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…?
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…
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
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.
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
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.
- 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.
- 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 …
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 …”
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!
HLP Lead at Parliament Hill School firstname.lastname@example.org
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.