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Parents’ Questions Answered – Understanding Teenagers

Last night I gave an online talk to parents of Dunottar School in Surrey. And I promised to answer their questions here, including those that I answered on the night. Although I find lots of advantages in online events, one of the downsides is that I can’t find out the details of the question or ask for clarification if I’m not sure about something – or see from the questioner’s face whether I’ve understood correctly – so I’m rather answering blind. So apologies for the times when I probably got the wrong end of the stick.

Apologies also for typos – I’m running out of time to do everything and since I’m doing this out of goodwill rather than being paid for it* you can do your own proof-reading! (Of course, Dunottar School paid me for doing the talk! Thank you!)

1. If my adolescent says he/she is doing homework, but I don’t believe him/her, what do I do (these days a lot of homework is done on line and therefore I cannot physically see the end result as it’s ‘submitted to the teacher’).

Tricky. You can really only make this accusation if you are very sure indeed. And also understand that sometimes teenagers don’t do the homework because they can’t, or are struggling or just don’t know how to. Ultimately, the teacher is the one who will and should find out that homework hasn’t been done and the first you might hear about it (rightly) is when the teacher tells you. Then you are in a position to ask your teenager about it.

If you find that they aren’t doing homework, ask why. Is it because the work is hard or confusing or is it because of problems concentrating? Is it because they are distracted by social media or is something going on in a friendship group?

Once you discover the cause of the problem you can taker practical steps top help. For example, creating family routines where for a certain period everyone is doing their work and no one is on screens. Or getting each person to make their own time-table, with rewards when they stick to it. Breaking daunting tasks into smaller ones is also a good strategy. Sometimes we all need someone to help us do the things we don’t want to do and sometimes that person is a parent who needs to find ways to motivate. And remember that carrots are generally better than sticks!

PS Also worth saying that you should not always need or want to see the homework. I think this is one area where we can step back, at least sometimes, and let the teenager take responsibility? You could even be explicit about this: “I trust you to have done the best job you can so I won’t ask to see it but maybe you could choose to show me every now and then, perhaps when you’re proud of a piece of work? I’m genuinely interested.”

2. How can we get our teenage kids to converse more? Mine goes quiet when I try to make conversation. 🙂

It’s a very common problem and reasons for this include: they’re tired from all the compulsory conversations during the day; they are separating from you so they’re not that interested in your conversation – you’re a boring adult who is probably going to lecture or patronise them (even if you’re not); conversation is actually hard work and our brains are programmed to avoid hard work to save energy, unless there’s a big incentive or need not to. And there usually isn’t, unless they want something…

So, be patient and calm. You can’t force a conversation. Keep the conversation flowing around them and show an interest when they do contribute. No phones visible or audible during meal-times.

And find topics that might interest them. Things they might know more about than you, for example.

Oh, and they’re probably talking to other people a lot, just not to you! Don’t take it personally: it’s because they can afford to annoy you. Besides, when we are grumpy or down, we don’t feel like talking; we make an effort for strangers or work colleagues but let our politeness slip for family. Teenagers are just doing the same. They’re relaxing!

3. It seems like there is a lot of falling out with each other with their friendships at school.  Is this normal and how can we support them when they are upset?

Incredibly normal. The book I mentioned in my answer is The Teenage Guide to Friends and it gives masses of insights into why people behave the way they do, so when someone says something cruel to us we can see the context for it and not assume the comment is true. It gives guidance about dealing with toxic friendships, one-way friendships, group behaviour and feeling left out. And it helps readers see that personalities are all different and not everyone can be our friend!

4. How can I prepare to be the safety net for my son?

This was referring to something I’d said about not being a helicopter but a safety-net parent, allowing your child to fall or fail safely. My advice is to not make failure seem such a big deal. Doing badly on a test should lead us to ask why we did badly and see if there’s something we could do differently; learning that we improve through practice; that failure is just a step towards future success. We need to help our children deal with failure and learn that it doesn’t feel nice but it’s not the end of the world and that it even makes success feel sweeter when it comes.

Another tip is to lower the stakes of a challenge: “This is just one step on your journey” rather than “This is the most important moment of your life”. And, “I will love you equally whether you succeed at this task or not.” (You might think that’s obvious but it needs to be said, often.

My answer in the talk was waffly because I needed more context. I’m not sure if the question was about risk-taking, which is what I thought at the time but I now think it might have been about learning to accept mistakes etc.

Being a safety-net is about being clear that you are there for them but that they can face the challenge themselves because then it will be their success. So it’s about enabling and encouraging, rather than providing the solutions.

5. Is there a short video (or other learning aid that they are likely to actually read / watch / consume), aimed at teenagers, to help them understand the science of distractions (screens, etc) and how and why to manage them?

Actually, yes! I promised I’d go looking and I found this really quickly. It’s a good way fo showing how real experience fits the science. The people shown are adults, but most of them only in their early 20s so highly relevant. Also, do point out that people who use distractions more are more distractible, not less.

And, of course, The Teenage Guide to Life Online is written for teenagers but is a great way for them to educate their parents. It has a message they will like, which is basically “adults are just as guilty as young people of unhealthy screen use”! Judging by the Amazon reviews, teenagers do like it.

6. In getting them to do things for themselves, is it better to phase out support or do a sudden break?

Id say it depends on the situation and the teenager but generally better to do it gradually or at least step by step.

7. Sometimes teenagers can come across as rude – communication gap I presume. How do you deal with it?

this can be either a) sullen behaviour (see the answer to Q2 above) or b) anger/aggression (see the answer to Q below)

I think in general the best approach is a combination of:

  • genuine empathy as to why they are doing it
  • an immediate calm response such as “That was rude and unhelpful” but then not reacting
  • a later conversation along the lines of “I do understand that sometimes it’s hard to be polite when you’re feeling angry but it’s really important to be able to because sometimes it matters. Yes, of course I will still love you but it doesn’t make anyone’s life easier or better. It would be amazing if you could say sorry when you’re feeling ready.”

But if it’s just moderate sullenness and grumpiness, I think a lot of it is better ignored.

Most important, of course, is to model good behaviour by being an absolute paragon of virtue yourself and always apologising when you’ve been rude etc!

8. Any help and advice on policing screen time. Since iPads have been provided, policing is very difficult and cases so much conflict.  

Yes, this is such a common cause of conflict. You don’t say what age your child is and that makes a difference to how you can “police” it but very briefly I’d say:

  1. You have to start by understand why it causes conflict. It’s simple: in trying to take away a screen or reduce its use, you are effectively removing an addict’s drug. That is a slight exaggeration  but only slight. It’s the same brain pathways we’re talking about. It’s not going to go well.
  2. The next step is education: your teenager needs to understand and believe why it would be of benefit to reduce screentime. That is a first an essential step to motivation.
  3. Then you negotiate a family policy, which needs to include everyone even if the details might be different for different members. But the adults must also follow the rules.
  4. your family policy should include some time-tables where screens will or won’t be used. The non-screen time needs to be filled with fun activities that everyone will enjoy. Not necessarily all together – for example, one person might love to sit curled up with a book. But they need to be enjoyable, non-screen occupations.
  5. Firm rule of no screens (for everyone): from 1-2 hours before bedtime till wake up time; meal-times; when someone is trying to talk.

I feel I haven’t properly answered the word in your actual question: “police”. I’ve talked about creating the guidelines but not addressed how you check that they’ve been followed. This will depend on a) the age and responsibility of your teenagers b) the specific tech involved and c) how much you trust them based on other contexts. But the short answer is: you can try but if they want to evade, they will. They will always be one step ahead: your only task is to make sure it’s only one step…

I’d love you to come to my Teens (10-18) and Screens webinar planned for later this summer. Details soon! Sign up to follow this blog if you don’t want to miss out. Followers will get a discount, too.

9. Lots of young people say that listening to music helps them focus. This rings true for me as when I listen to music it stops me from noticing distractions around me and I am more focused. It’s as though the music acts like white-noise. Am I mistaken? Is music always a distraction?

You are correct! See my post here.

10. With an ‘explosive teenager’, how do you approach discipline after for example door slamming, anger, name calling etc?

See also the answer to Q7.

I think the main thing here is that when someone is very angry/emotional, they are in the worst state for any rational discussion and for any “discipline” to work out positively. Explosive anger, extreme rudeness or aggression are not desirable behaviours and on many levels are not “acceptable”. But they happen. And after they’ve happened (and occasionally during the moment) the person involved also feels shame and guilt and regret, even if that is impossible to admit. It can be very frightening and disconcerting when one feels out of control of one’s emotions, words or actions. Their self-esteem lowers and they may be angry with themselves or disappointed and ashamed. So do take this into consideration in the words you use both at the time and afterwards.

What you want is for them to have a safe opportunity to calm down, followed by the strength of character to reflect and the opportunity to say sorry. If you are very hostile or judgmental they do not have that opportunity to say sorry.

So, while it depends on the situation, in general I’d advise:

  • As the adult with the fully developed prefrontal cortex, you are the one who should be able to refrain from reacting angrily or emotionally. (And if you’re anything like me, you’ll know it’s not easy! But it’s easier than it is for them.) A simple, calm, “That is an unfair/inappropriate/rude thing to say but I know you’re angry and I know it’s hard to be controlled when you’re angry. But let’s have some space and discuss later when you’re feeling less angry.”
  • Then, later, find a time to ask how they’re feeling. What were they feeling when they said whatever it was? Do they feel able to say sorry for the words, even if they thought them at the time? Is there anything they could do next time to avoid the outburst? Is there a way to express anger without being rude or hurtful? (Try to avoid saying you are hurt.)
  • I think there need to be certain words they can use without too much response from you but others that are not acceptable. So I feel that tolerating a certain amount of verbal anger while your teenager is going through a stressful time is right. But I also think that it’s good to make them reflective about their behaviour so they can try to moderate it.
  • Praise every time they do  manage good behaviour during emotions.
  • Model calm language yourself. You will be imitated.
  • If your teenager seems to be really angry a lot of the time, you should consider whether there’s some depression going on. Some people – often males – display depression as anger, not sadness.
  • Criticise the behaviour, not the person. Be really careful never to say “You’re a very angry/rude/aggressive person” but instead “That was a rude thing to say”.

11. Any tips for how we stop older siblings arguing with each other at the table/in the car when you are trying to have a ‘positive family conversation’ eg about a holiday – how can we change the course of this dialogue as they often don’t seem to listen to the parent while they’re arguing and it’s difficult not to get annoyed with them!  Ages – 14,12 & 10!!

My sympathies! If someone is arguing or being disruptive, you can’t have that positive family discussion so I’d advise you to pause it and come back to it later. Change the conversation, ideally ignoring the one/s being disruptive. Give them attention when they’re being reasonable.

But I’d also ask whether perhaps the oldest one is doing it on purpose because they actually want to be somewhere else – eg in their room/on their phone. Alternatively (or as well) the two older ones just might be at too similar a stage of development and behaving in really classic sibling rivalry ways. They each need their own spotlights of attention and it must be hard or impossible to give them that all the time while also giving your 10yo attention. So I think that for a while (it’s temporary!) these whole-family conversations just will be difficult. You have too many strong voices and weak prefrontal cortices all in one car/kitchen! So you can probably only focus on a) improving their moods and mindsets by giving them each separate attention according to their needs and b) lowering your expectations of having serious family discussions for a while.

Or how about structuring the conversation so each one gets a chance to speak uninterrupted for a short while. And if someone causes trouble, they don’t get their turn.


(I do have another question to answer but it had some personal aspects to it so I’m checking with the questioner that she’s happy for it to be aired here.)

Thank you to Dunottar School for inviting me. And good luck to all of you as you follow your own journeys through adolescent-parenting, dragged along by your teenagers as they try to separate from you. Unfortunately, being a parent comes with inevitable worries and as soon as one is behind you and forgotten another comes along. I now have a grandchild and I can tell you that the worry continues! I think the key to a happy, healthy and successful life is how we manage to make big worries stay in the tiny corners of our mind so the rest of it can be filled with the joy and excitement.

Don’t let the worries keep out the light! Your children and teenagers are wonderful and your love for them is enough.


Calls to Action

Do keep an eye open for my webinars on Teens (10-18) and Screens and Teenage Resilience. If you subscribe to this blog/website, you’ll automatically be the first to hear and you’ll get a discount, too.

Schools or conferences wanting to book me to speak: I’m always pretty well-booked so contact me early. See the Speaking Page for details. Or consider booking a Live Online Q&A with your students.

Parents and teachers: look out for my forthcoming new shop, where you can buy previous webinar recordings, videos, teaching materials and training sessions.

Would you like to come to my online book launch for Be Resilient? A few spaces (free) will be available to website followers. Again, watch out for news! (You’ll get the news automatically – you don’t have to keep looking at my website, just open the email when it comes.)

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