What your teenager needs

Young people going through the process of adolescence need what they have always needed from their parents. They want your love, your support, your encouragement, your nurture, acceptance and attention. The difference for teenagers is that while children need their parents to be in the lead, pulling them along, directing their steps and making the important decisions, teenagers need to be side by side. Teenagers need ‘helpful attention’ rather than protective attention.

what teenagers need

There are particular skills that support children in learning how to manage for themselves, to trust their own judgment and develop their own skills. When it comes to dealing with teenagers, we may use much the same skills as we did when they were younger, but at a greater remove. These include being encouraging and enabling, allowing children to learn from their mistakes rather than ‘showing them how to do it’, accepting they might do it differently from you, acknowledging and respecting their choices, following the child’s lead rather than jumping in with ideas, being in the present and spending time focused on your teenager.

What teens need

All of us need to feel safe and protected, to have our physical requirements for food, clothing, warmth, healthcare met. One of the flash points with teenagers may be a conflict between parents wish to fulfil these needs and a teenagers apparent desire to frustrate or be unrealistic about them.

Teenagers may defy your attempts to keep them safe, by staying out late, running around with ‘bad company’, taking what you may consider risks with internet use. They may go head to head with you on the physical requirements you try to offer - refusing healthy food and demanding chips and fizzy drinks with everything. Perfectly good clothing may be rejected on the grounds that their friends would laugh - they have to have the latest styles. And boring things like dental and health checks may be something they suddenly turn their noses up about. 

The fact that they become contrary, however, doesn't mean they don’t want you to continue caring and continue to act on their behalf. What would help would be for you to enter into a dialogue about these issues and look to agree with them. When you are clear about what is your concern and what you’d like to happen but are prepared to hear their point of view, you can get somewhere.

What teenagers want as much as when they were little is your love, your care, your respect and your attention. They want to be noticed by you. Too often, because teenagers are being moody and withdraw into themselves, we respond by ignoring them. Ignoring bad behaviour and not rising to it is one thing; ignoring the person who is annoying us is another. And it can become a pattern, where they mope so we ignore them so they mope even more, convinced we don’t care. 

Family time and meals

Teenagers still want to spend time together with their parents. Yes, of course they’d like to be on their mobiles or computers, playing games and communicating with their mates, all hours of the day and night. And given the chance, they want to be with them too, either at each other’s homes or out together. But they also still value family time - round a table eating together, watching television as a family, even going out with you.

Which is why one core aspect of family life that seems to have slipped away may be something you need to defend or bring back; the family meal. Many families have found shared meals, as a family, have become a luxury they have lost. Some of the reason may be the pace of life - you and your children may have so many competing demands that it’s really hard to find an hour each evening when you can all be together.

If you feel pressured and short of time and opt for meals that can be put together easily, you may also be  offering dishes that can be done individually, so there doesn’t seem to be any reason why you should all be at the table at one time. And of course, if preferences and food fads has meant that people are eating different foods anyway, it can seem just as sensible for people to get their own as and when they wish. One of the side effects of sharing family meals is that it allows everyone round the table to feel valued and appreciated - another core need for teenagers. 

Teenagers need both stimulation and activity, and rest and relaxation.

Teenagers today seem surrounded by an overload of things to do and ways of taking in information. It’s not unusual to have a young person come home late from school because of an after-school activity, to turn on the TV and computer and be messaging friends while watching a programme with one eye, texting on the mobile with the other and somehow managing to play a computer game as well while eating hasty meal before dashing out to another club or meeting with friends. 

Teenagers also need the activity bit - and that doesn't just mean ‘activities’ such as meetings or clubs but physical exercise. Kids tend to keep fit by rushing around in school breaks. Teenagers often need support in keeping active so that it becomes a part of their adult life style, and they stay healthy and fit. If they’re not attending after school sports activities (and actually, even if they are…), you need to make exercise something the family does together. This has the added value of giving you one more time when you can share time with them, while running or cycling or swimming or going to a gym.

Age-appropriate choices and responsibility

Teenagers need us to give them choices and responsibility appropriate to their age. Teenagers can become stroppy, insisting they are perfectly capable of running their own lives and making decisions for themselves. Some parents may be tempted to throw up their hands and to opt for a peaceful life, letting them stay out late, do the things they want, and even leave school early or not take up a challenging college course. Other parents may come down hard, and take over all responsibility for everything - what they study at school, who they see, when they are in.

What may be more effective, and certainly more what teenagers need, is for a gradual process where teenagers learn to take on decision making, and gradually assume control. It’s the most effective option because part of being a teenager is to want to take on the role - and if they have no opportunity to do so progressively, will seize it in an uncontrolled way. When adolescents act irresponsibly and foolishly it’s often because they have been denied some control over their lives. The answer is neither to let them continue nor clamp down on them but to work out with them what responsibility they could and should take on and increase it as they show what they can do. Young people tend to rise to responsibility when it is transferred to them. 

“Helpful attention”

One of the ways we meet our teenager’s needs as parents is by giving them attention. This is as true of teenagers as it is of children. What teenagers, even more than children, need is helpful attention. Giving our children helpful attention helps us to develop close and co-operative relationships with them and builds their confidence and self-esteem. It’s a way of showing that we care and that they matter.

Helpful Attention means

  • enjoying and being interested in who they are and what they’re doing
  • being responsive – listening to them when they want to talk, even when it might be inconvenient
  • being guided by the young person rather than always taking charge and imposing our will on them (although sometimes this is necessary, for instance in situations involving safety)

A key element in dealing with teenagers is to enjoy them. This can sometimes be hard if they seem to spend a lot of their time defying you, arguing with you and ignoring you. However, from the teenager’s perspective, they sometimes get the impression that all parents want to do is criticise and control. Both of you can be on a negative default setting. You can often tackle their defiance, argumentativeness and disregard by switching to positive setting. So, look at what they do you like. Take an interest in who they are at this moment, which will not be the child they were some time ago not the adult they will be in a few years time. Don’t quiz or interrogate them but ask open questions about their interests and enthusiasms, and accept them without judgement. 

Acknowledging and respecting their choices 

Adolescence is the time for choices. It’s when they have to decide what courses they will study, what path they will take at least for their early life - college or a job, and which. But they also have so many other decisions to make - how to appear, who to identify with, who to befriend and be loyal to. Parents and teenagers can argue over so many of the options the young person decides upon. Parents may say this is because the young person is making choices based on inexperience and on temporary and trivial deciders - choosing a school because friends are going there rather than because it’s the best teaching environment for them for instance.

One underlying factor you need to consider, however, is how much this conflict is effected by the process of separation, and how much on the issues you point to. Adolescence is, after all, a painful time of life for many parents. It’s the time when your children slowly - and sometimes suddenly very quickly - tell you they no longer need you, no longer want to be guided by you and that other people are closer to them than you. It’s the time when they appear to cease to look to you and up to you. Every choice they make on their own - and every choice they make that is different from the one you have made - underlines this separation. Parents may find themselves in opposition, not necessarily because of the choice itself, but because it was made by someone who is no longer a child and not by them.

Acknowledging and respecting their choices doesn't mean you have to sit back and entirely lose control. Maybe the choice is one you feel you simply cannot allow or one you feel is short sighted - such as a promising student leaving school at 16, or a teenager insisting on following a friend to a particular school. Acknowledging and respecting their choice means saying that you can see why they feel it important, explaining your thoughts on the matter and inviting them to tell you more in a mutually respectful way. The end result may be compromise or your both agreeing to one or other course. You are more likely to reach a satisfying - and safe - result if you begin by seeing they have a point of view that deserves an audience. 

How we can help you

If you would like support and advice, you can talk to one of our Family Support Workers by calling our confidential helpline on 0808 800 2222. You can also share experiences and advice with other parents on our Forums. Family Lives is here for you and you can contact us about any family issue, big or small.

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