The teenage years are dreaded by many parents as their beautiful, loving children turn into grunting, moody, technology addicts who want to cross all available boundaries. In reality, the average teenager is vastly different from these stereotypes that are perpetuated by the media.
Preparation for the teenage years starts in early childhood where a strong bond between parent and child must be formed. This is described in Attachment Theory which came from the research of John Bowlby and Margaret Ainsworth. The stronger the bond, the more likely your teenager is going to want to preserve the relationship. Make sure that your ratio of positive to negative interactions remains well into the positive category. Sometimes positive moments need to be artificially created if you are dealing with a stubborn, illogical, hormonal teenager. Try giving them a compliment with a smile and then walk away before they can scowl or make a disparaging comment. This is one positive point. Don’t give them an opportunity to turn it negative. Research suggests that a ratio of five positive to one negative interaction is ideal. In practice, this is incredibly hard to achieve! Do as well as you can. Having a good relationship does not mean you have to drop your expectations of good behaviour.
Transition from direction to guidance gradually
During the teenage years, you move from directing your child to guiding your child. This is a gradual process. Giving a 15 or 16-year-old absolute freedom is inviting serious heartache for them and yourself. The reason we have restrictions on alcohol, driving, voting and many other freedoms for teenagers is because their brains are in the process of rewiring. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is responsible for analytical thinking, problem-solving and decision making. No wonder they look like they have adult bodies but act like children in their choices and behaviours. During this phase of brain development, the brain is incredibly vulnerable to damage. Alcohol and any illicit substances can have devastating effects on those young developing brains. Your child’s full potential may never be reached if they use or abuse any of these substances. The Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse in the USA found after extensive studies that those who start drinking in their teens have a vastly increased risk of developing lifetime alcoholism as opposed to those who had to wait until they reached the legal age. The best we can do for our teenagers is to restrict potentially harmful behaviours and to model responsible behaviours. It is essential to communicate your values and standards clearly rather than assume your teenager will know. It is fine to be seen as the strict parent. It shows that you love your child and creates safe boundaries for them. It is easier to relax restrictions than to try and wind them back after destructive behaviours have been learnt. Your children follow your example far more than what you say they should do.
Create opportunities for conversations
Almost all parents desire for their children to be happy and successful. That is why we pay for schooling, drive them to sport and create opportunities for them to succeed. Studies suggest that all of these things help but research by Professor Sean F Reardon indicates that there is an element we can add. Having conversations about opportunities, possibilities and life skills give teenagers a wider perspective than they presently have. A lot of their anxiety and insecurity come from their lack of experience and insight. Don’t be fooled by the bravado and, “…Yeah, I know”. They have very little experience in how to navigate life and they need us to train them in the life skills we acquired. Creating opportunities to talk are essential. If you can have family meals together around a table with the TV and technology off, it will create a space for communicating as a family and connecting with what is happening in your children’s lives. It is best to start this habit in early childhood. Don’t allow your teenager to only live in their room and not communicate with the family. They need some personal space but not being a part of the family is not healthy for them. The family home is where we learn the social skills we apply in the real world.
Celebrate and compliment
Make time to celebrate. If someone compliments your child, you can repeat it to them and say that you are proud of them. If they do what is right or stand up for what is right, praise them. Find every opportunity to praise what is good to balance all the times that you have to correct them. Make sure to tell the family how well they are doing so they can get positive feedback from other people. When your child experiences success in doing what is right, they will pursue doing more of it and that will raise their self-esteem and confidence. We feel good when we do well and receive affirmation for what we do.
God’s love and values
If you are a Christian family, it is important to communicate the standards that God has set for us as a means of His protection and as an expression of His love for ourselves and others. Explain the benefits and consequences of our choices and actions as seen through the eyes of our loving God and through the example of Jesus. Making the standards clear and the sad consequences of not adhering to them give teenagers a clear values-based standard of behaviour that they can refer to even if they may test the boundaries. Keep your children in your prayers daily. It makes a difference. You can also model an active prayer life and devotional time so your children have an example to work from.
Many of these suggestions are very well researched and supported through lived experience. In essence, we need to love, guide, protect and train our children to become all they have been created to be. Sometimes we forget that they are only children for 18 years but adults for a lifetime. We are not raising children but great adults.
I wish you all the best in your pursuit of the best for your families.
Bert Kasselman, Psychology Teacher and Acting Head of Senior School