I recently heard a wonderful teacher, Graham Gallasch presenting from his years of experience and passion around developing positive relationships with adolescence. I’ve borrowed his title for my blog because it’s a comment that hear often from my clients. They feel like they’ve lost the child that they knew and now have a child who can be argumentative, withdrawn, surly, a risk-taker, a know-all or lost.
Neuroscience helps to explain what is going on in the teenager’s brain. Many of the changes that we are observing (increased risk taking, moodiness etc) are not necessarily linked to hormonal changes, as we used to think, rather to an under-developed pre-frontal cortex (the decision making area of the brain) and an over-active limbic system that is hyper-sensitive to risk taking. This leads to poor impulse control and a reduced ability to understand someone else’s perspective. However, it also shows that it is an incredibly ripe opportunity for education and learning. It is a time when your child might identify with their real passion. It is a time of heightened creativity. It is a time where they are learning about the meaning and vitality in life.
So how can you embrace and leverage this special period in their lives? Here’s some tips to help you and your teenager:
· Although they may appear not to want you around or to have hugs any longer, deep down they still do. Don’t overdo it, and certainly don’t embarrass them in public, but continue to give the occasional supportive hug and engaging chats. Ask open-ended questions so that they can’t answer with a simple yes or no. Questions like, what was the best thing in your day today? Rather than, did you have a good day?
· During adolescence, core character traits are being set, so there is nothing more powerful than you behaving in a way that you would like your child to be. They will be shaping so much of who they become on what they are observing from you. Sometimes the best way to help our teenager is by becoming a better person ourselves.
· Encourage creative outlets for them. This will help to satisfy their heightened brain activity during this period. Help them to seek out new experiences that engage them fully, stimulate the senses, emotions, thinking and their bodies in new and challenging ways. You may simply do something routine in a new way, such as where you sit at the dinner table, or encourage them to learn something new in an area they love. This may be learning a new sporting skill, like curving a soccer ball, or learning how to braid hair.
· Encourage regular physical exercise. It releases dopamine (a good feel chemical), uses up excess energy, fuels the brain and is good for their body. If the exercise involves team sport, that’s a bonus because it can also assist with the social networks that are so vital during this period.
· Know that the adolescent period is about shifting from dependence to interdependence and independence. To achieve this your child needs to break away from you. Let them have the space to take small, regular steps on their own. Be aware of overlaying your need to keep your ‘baby’, verses allowing them the necessary growth away from you.
· Encourage connections with your teen’s friends. Their friends are like their family during this period, it is vital for them to be connected. Get to know them yourself, invite them to your house and make it a welcoming place for them to be at. A part of our dinner table ritual is to go around the table and share the best thing in our day, the worst thing in our day and the thing that we’re most grateful for. When our teenagers have their friends over for dinner they pretend to be really embarrassed that we still do this (and invite the guests to participate) but on the quiet my kids have told me afterwards that their friends mention how much they love being at our dinner table.
Good luck as you negotiate this sometimes intense period with your adolescent child. I encourage you to embrace it as time of exciting development where you can set some incredible lifelong traits. Know that there are real changes happening in their brains that affects how they are behaving. But also know that despite their front, they still love you and are looking to you for guidance and support (they just have a funny way of showing it!).
So rather than asking yourself, “Are you parenting the right way?”, ask yourself, “Am I the adult that I want my child to grow up to be?”
If you need to have a laugh about teenagers (so you don’t feel alone) this clip is an oldie but a goodie!