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 younger children need their parents to be in the lead, teenagers need you to be by their side. When it comes to dealing with teenagers, we may use much of the same skills as we did when they were younger. 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 teenager's 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’, engaging in behaviour that you may feel is risky. They may go head to head with you on everything. 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 discuss these things with them and meet in the middle. 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 phones or 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 go straight on their phones and be messaging friends while watching a programme or playing online games with their 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, try 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.
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 or do the things they want. 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 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. 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 and it helps them to build resilience which is a necessary life skill.
Acknowledging and respecting their decisions
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. But they also have so many other decisions to make. 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 college because friends are going there rather than because it’s the best teaching environment for them for instance.
Acknowledging and respecting their choices doesn't mean you have to sit back and not give them some guidance. 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.
It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker.