The dos and don’ts of handling teens

The transition from child to adult is not the easiest time for child or parent. But the experts tell Ailin Quinlan, there is a way to handle teens — and a way not to
The dos and don’ts of handling teens

ONCE upon a time you had a child who adored you. Now you have a teenager who criticises your every move and utterance, avoids you, just wants to hang out with his friends, or spend every waking hour playing video games or staring at YouTube.

Adolescence is a time of intense physical, emotional, psychological, and social change for a child but also for their parents.

But these stormy waters can be navigated more comfortably with a little know-how.


Acknowledge that your relationship with your child changes significantly when he or she becomes a teenager.

“Be aware that they will pull away and reject you; that your teenager will be more interested in their peers, and understand that the apple cart will be turned upside down but don’t take it personally,” says Dr John Sharry, author, psychotherapist, co-developer of the award-winning parenting programmes, Parents Plus, and lecturer at the school of psychology in University College Dublin.

Seize the moment!

Use family mealtimes as an opportunity to connect with your adolescent, says Dr Patrick Ryan, Head of Psychology at the University of Limerick and author of You Can’t Make Me! How to Get the Best Out of Your Teenager’. View the feeding-and-watering parts of family life as opportunities to connect with him or her and find out what’s happening in their lives, he advises:

“Use mealtimes to create a convivial atmosphere which encourages that bit of the engagement”.

Learn about social media

“Understand Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter,” she says. Too many parents just don’t ‘get’ huge swathes of what constitutes their kids’ lives, reports Stella O’Malley, psychotherapist and author of Cotton Wool Kids: What’s Making Irish Parents Paranoid?


Discuss issues with your teenager. And yes, some of what an adolescent will say will be realistic, some will not, says Sharry.

“Give your point of view in a responsible way and then try to explore some mutually beneficial solution if you can,” he advises.

Choose your battles

“When you’re calm, discuss with your partner which battles you need to fight, because there are loads of them and you cannot fight them all,” advises O’Malley.

Pick a couple of big issues that need to be sorted out, she says, and deal with those.

“Meanwhile park the other problems. These can be dealt with down the road.”

Liaise with the parents of your teenager’s friends

“Research tells us that teenagers are influenced more by their friends’ parents than by their own,” says Ryan.

Know that good adult mentors can have a positive influence on teenagers, so it’s a good idea to get to know the parents of your teenager’s friends — but be discreet about it, he warns.

Spend ‘quality time’ with your teen

Stella O’Malley recommends that you “try to find some sunshine in the teenage years,” so that there are some good memories of this time — even it’s just spending 20 minutes together in a café having mugs of hot chocolate.

The next time they tell you they can’t stand you, she says, you can remind them of the good times you’ve shared.

Keep communication channels open

“Try to reach out and connect; attempt to find things in common with your teenager, such as hobbies or interests and find a time to chat,” suggests Sharry.

Ensure your teenager feels able to tell you things — so don’t constantly threaten to confiscate their phone, warns O’Malley.

“If there’s a problem with a technological device, for example online bullying, don’t threaten to take the phone away, because then they won’t tell you if they’re being bullied.”

Remember that adolescents need time alone

“This is not a sign that they hate you or are plotting to bomb the Dáil,” quips Ryan. “They simply need to try to make sense of their world and they need time on their own with the door closed.”

Encourage your teenager

Don’t be afraid to give them positive messages or to praise them when appropriate, says Sharry.


Blame the technology

It’s here to stay, so don’t use it as an excuse for your children’s bad behaviour, advises Stella O’Malley.

“Don’t blame it for everything from bad manners, such as texting at the table, or for something extreme like sexting. Face the fact that it’s the behaviour that’s wrong.

“A lot of parents blame the phone, but they’re giving kids these devices and not teaching them the appropriate behaviour around them,” O’Malley says. “What they actually need to do is focus on the disrespectful attitude of their sons or daughters”.

Take all this teenage rebellion stuff personally

It’s all part of the process, explains Dr John Sharry.

It’s part of their journey to independence — accept that things will settle down eventually.

Be afraid to make rules and set boundaries

“Parents of teenagers today tend to set too few boundaries,” Sharry observes, adding that some people may even be afraid to set rules, which can result in a teenager having too much control over technology.

“Some parents are a bit overwhelmed by declarations of a teenager’s right to privacy and going out — but you actually have to set good safe rules and not be afraid to do it”.

Over-regulate their lives

“Let them flow into their stride. Don’t be a helicopter parent,” advises Dr Patrick Ryan. “If someone is growing into their personality, give them space; let their personality emerge, whilst ensuring that negotiated boundaries and basic household rules are in place”,

Get drawn into conflict

“You cannot control the fact that someone wants to have a fight but you can control your own response,” says Ryan. “If a teenager is attempting to provoke you, simply control your own response to it. Lose your own attitude!”

Shock easily

Don’t make any subject ‘off limits’ — otherwise how can a child seek help in a crisis? asks O’Malley.

“Sometimes girls are called terrible names, but and they know the parents will be so appalled by it that they don’t tell them.

“Teenagers can be incredibly nasty to each other, but once they hit 19 or 20 that stops — it’s at its worst between 15 and 18,” she says, and if children know you don’t shock easily, they will view you as a support.

Expect your teenager to make good decisions or be capable of impulse control

Their incredibly stupid shenanigans are often the result of the way their brain is wired, says O Malley.

“They will make rash or even crazy decisions in the heat of the moment; risky behaviour such as binge-drinking or unprotected sex.

Continue to explain things to them

“One day it will all go in, but you must allow for the possibility that despite your warnings and explanations, they may still make stupid or impulsive decisions!”

Ignore the power of peer pressure

“Recognise that the power of peer pressure is much stronger in adolescence than at other time in a person’s life,” O’Malley explains.

If they want to give up something they’re good at — music or sports for example, discuss the issue, make your point, and if they insist on giving something up, leave the door open for a return down the road.

Ignore opportunities to learn from them

“Often as parents we don’t have time to question ourselves, and sometimes teenagers see something contradictory or hypocritical or plain daft in what we are doing,” observes Ryan.

We might not like the tone they use to point out the contradictions in what we’re at, he says, but the content of their questions can be highly useful for us as parents and help us find the way to a negotiated solution.

Forget your sense of humour

“That can be your ‘in’ with a teenager,” says O’Malley, “if you have a way of making them laugh, that’s gold dust!”

John Sharry will give a ‘Parenting Pre-Teens and Teenagers ’ course at the Rochestown Park Hotel in Cork on Saturday March 12 from 10am to 4pm.


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