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Answering questions from teenagers

Last week I did an online Q&A session with the sparky girls from Bedford Girls School. I did the same for them last year, too, and I do love a repeat invitation! Because it was online I couldn’t see them very well but they had LOTS of questions. We had agreed three topics in advance and they discussed what they’d ask me. I gave three mini-talks and then opened it up for questions. But there were FAR more questions than I could answer at the time so we agreed I’d answer them on my blog. The three topics were teenage brains, friendships/peer pressure and body image. But a few other topics crept in…

I copied and pasted all the questions from the chat and deleted their names.

(Apologies for typos – this is a very long piece and my fingers and eyes are sore! Also, I have a NEW book to write…)

General

Where can I buy your books?

Signed copies are available on my website but you can buy from any bookshop (ask the bookseller and they’ll order it at no extra cost if it’s not in stock) or online in all the usual places.

How do I get my parents to read your books? xx

Tell them that if they want to know what’s going on in your head that’s the only way! Or tell them they’re not allowed to!

Does reading fiction books benefit our brain?

YES! Reading fiction (and non-fiction) has huge benefits. It opens your mind, generates ideas and creativity, improves self-esteem, is linked to better exam results, increases knowledge and vocabulary and aids relaxation and sleep. See here for evidence.

 

Teenage brains

How come being a teenager is just being too old to do things, being too young to do things and not wanting to do the things which are for you?

Neat question. Honestly, I think that all ages would say we’re too young for some things, too old for others and not the right age for the things we’re told are for us. But I do get what you’re saying. I think it’s because you are transitioning between child (protected, dependent) and adult (unprotected and independent) and for humans that’s a big long process, which often feels unfair and difficult. Just be glad that you’re too young to worry about bills and too old to worry about monsters under the bed.

What effect does school have on the teenage brain?

Millions of effects, some good and some bad. At its best, school feeds your brain with masses of skills and knowledge, friendships and character-building. At worst it bombards you with stress and pressure. School should support and nurture but humans are so complex that some schools don’t suit some people.

For your information, literally EVERYTHING we do affects our brain so don’t get worried about the idea. Each single thing/event/thought/idea/action makes a small difference. It’s just how our brains work and nothing to get worried about. A healthy life and brain is all about making good choices where possible, whether at school, home or wherever.

Would you say that over the years and from your research teens have changed every decade?

Yes and no. In some ways (biology) teens haven’t changed for hundreds of years. In some ways (social situations and the rules of society) teens change more often than every decade. But mostly I think no, teens have not changed much. But the world has changed around you and you have to respond to the society and situation you’re in.

Why don’t teenagers have gaps in between lessons to refresh their brain? E.g in the afternoon we have to concentrate for 2 hours.

IKR. Gaps would be good. What would you do in the gap? The best things would be to go for a quick jog or walk around the school building to get the oxygen levels up in your body and brain. Would you do that?

 

Screens

How bad an impact does the internet have on the teenage brain?

It totally depends. (And by the way it would also have this effect on an adult brain.) If you use the internet well and make sure you leave plenty of time for things like physical activity and family time, there’s no problem. If you let yourself over-use or use it in a way that doesn’t help you, it will do you no good. Don’t let people make you think the internet is the problem – it’s how and how much we use it. Make sure it’s a tool not a tyrant. Stay in control and switch off often.

How can I convince adults that my phone is not the problem 😍😍

Is it a problem? Show them that it isn’t by showing them that you’re still spending enough time on: physical activity, face-to-face social interactions, family time, hobbies and schoolwork.

And get them to read The Teenage Guide to Life Online. You could read it first so you can educate them!

Is there a way to stop myself procrastinating?

Yes. (For more details, read The Teenage Guide to Life Online.)

  1. Make a firm rule or contract with yourself. For example, say to yourself (and write the rule down) that you will not look at your phone until you have been working for 45 minutes and then only for 5 minutes. Set a timer.
  2. Use an App that sets a timer (search “pomodoro technique”). and perhaps even one that blocks you from the internet or your phone for a certain amount of time.
  3. Put your phone where you can’t easily get it. (Or give it to an adult to look after.)
  4. And praise yourself when you get your work done before going on your phone.

Does playing games on your phone affect you mentally?

Not necessarily and not necessarily in a bad way. Bear in mind that every choice we make affects us in some way but a) often the difference is tiny and b) if you then do something different you can wipe out that effect. So playing games on your phone only has a noticeable effect if you do it a lot. And then when you stop doing it, gradually that effect fades. If you then stop for long enough the effects will fade as though it never existed. Out brains change constantly depending on what we spend our time on.

Sleep

Is it bad for teenagers to nap regularly?

If you mean “often”, it’s not ideal, to be honest. It a) suggests you’re not getting enough night-time sleep and b) it might affect your night-time sleep.

If you do have to nap, don’t nap for longer than 15 minutes and don’t do it after about 4pm. If you’re ill, sleeping is good, though. If you keep falling asleep at school, make an appointment to consult a doctor who can help you find out if there’s a reason you’re so sleepy. But it’s most likely that you’re not sleeping enough at night.

What should we do if we can’t sleep early but have to wake up? / How can I change my sleep schedule? / How do you sleep early if you are not sleepy / Is there anything that people might do that could affect their “body clock”?

Follow the advice in The Awesome Power of Sleep to change your body clock and sleeping schedule. It’s easier than you might think! It involves creating a winding-down routine and bringing the start of the routine a bit earlier each night. Here are some resources for you: Five-step sleep plan ,  Sleep Positives and Sleep Negatives,  TipsSLEEP and The Awesome Power of Sleep_Poster

Sleep problems

What happens if you don’t get enough sleep like only 6 hours? / Is 7 hours enough sleep?

Everyone has different needs but, on average, someone your age needs between 8 and 9.30 hours a night. Often you won’t get that and you probably won’t feel too bad. And you might occasionally have as little as six hours and cope perfectly well next day. But regularly having less than 7 hours will mean that you probably won’t feel and function as well as you would if you had more. You will find it hard to concentrate; your mood might be affected; you might be snappy and irritable; you might make careless mistakes.

How am I meant to get 9+ hours of sleep when I have to revise for tests and do homework?

I understand that this seems difficult or impossible. But if you follow the guidelines in The Awesome Power of Sleep you will be able to. But you should also consider whether you have too many after-school commitments. If you have a learning condition such as dyslexia, you may also have extra difficulty fitting all the work in as it will take you longer to read and write. If this is an issue for you, please make sure that your teachers properly take this into account.

If I am not getting enough sleep and my sleep schedule has shifted, is it permanent or can I fix it?

Nothing is permanent!

How badly does stress affect your sleep?

Badly. It’s the main reason why sleep is sometimes very difficult to achieve. But the great thing is that there are clear ways to reduce stress. I’ve written about this a LOT. And I’m about to write another book about how to be calm! If you can’t find what you’re looking for on my website, let me know. Try this first, though: TipsSTRESS

 

Body image

Is it okay for friends to always comment on your height ☹️ / Is it okay for my friends to try and measure my height

I assume you’re meaning that they make you feel you are too short or too tall. In either case, they are making you feel self-conscious and that’s not OK. They might not realise that it’s upsetting or annoying you but they shouldn’t do it anyway. Ask them if they would like it if people kept commenting on how they look?

If you are constantly told you look bad in a certain way, probably by parents and siblings comparing you to other people, is it possible to fully believe that you look like this. Will this change how you see yourself when you look in a mirror?

Yes, this is really what “body image” means – not what you look like but what you think or feel you look like. And that is largely created by things that people have said. They might not even have said it to you. For example, if someone comments on the size of someone’s nose in a photo, you might then notice your notice and start to believe there was something “wrong” with it. Most of us would like to look either beautiful or just the same as someone else and because we ALL look different it’s very easy to get something fixed in our mind about how we look. And when we look in the mirror we genuinely see something different from what others see when they look at us. Our body image is usually inaccurate. And when people comment on anything about how we look it has enormous power.

So we all need to realise this and stop commenting on how we all look!

Is there a way to get over an insecurity?

It’s difficult but not impossible. The best thing to do is focus really strongly on the good things about yourself. Perhaps you’re insecure about your legs not being straight (that’s me!) so keep reminding yourself that you like your shoulders or you’re proud of how fast you run. Spend time working on becoming better at a sport or a skill so that you get many reminders of your strengths and you can start to focus less on what you don’t like.

Is it normal to feel like you look nicer in a mirror, than on camera? What do you actually look like? Is a mirror accurate or a camera

Cameras DO lie! It’s definitely common to feel you look better in a mirror. A camera catches one moment but in real life (including a mirror) your face and body are moving. Moving is natural so mirrors tend to be more “accurate” and natural than cameras. As to “what do you actually look like?” – you actually look different in different lights and with different expressions. There is no one single absolute reality. You are a human, not a robot.

Why is it so hard for people to not comment on your body and act like your doctor?

This is complicated. SOMETIMES, they are genuinely concerned and trying to help. One of the most common things you might be referring to is when people comment on weight or shape. I wish people wouldn’t, as it’s usually offensive and can make things worse. But sometimes they are genuinely concerned (although commenting is still not the right thing to do.) For example, just supposing someone was what doctors would call unhealthily overweight, a friend might want to help. And they don’t realise that the person is already trying really hard to be a healthier weight. So the comment just makes them feel worse. (Feeling guilty about eating or weight is never the way to become healthier.)

Helping someone with a weight problem should only be done by an adult with some training in the subject so that they can help in a safe and kind way. Your job as a friend is just to be a friend and have fun with the person, not be their doctor.

Is it really okay if friends are always commenting on what and how much you eat and are practically acting like they’re your dietician 💔

Very similar to the previous question but I wanted to answer it separately. No, it’s not okay! See my answer above. Commenting on what someone is eating is a very unhelpful thing to do and it can be very damaging for someone who is vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. If your friends are worried about what you’re eating they should talk very privately to an adult. If you are worried about your eating and would like to have a healthier lifestyle, do, please ask an adult for help. Don’t wait till you’ve become really stressed about it. And don’t try to tackle your body shape or eating habits on your own – it’s too hard.

Why do I have mood swings about the way I look? / Is it normal to hate what you look at one moment but then the next minute you’re perfectly okay?

Yes! We all have lots of different things to focus on and sometimes it’s easier than others and things are going better than others. When you’ve had a good day and the sun’s shining, your life/body/face/friends will seem sunnier.

Is it normal to be 4”9?

You’re not fully grown yet and will grow some more. Maybe several inches. Humans are all different heights, some much shorter and some much taller. There are differences between ethnic backgrounds, too.  People who are shorter than average or taller than average unfortunately sometimes get teased or feel self-conscious but other people of more average heights are feeling self-conscious about different things.

Occasionally, a medical problem means that someone grows more or less than “normal” but you would know if this applied to you. If you’re worried, check with a doctor.

Hypothetically, if your friends say you look good but actually your outfit makes you feel worse would you consider that peer pressure?

No, I would just say that you are feeling unconfident about your appearance. If you aren’t comfortable in a particular outfit, that’s all that matters. It’s nice that your friends say you look good in it but if you disagree it’s up to you!

If I achieved my ideal body image would I feel satisfied or will there always be something about me I hate?

Since you are even thinking about this, I believe: a) that you would still be unhappy about something about your body and b) you are over-thinking about your “ideal body image”. You’d be happier if you tried to focus on things that were about your skills, ambitions, character and friendships. But remember that “body image” isn’t what you look like but what you believe and feel you look like. If you can work on your image (in other words how you feel about your looks)rather than trying to change your body or wish it was different, you could certainly achieve happiness.

Why do people always have something to say about other people’s image

(I assume you mean their shape, rather than “image”? Remember “image” is not actual shape but your belief about it.) Jealousy? Insecurity? Thinking about their own shape too much? Trouble is, we do naturally have thoughts about what other people look like, often comparing them to ourselves, and it’s very hard not to do that. Unfortunately, some people seem to say what they are thinking instead of keeping it to themselves if it’s not their business!

Is it okay for parents to compare you to your friends and shaming you?

No. Do your parents know you feel they are doing this? (By the way, it’s possible that you have misunderstood but the fact that you even believe this is happening is important so do raise it with them. If they really are doing this it’s very unfair and undermining and not the most effective way to help you have a healthy lifestyle or whatever the topic is.) Shaming someone is not a good idea. You should talk to them about this and help them realise how their comments make you feel.

Why do I feel I have to change what I wear to fit in with other people’s view of “good”?

You don’t! One day – it might be tomorrow or it might be in years to come – you will stop dressing to please other people and dress to suit yourself and how you feel. I hope that day comes soon and not in years to come!

DO read my book Body Brilliant – it contains everything you need to know about body image and all the ways to help yours improve.

Friendships

What are some red flags in a friendship?

Great question. Friendships are meant to make you feel good, secure, comfortable. So the big red flags are when you don’t. This doesn’t mean that good friends always say things that make you feel good – sometimes good friends have to be a bit honest with you, too, and sometimes good friends have their own problems to deal with and can’t focus on you. But good friends don’t constantly undermine or ignore you. Good friends are happy when good things happen to you and sad when things are tough for you. Good friends feel like someone you could take a problem to.

But not all friendships have to feel 100% wonderful all the time. Everyone’s different and everyone brings something different to a relationship. So don’t end a friendship simply because you don’t feel like a million dollars all the time! But do consider ending it if you very often feel that this person doesn’t have your back and you’re not comfortable with them. On the other hand, you might not need to end it as it might just fizzle out and that’s often the best way.

Another red flag is what I call a one-way friendship. That’s when one person gets all the benefits – such as support – but never gives back. Or when they are always the one that calls the shots and decides what you’re going to do. Supposing a friend is going through a bad time. It’s obviously right that they would need a lot of support from you and natural that they would not have the headspace to focus on any problems you might have. You might feel you’re supporting them constantly and you’d probably be happy to do that. But what if you also need support and they aren’t giving it? Is this a “one-way” friendship? It might be or it might not be. It might be that they genuinely can’t help and you need to get your support from another friend while continuing to do what you can for your friend in need. HOWEVER, supposing your friend’s situation has improved and you feel they could genuinely focus on you now. If your friend never seems to be able to think about you, even when things are going fine for them, that’s a red flag. You could gently point out how you feel and see what they say. Or you could first discuss with a trusted adult in case you are over-reacting or misunderstanding. But, basically, a friendship is better and stronger when there’s an equality, a sharing of support, when both of you give as well as take.

The Teenage Guide to Friends has lots of advice on this!

Teenagers and negative friendships; excerpt from The Teenage Guide to Friends by Nicola MorganWhat do you do if certain people in your friendship group are trying to push you out and exclude you?

It depends. First, it might not be true – it could be that you’re imagining it. They might be bonding with each other and not even realise they’re leaving you out. Can you discuss it with someone, whether someone in the group or outside the group or a trusted adult? Second, it is possible or likely that there are one or two people who aren’t particularly close to you and they see you as a threat or as someone who isn’t making the group be exactly as they would like it to be. Changes in groups are constant and natural and at the moment perhaps you are someone who they see as the person they’d like to drop from the group. This does NOT mean you deserve to be dropped from the group! It’s just that “chemistry” between people is complicated and not logical -we just do have our likes and dislikes and in groups this can cause problems.

Think about whether you really want to be in this group. Think about whether it would be OK to be closer friends with one or two of them than the others. this is perfectly OK. Groups can give us strength but they can also undermine us – you don’t need to be in groups. You can be on the edge very happily. I’ve spent my whole life being happily on the edge of groups. I can come and go, join in when I please. People come to me for support and often come to me when they just want to chat to one person. I’m really happy like this though at school I did feel left out.

Is it bad for friendship groups to fall out?

It’s not pleasant at the time but it’s quite normal. Sometimes it just has to happen. The thing is, you become friends at one stage of your lives, thrown together for one reason only: you’re in the same place at the same time. And then, as you grow older, you change. You all change. And usually you won’t all change in the same way. It’s just part of life. value your friends while you have them but never expect the relationships to stay the same or to last. they might but they might not!

How you do leave a bad friendship?

It depends on the situation. (And, by the way, if you’re in this position, I’m sorry, as it’s never pleasant.) Very often, it’s possible not to do anything very specific but just to drift away. Start spending more time with other people and less time with this friend. Often a school holiday can be helpful here, as it’s easier for you to spend more time doing something else and then when term starts again you might find that both of you have drifted apart. Actually breaking off a friendship by having a Big Conversation is sometimes possible or necessary but it’s hard for me to advise as the situations will all be so different.

It very much depends on the reason, too. For example, do you want to end it because you’re just not happy with how it’s going? Or has the person done something you really don’t like and can’t forgive? Have you had an argument? These things make a difference to how you might end the friendship. And to how unpleasant it will be.

One thing to accept is that, however a friendship ends, it’s going to be painful at first. You might have awkward moments where you meet the person in a corridor, for example. And in a school it can be really hard to avoid this. You might spend the whole day in the same room as the person. And they might be hurting and therefore be likely to make nasty remarks. One thing I’d advise here – and it’s a very good motto for many areas of life – is always to “keep the moral high ground”. This means never behaving in a way you’d regret or be ashamed of. If they say mean things, resist the temptation to say mean things back.

Always remember that however bad you feel right now these feelings will fade. You will not feel like this soon. One day you will probably even forget completely what happened and how you felt.

In general, I’d say that the ideal way to leave a bad friendship is to let it fade by itself. But then I really don’t like conflict!

How do you make friends? / It may be easy to leave a friend/friend group but what about making new friends?

Don’t over-think it. Don’t force it or push it. Friendships will come with you doing very little. I say “very little” but not nothing! If you do nothing, friendships don’t get a chance to start growing. You sow the seeds of a friendship by tiny things such as:

  • Asking someone a question – “Did you watch…?” “What do you think of…?”
  • By smiling at them in the lunch queue and making a comment – “Oh no, it’s spaghetti again!”
  • By having a shared interest – so, joining a book group or after school class or liking or disliking the same music or celebrity
  • By saying you like their shoes/hair/phone
  • By sharing a joke
  • By signing up for something social, even if you feel nervous about it – that’s often when you make unexpected friendships

But whatever you do, don’t try too hard – small steps are better. Don’t rush, don’t worry and don’t count how many friends you’ve got. The numbers don’t matter. I always say you should count on your friends but not count them. Friends will come. Really.

Is it ok if your friends compare themselves to you, and make fun of you for your taste?

It’s not good if it makes you feel bad. But do realise that this is “normal” human behaviour – that doesn’t mean it’s “good” human behaviour but it’s very common indeed, unfortunately, and particularly in young people. In my opinion, if this is really happening (rather than you imagining it or over-reacting) you could call them out on it. Teach them a bit of empathy and ask them how they’d feel. “Do you realise how judgmental you’re being? We are all allowed to have different tastes. When you say this it makes me feel … ” You might need to have a bit of an argument with your friends before they’ll see that their comments are wrong but you’ll be doing yourself and them a favour.

You have – like everyone – two choices: fit in with the group style/fashion/taste or be individual and handle the fact that some people will comment. Then your choice is to ignore their comments or call them out. But if you ignore their comments the comments will probably keep coming…

How do you stop 2 people in your friendship group from making each other feel bad inadvertently?

Interesting one! I’d love it if you could find a way to point it out to them. You could either do this both at the same time or one at a time. But make sure each k nows that they’re both doing it, not that one is doing it more than the other. They need to feel equally supported. You’ve said it’s “inadvertent” so they will probably each feel bad so they need to feel equal at the same time. Then they have a way to say sorry and change. Good luck!

 

Random question

Moving hands while talking but not cooking…

On your website you said that you can’t move your hands while speaking. Do you think that can affect your mental health?

What this is about is that, yes, I have noticed that I can’t do things with my hands while I’m talking. I can actually move them – in fact I move my hands a lot when talking – but I can’t move them in a deliberate way. I know some other people who find the same thing. When I am forced to talk at the same time as doing something with my hands, my brain feels as though it’s being splintered. I just can’t operate. For example, I can’t make someone a cup of coffee while talking to them. I am a very good cook but I cannot cook even the simplest thing while talking. If I start doing one, the other stops. It feels horrible. It’s a genuine weakness in my brain. It’s a disability like dyslexia or dyspraxia.

As to whether it affects my mental health: if I did not understand that this is a genuine “thing” and not just something I’m “bad at and need to improve” I would be very stressed every time I needed to talk while doing. And it is very stressful when that happens. I would feel bad about myself. And I would not take steps to help myself.

Instead of which, because I DO understand, acknowledge and work around this “disability” I am able to avoid feeling bad. For example, if I’ve got someone coming to coffee, i have everything laid out in advance so all I have to do is switch the kettle on and pour (which I can do while they are talking!) If I have guests staying the weekend, i tell them to stay out of the kitchen while I’m cooking. (My family know.) And any time I am faced with having to talk while doing, I simply tell people I can’t.

So, no, it doesn’t affect my mental health but only because I understand myself, acknowledge by brain’s systems, and take practical steps to work around the issues.

By the way, you might be saying, “But if you practise this skill, you’ll get better because that’s how brains work.” No. Yes, that is how brains work but this is not “a skill”; it is a whole way in which my/your brain works. You can’t change that. It’s fundamental to my brain. Don’t take it away from me! (Just don’t ask me to cook you a meal while talking. It will go horribly wrong.)

Can I go for a lie down now?

I’m exhausted! But thank you to the students and teachers of Bedford Girls School for your interest and excellent questions. Good luck in all you try, throughout your lives, forever.


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