Teenagers often get a bad press, yet we were all teenagers once.  How many of us can honestly say that we were delightful to our parents, unfailingly polite and appreciative, readily complying with all their demands and timescales, keeping our rooms tidy and thanking them for their undying love, support, lifts, supply of money, home cooking…?

Cartoon with child listing things their parent got up to as a teenager

However, there is no doubt that the teenage years can be challenging for parents and it can be hard to consistently model the behaviours we want to promote, when our teenagers are doing what teenagers do – pushing the boundaries and working out who they are and how they fit into the world – but we are role models.  Our teenagers will learn how to manage tricky situations and conflict from us so…

preach the gospel at all times and, when necessary, use words. St. Francis of Assisi

Add high learning potential to the mix and you will have your work cut out and your patience tested as your teenager negotiates and argues, looks for chinks in the armour or plays one parent off against the other.  As a parent and secondary school teacher, I’ve gathered some tips along the way and combined this with a Post-Graduate Diploma in Behaviour and Inclusion, so I hope there will be something here which helps you live in harmony with your teenager.  Not everything will work for everyone or in every situation, so this is a toolkit to select from, try out and refine.

A Starting Point

Take a moment, daily, to remember what is wonderful about your teenager.  What do they do well?  How have they shown exceptional kindness or thoughtfulness?  How do they make you laugh?  What skills or interests make you feel proud of them?

A few years ago, as I was struggling with my own teenager (who has turned into a delightful, kind, thoughtful young woman), a friend said, “She’s not the worst teenager”, at which point I realised that, yes, I was exceptionally lucky to have a daughter who could be relied on to be lovely to everyone outside the home!  It helped me gain perspective rather than feeling inadequate as a parent.

The Teenage Brain

brain and information about brain growth and development during adolescence

As the brain develops during the teenage years:

  • Sleep patterns shift: melatonin is produced later in the evening, making it harder to get to sleep and then we wake them up to go to school meaning they never get enough sleep!
  • Risk taking increases: see below
  • Peers: relationships and approval become far more important than previously
  • Lack of empathy: the part of the brain which allows us to empathise is not fully developed until after the teenage years

Risk taking: the teenage brain is constantly developing and some areas mature faster than others.  The areas associated with impulsivity, reward and motivation mature early.

teenager surfing
teenager surfing wipeout

The prefrontal cortex matures later. This part thinks about things logically, weighs the pros and cons and restrains impulses, making teens more prone to riskier and impulsive behaviours, and less likely to consider the consequences than adults.

Studies have shown that teenagers know they are indulging in risky behaviour, e.g., drinking, but they think the benefits outweigh the risks.  Teaching your teenager about the importance of keeping each other safe is better than warning them of the perils of drink!  “We count on you and your friends to care for each other and keep each other’s secrets but … if you are worried about their drinking/eating, self-harming/depression, tell us.”  “You did the right thing to tell us. This is really important.”

Some Tried and Tested Tips

Living with Teenagers Top Tips Graphic

Separate your daughter from the behaviour

Talk about her behaviour, not her as a person. This avoids labelling your daughter as “silly”, “dangerous”, “rude” etc whilst allowing you to express displeasure with the behaviour. Love the person but dislike the behaviour.

For example

  • Say, “That was a silly thing to do, it was dangerous” (not “Don’t be so silly”)
  • Say, “Spitting is unhygienic and unpleasant” (not “You are disgusting”)
  • Say, “Swearing is not acceptable” (not “You are so rude”)

Use “I” language

Talk about yourself.  This is far harder to argue with and does not apportion blame.  The third example works well because you take the blame so it’s less likely to result in a confrontation.

For example

  • Say, “I find it difficult to hear/talk when the music is so loud” (not “You are making me annoyed” or “You are making it difficult for me to work”)
  • Say, “I am disappointed that you did not do your homework/feed the cat. Is there a reason?” (not “Why didn’t you do your homework/etc?”)
  • Say, “I’m so sorry.  I didn’t make it clear.  I need an hour to work quietly now”.

“Please” and “Thank You”

When asking your son to do something, use please and thank you.  This works because it is a polite request. Using a command opens up opportunities for confrontation!  Ending a request with, “Thank you” assumes it will be done …

For example

  • Say, “Shoes off, thank you”
  • Say, “Please would you do me a favour and pick that up?  Thanks.”

Assume she will do what you ask and allow ‘take-up’ time

Make the request and take your attention off your daughter. Say what you want and walk away. It might take a minute or two for her to follow through.  Again, it is less confrontational. In a while, check she has done it without making it obvious and ask again quietly if necessary.

For example

Say, “Would you mind putting your plates in the dishwasher?  Thanks.”

Catch him being good

Sometimes, it is more effective to ignore poor behaviour and give praise for something he is doing well simultaneously.  Notice when they do behave well.

For example

  • Say, “I’m impressed by the way you organised your desk. Could you get me your washing now please?””
  • Say, “I liked the way you came down for dinner as soon as I called you. Sit down now, please”.
  • Say, “I noticed how you helped your sister with her French today, thanks”.

Allow choices …

…or the illusion of choice!  This will make your daughter feel more in control and often works wonders.

For example

  • Say, “Do you want to get your homework done now or would you like a snack first?”
  • Say, “Would you prefer to visit Gran on Saturday or Sunday?”
  • Say, “Do you want to tidy up first or shall I change the bed first?”

Say what you WANT, not what you don’t want

Evidence suggests that the more you tell a young person off for poor behaviour, the more she will repeat that behaviour.  Focus on the desired behaviour.

For example

  • Say, “Please come downstairs in a minute so we can talk properly” (not, “Don’t shout down the stairs”)
  • Say, “Please hang the wet towels up to dry” (not, “Don’t leave wet towels on the bathroom floor”)

NEVER, EVER be drawn into acting like a teenager and NEVER be rude or sarcastic

This allows you to say, “I am treating you with respect and I expect you to treat me in the same way”.

Use the format, ‘When you …, I felt …  I would prefer it if …”

For example

Say, “When you arrive home over an hour later than we agreed last night, I felt so worried.  I’d prefer it if you called or texted, so I knew you were safe”.

Use the broken record technique

Say it and say it again and say it again.  Say it in the same calm tone of voice and at the same volume

Deal with the main issue and stick to it

Ignore secondary behaviours; if you are dealing with arriving home later than agreed, talk about that and resist bringing up other issues such as not getting work done, the mess in the bathroom, swearing …

Avoid threats especially empty ones

If you say it, you must carry it through or you will find the boundaries are pushed further and further.

Avoid the triggers

Work out when/where the behaviour goes wrong and change the situation. If you notice that your teenager is grumpy before eating don’t ask her to tidy her room before dinner!

Remember – you are the adult and they are just doing what teenagers do!

Joy Morgan
HLP Lead at Parliament Hill School joymorgan@parliamenthill.camden.sch.uk

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Joy Morgan is the Assistant Headteacher and Specialist Leader of Education at Parliament Hill School, London.  Parliament Hill School received the Above and Beyond Awards Effective Provision in School Award in 2019.