – being just another BFF (Best Friend Forever).
Teens have lots of those. They need you to be the adult.
AVOID – being too rigid.
Boundaries should be for safety, not suffocation. Naturally teens won’t like all your boundaries and a few things will be non-negotiable, but be open to letting some things change with age and stage.
The research indicates that the parent who simply demands obedience to their authority and is big or strong enough to get it, achieves short-term compliance, but long-term rebellion.
AVOID – expecting instant compliance.
Too often, parents can expect teens to jump up and comply with their requests immediately. But this is something we don’t do ourselves or even expect from a spouse (I know – I am at fault here). Perhaps say that you will give them a few (mutually agreed upon) minutes, to wrap up what they are doing.
DO – set reasonable boundaries.
I mentioned the teenage brain – so teens need guidance and age-appropriate boundaries, because they’re not fully grown adults yet. But because teens are so different, some (even in the same home) will need different types of boundaries to others.
DO – pick your battles carefully.
Because your relationship is more important than always being right. You might think to yourself, “What is my reason for this rule?” or “Is it worth it?”
Areas where you will need to consider boundaries might include: expectations to be at some family meals, what screen time balance looks like, alcohol and parties, dating, how teens treat others …
DO – allow for independence.
They still need us, but they’re also looking for increasing independence. Teens can only learn when given opportunities to try (and sometimes fail at) new things. When teens are given the freedom to choose in many areas of their lives, they are more likely to listen to parents’ opinions on the bigger issues. So perhaps let go of the haircut, clothing choice, or even that Maths test, for the sake of the values-based stuff?
DO – expect them to be part of the process.
Parents can explain to teens that to earn the privilege of independence, they need to be willing to engage in discussions about new age-related behaviours and boundaries.
DO – expect them to show up.
By “show up”, I mean pull their weight and help out in the home. Your family’s home is not a hotel.
DO – allow for natural consequences, if they don’t follow through with expectations.
For example: “I’m afraid you will have to be at the party late, as I need to wait until you have unpacked the dishwasher before we can leave.”
If they demonstrate that they are irresponsible or unsafe with the trust you have shown, you may need to pull the boundary tighter again, for a time.
4. Celebrate the process
Teens are people. Yes, their brains are still developing, but they’re not dumb. They sometimes make poor decisions because they don’t have the past experiences to draw from that we do. Their stories are still developing – and that’s exciting and worth celebrating.
AVOID – constant criticism.
It’s our job to teach our children certain skills, and gentle correction is part of parenting. But this shouldn’t be your default conversation. A teen should feel as though their home is a safe haven. A place they are accepted.
If they constantly feel as though they can’t do much right, they will either withdraw emotionally (by communicating less) or physically (by finding other places to hang out).
DO – catch them doing lots of things well, and then tell them what you noticed. Say thank you.
DO – be respectful.
Don’t complain about them publicly, or in online open forums, where it is permanently out for the world to see. Can you imagine standing in the next aisle at a shopping centre and hearing your partner complain about you to a neighbour?
When thing get tough, find a friend or family member that you can privately talk with (rant to) and ask advice of.
5. When confrontation happens
Because it will 😉
AVOID – taking things personally.
Remember, you are the adult. You don’t need your teen to like you all of the time. Make sure that you have your own support people to lean on.
DO – know when to back off and cut them some slack, or talk when things have settled down.
If you find there is lot of confrontation, tell your teen that you would like to really know more about them, understand them better and you would like to try and learn more about their world. Be honest and tell your teen that you really would like to improve your relationship with them.
These types of discussions often work better on neutral territory, such as a coffee shop, a park, or in the car without eye contact.
DO – seek professional help if you and your teen are stuck.
6. Mostly – find your teen’s love language
AVOID – giving your teen endless “space”.
Naturally, teens seek independence and sometimes solitude, but they still innately desire physical connection with their families.
DO – display truckloads of love.
Hug your teenager often, or physically connect with them in a way they feel comfortable. Teens need us to be both physically and emotionally present for them. If you are unsure, ask them what types of physical affection they prefer now that they are getting older (side hugs, firm or soft hand squeezes, sitting closely together on the couch watching a movie, head massages …)
Tell your teen regularly, that you find them interesting, that you love their conversations and hearing their ideas.
One last thing
I truly believe in the potential of this generation. I love how teens think. I love their passion and zest for life. Teens are capable, generous, kind, funny and deeply inquisitive. Let’s change the narrative.
About the Author: Collett Smart is a psychologist, qualified teacher, speaker and internationally published author. She lives with her husband and three children in Sydney, Australia. The heart of Collett’s work is to support and bring hope to parents of tweens and teens.
Feature image: Supplied, Raising Teenagers