The Happy teenager. It sounds like the title of a fairytale.
Accepted wisdom tells us that at some point your happy-go-lucky 12-year-old emerges from his room one morning transformed into a surly, non-communicative door slammer.
Like all stereotypes, it’s made up of a mixture of truth and prejudice. And like all stereotypes, it’s not particularly helpful. Parenting expert Dr John Sharry of Solutiontalk.ie says that in his experience about a third of parents will face significant struggles with their teenagers, another third will deal with minor challenges, and about a third won’t experience anything out of the norm.
But while no one’s going to have a fairytale adolescence, the experts tell us that it’s quite possible for parents and teens to survive, if not actually enjoy the teenage years. Here is our guide to making it through to the other side.
What’s going on
In the words of self-help guru, Stephen Covey, first seek to understand. Psychologist David Carey says that there are three important things you need to remember when you’re dealing with teenagers. “The psychological movement of the adolescent years is to individuate and separate from family of origin,” he says.
“The teenager wants to stand as the tree before the forest. In order to do that, you assert your independence and you tend to reject traditional family views and values.”
Next, you have the physical changes that take place in teenage bodies. In early adolescence testosterone levels in boys can increase by between 200% and 400%. “That makes them prone to be a bit more bristly,” says Carey. “One of the things we see with boys and girls is that one minute they’re down in the dumps, then a few hours later they’re back to normal. They love you one minute, they hate you the next. Rapid mood changes in the adolescent years are normal and not a sign of any kind of psychological disturbance.”
The third factor is the adolescent brain. Research has found that the early teenage years correspond to a period of intense change in the ways in which the prefrontal cortex — the section of the brain that controls impulses and weighs outcomes — communicates with other parts of the brain. “The adolescent brain tends to be much more emotionally reactive and less able to think through interpersonal problems, to analyse the environment, to interpret the motivations of others.”
Break things down
As if that wasn’t bad enough, teenagers are then asked to spend most of their waking hours trying to fit in with people who are experiencing the same physical and emotional turmoil. We then ask them to make potentially life-changing decisions: What subjects will I take for the Leaving Cert? What college courses will I apply for?
“Help them break down their homework assignments into manageable pieces,” says Carey. “Get a nice big calendar and work with them so that they can have a visual framework and see exactly where they are.”
Sex and relationships
It’s all in the role modelling, says parenting expert Sheila O’Malley of practicalparenting.ie. “It’s the way the husband treats the wife, it’s the way the father treats the daughter that forms her expectations in a relationship with a guy. Kids mirror what they’ve experienced.”
You don’t pick a time, sit them down and have the Big Sex Talk, it’s a conversation that starts early and is frequently reprised.
As the mother of three daughters, O’Malley says the relationship between you and your teen is the most important thing. When you do talk, stay subtle.
“I’d often say to my girls, ‘I had tons of boyfriends, but I wasn’t sleeping with them,’ so you can have the conversation but keep it light… And empathise with them, have the open conversation: ‘What’s it like out there? Sounds like girls are under a lot of pressure. That mustn’t be easy for you…’
Forget digital natives
Simon Grehan is webwise project coordinator at the National Centre for Technology in Education. He believes that the teenager as digital native is a total myth. “Some of them are experts but most of them are blundering around like the rest of us.”
Kids, like everyone else, needs to be educated on how to use social media safely, says Grehan. At webwise.ie, you’ll find a range of resources for parents and teens who want to understand social networking and protect themselves against cyberbullies.
Grehan says that one of the most common forms of bullying in schools involves re-posting of embarrassing pictures. “A lot of the controls on social networking sites give people the impression that they have complete control over who sees what… The reality is it’s almost impossible to control the audience or the context in which a particular picture is taken.”
Get yourself educated, he advises, get them educated, and keep computers out of bedrooms. At night-time, the phone should be charging downstairs.
Getting enough sleep
A poll conducted by the Sleep Council in Britain found that one in three 12- to 16-year-olds get only four to seven hours’ sleep each night, instead of the eight to nine hours recommended for their age group. US research data suggests only 15% are getting as much sleep as they need.
In their recent book, Nurture Shock, science journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman discuss a range of international studies that link sleep deprivation with obesity and depression. Adolescents, says Merryman, need 9¼ hours sleep a night. “For every hour of sleep that they need but they’re not getting, their likelihood of becoming obese increases 80% per hour…One of the researchers we spoke to found that when secondary students fall below eight hours sleep, they double the likelihood of clinical level depression. I’m not talking about a little depression, I’m talking clinical level depression.”
Given this finding, Merryman suggests that all that’s wrong with the stereotypical sullen teenager is a late bedtime. “All of the symptoms of teen moodiness — short tempers, erratic behaviour, short-term memory loss, impulse control problems, all can be related to sleep deprivation.”
Do what you like doing
The Economic and Social Research Council in Britain is running a long-term study called Understanding Society. As part of that research, they have just released a survey of 5,000 people between the ages of 10-15. The results show that, among other things, the more hours spent playing sport, the happier you are.
Though the value of physical exercise is unarguable, David Carey is keen to note that not everyone has to go out running around with a sliotar and a hurl in their hands. “There’s a lot of young lads out there that are artsy or musical,” he says. “We all have different interests. It’s a very commonsense thing. The things we prefer to do are the things that make us happiest.”
Give them independence
Dr John Sharry of solutiontalk.ie says that while you’ve got to facilitate the teenager’s instinctive need to pull away from the family and established his own identity, you’ve also got to do your best to make sure that happens in a gradual, controlled way.
“You don’t want them exposed to things that they’re not able to handle, to suddenly go from dependence on you to being completely independent. So it’s a gradual, slow, negotiated independence is the best way.”
The vital thing, he says, is to stay involved in their lives. If they ask to go out, find out where they’re going. Tell them what time they need to be home at. “Gradually increase their responsibility and independence as they show trust and the ability to handle this new freedom.”
Dr Patrick Ryan is director of the doctoral programme in clinical psychology in the University of Limerick. The key thing, he believes, is to keep those lines of communication open through that difficult period. “Your child doesn’t want to hear ‘Your friends are awful.’ What the child just needs to hear is stuff like, ‘How do you get on with your friends?’ and ‘It looks a little bit like you’re on the edge there…”
Keep the comments observational, says Ryan. Let them know you’re interested in their lives. By about age 15, kids usually begin to return to the fold. “But if you’ve had three years of war, if you don’t have that line of communication open, it will be difficult when they return.”
When boundaries break
You no longer treat your teenager like a child. You allow them the independence they need. But what if despite your best efforts, it doesn’t work out? What if the risky behaviour that all teens flirt with gets taken too far? What if you set a 10 o’clock curfew and they roll in drunk at 2am? At what point do you talk about consequences?
“I would always say to parents, sit down with them and ask ‘What’s the story here?” says Ryan. “What are the consequences? Is it that you don’t get out with your friends at the weekend? Is it that there’s no staying out after 9 o’clock for a week?’ Or ‘No, you’re not going to that party.’ They’ve got to know.
“Teenagers are no different to the rest of us. If we know what the sanction is we tend to regulate our behaviour off that.”
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