As with any aspect of raising children, well-meaning friends and relatives have a great many ideas about enforcing control and respect. But, if you’re looking for a gentler option and are feeling a little lost as you watch your child morph into a perfect stranger – fear not. You are not alone and this is not unusual.
In fact, this phase in their lives is incredibly important. As they form their identities and rebel against the tiniest hint of “control”, they are on an intense journey of self-discovery and independence that, much like the toddler years, requires deep amounts of compassion and patience from loving parents. That’s not to say that teenagers who are naturally gentle natured or uninterested in experimentation are anything to worry about, simply that parents of the stereotypical “Kevin the teenager” can take heart that all is not lost and their unpredictable little tornados are perfectly normal.
So, what’s it all about?
During the teenage years, humans undergo a huge psychological overhaul. The brain, at the mercy of a major hormonal influx, is being completely reshaped as new connects are sprouting, old ones closing and some redirecting completely. Naturally, during such a massive process, there is instability and chaos abounds. With all of this taking place, it’s unsurprising that our children seem to change so dramatically in such a short space of time.
It isn’t until we reach our early to mid-twenties that we become capable of mature emotional responses. Thanks to an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex, teenagers are much more impulsive and rely on their emotional brains when it comes to decision making.
What can parents do to help?
The first thing to consider is your teenager’s diet. A growing brain and body requires a significantly higher volume of healthy fats. From saturated animal fats to vegetable fats and nuts, they are a nutritionally dense energy source that will support their bodies as they undergo major changes. Zinc is an important mineral to consider, also, as it supports mood regulation. Found in red meats and dark chocolate, along with seeds and some dried herbs; try to include more in the family cooking.
How to approach parenting a teenager
Encourage mutual respect. Model the kind of respect that you wish for your child to reciprocate. If they are ignoring you, consider how well heard they may not be feeling. Treat them as an equal. At the same time, be clear about what you are OK with in your home and respect their boundaries in turn.
Listen. As young adults, they have a lot of big ideas about the world and their place within it. Yet, they lack the experience of what it is actually like to get out there and really live in it. Listen to their ideas, with an open mind, and support them. Offer them the benefit of your experiences in a neutral way, perhaps through a story. Don’t try to tell them that they are wrong or that you know differently – it’s likely to fall on deaf ears.
Accept that you cannot control them. The harder you try, the harder they resist. Whilst you may be worrying about them getting into trouble, consider that they will someday leave home and experiencing the world at their own pace, with the safety net of a loving home, is often the gentlest introduction.
Encourage independence. A small job is a great way for teenagers to learn about budgeting, self-sufficiency and is also good for learning new skills. Encouraging them to find one might be tough, but a good place to start is to cover their basic essentials and suggest, in advance, that they might purchase their own luxury items once they reach a viable working age. Voluntary work is a good place to start when jobs are hard to come by.
Encourage Hobbies. Whilst a job can sometimes be tricky to find, hobbies are not. Encourage your teenager to explore new interests, travel around and experience as much of life as they can. Broadening their horizons helps them on their journey of self-discovery, encourages positive self-image and helps them to develop new skills.
Respect their friends. This is usually one of the major stumbling blocks. Teenagers are naturally very sociable and their loyalty is fierce, as many who have criticised the friends of a teenager will have experienced. Trust them to make their own decisions and try to see the good in their friends, I’m sure they’d have a thing or two to say about your friends given the chance.
No Judgement. It’s important that your teenager feels that they can rely on you and trust you if they need somebody to turn to. As they explore, they will make mistakes – try to respond to them as you would a friend and offer them your loving advice. Often we can make the mistake of trying to take charge when we feel we know what is best, but as independent souls they often prefer a little soothing advice and reassurance when things go wrong. Encourage them to pick themselves up and have faith in themselves, rather than being critical.
When serious issues arise, it’s important to be there for them and to offer your support, love and guidance. Ultimately, however, we can only really hope to be a guide that they respect enough to listen to. We can best achieve this by respecting them first. Any efforts to control a person are little more than an illusion, once our backs are turned we cannot be sure they will heed our well intentioned instructions. If in doubt, scary as it may seem, treat them as you would your partner or friend – as an equal, with a life of their own. Someday soon, they will be living alone and the search for identity and freedom is important as they build toward this.
As with every phase of parenting, it is important to focus on the journey rather than the destination. Sometimes you will stumble and sometimes you will fall flat on your face. Stay positive, keep picking yourselves up and you will get there. This way, you are much more likely to appreciate the good things you see, rather than getting caught up worrying about behaviour that you can’t, and shouldn’t, hope to change. In the end, with love and support, we all come through this phase and how well heard and respected we felt during is so often the key to the kind of adults we go on to become.