Adolescence is a time of huge change and turmoil. The early years that came before can seem tame by comparison and the road ahead rocky and paved with both uncertainty and fear as a parent. Experiencing this period of your child’s life can feel overwhelming, despite there being a sea of information and resources available - all claiming to have the expertise and truths about how to parent a young person. It’s great to live in a world where we can easily find the answers to the questions we seek, but what happens if a ‘one size fits all’ approach doesn’t work? What do we do when our teenagers don’t respond to the changes we’ve made and, more aptly, when we ourselves struggle to change old and pervasive ways of responding to them?
As a depth psychotherapist and researcher, it is my job to pose questions in response to struggles and to explore their answers in collaboration with my clients. But, if those questions don’t provide answers that are insightful and moving in some way then I always go back to the ‘drawing board’. In the realm of adolescent parenting this means to begin with an alternative perspective, surprisingly not from the adult’s vantage point, but from that of the young person’s instead.
We’ve known for some time that biologically speaking, there are surges of hormones that are the catalysts for puberty, allowing for the transmutation of the reproductive organs along with the acceleration of growth in the physical body. Both biologically and physically, there is a huge amount of change occurring. However, this is only just the tip of the metamorphic iceberg of leaps that your young person will make. Recent research conducted by a group of neuroscientists investigating adolescent brain development has unveiled ground-breaking evidence proving that a teenager’s brain goes through as much change as a child does developmentally aged 0-10 years.
Brain receptors alter and evolve the construct of the adolescent’s brain in response to the experiences they are having in their outside worlds – with peers, parents, schools, and the wider world through the digital media they consume. Yes, your exuberant and perhaps gruff teenager is literally being hard-wired by the outer world it experiences and lives in, especially by you. To allow this ‘brain blooming’ to happen the adolescent’s brain is cleverly scattered with ‘risk inhibitors’ during this period, allowing the adolescent to feel less fearful in response to potentially ‘risky’ actions – drinking, sexual encounters, excessive spending, truanting, or generally exhibiting impulsive and sometimes nail-bitingly hazardous behaviours.
So, this new evidence begins to paint a picture of what it is like to be (literally) inside a teenager’s head. To feel at times widely free, lost even and as yet uncoupled from one’s fixed identity within the world around it. Could sound great, hey? Think again. Research into the lives and experiences of teenagers in the Western world show that this can often be one of the most uneasy and difficult times of our lives. And yet one of the most formative - having a huge impact on later life in terms of self-esteem, self-impression, abilities, confidence and problem-solving attributes. Research also demonstrates how easy it is for a teenager to be left feeling traumatised during this period of brain development. A precarious and tenuous period some might say…
But before we all start to feel pessimistic and helpless about our teenager’s outcomes and our abilities to shape them, let us look at the factors that most influence the teenager’s view of themselves and the world around them. In a study conducted in 2016 exploring teenagers’ so called ‘rebellious’ or ‘risky behaviours’, all participants considered their experiences (before recalling them as part of the study) to have been negative and to a greater or lesser degree, personally shameful. Things like sneaking out of the house to see a boyfriend, having a house party while their parents were away and wearing make-up in a culturally strict family environment; all being viewed as embarrassing mistakes caked in guilt and self-blame.
Relating to Teenagers
In the study, upon exploring the issue of shame and regret it was revealed that the so-called ‘bad’ feelings came not from the teenagers but from the impression given to them by their primary caregivers at the time. Furthermore, all participants described a ‘breaking down’ in the relationships they held with their parents; manifesting in the form of attitudes such as disapproval and punishment, as well as criticism, leaving a lasting sense of dejection and failure for the teenager.
It’s not the first time that ‘relationships’ have been flagged as being the single-most important factor in a child’s healthy development. Attachment theory is a solid philosophy underpinning our knowledge of mental health in the Western world. If attachments (or relationships as we might call them) to primary caregivers are secure and loving, then our children can go on to seek and expect the same from the outside world; generally making for more contented adults. The UK Government has also recently become aware of this. Studies found that the single most important factor in a family’s outcome and dependency on the NHS’s psychological services is, relationships – how well people get on with each other; mums and dads or dads and dads or mums and mums (whatever the mix) and analogously their relationships with their children and wider families.
So, to round up briefly, we know that from the teenager’s perspective ‘risky’ behaviours are inevitable and even developmentally healthy and that as adults we can find this challenging; potentially causing strained and fractious relationships that need to be carefully considered. If relationships are fundamental in helping you and your young person navigate this time, how do we cultivate and maintain good relationships to bring about meaningful changes and outcomes? Coming back to the point made in the beginning; what if the ‘101 parenting guide’ hasn’t made a difference to your family… and most importantly the way you relate to your child, what then?
The thing with being a parent is that it’s tough. Really tough. My own mother used to astutely say that ‘there is no mothercare book on parenting’. It’s true and let’s face it, we’re all making it up as we go along. That’s all fine and kind of how it should be, if, it’s a conscious and considered approach where we can self-reflect knowing our own triggers and tendencies. We are massively influenced by our own parents and families and most of the time are operating within a personal framework of cultural norms and expectations; rules, boundaries (or lack of), approaches to social etiquette, education and attitudes to the wider world, etc, etc. Most of the time however, we’re just not thinking deeply about why we adopt our specific parenting style and where this originates. They are a sort of inherited and unprocessed ‘way of being’ as a parent; seeded from our own varied and colourful childhoods. We don’t even have this knowledge, let alone know what it means to us most of the time!
Considering then that our parenting styles might be largely conditioned by our own powerful and unconscious relational memories of our childhoods, it makes sense that often they’re not easily challenged and adapted (despite the 10-books you recently bought from amazon, just last week – insert angry emoji!).
Self-awareness as Empowerment
When parenting becomes difficult and we feel defeated it calls for a deeper assessment and understanding of ourselves. Do you really know all of your history and feelings around your own childhood? Why might you struggle with setting boundaries, or with adapting them over time in the face of your changing and growing children? I would argue that going into therapy as a parent of a teenager is a brilliant time to go through a process of self-discovery, as a mum or dad, or caregiver. The process can be difficult yes, but when we look at ourselves and study the prisms by which we personally see the world we can allow for the softening, or strengthening, of old beliefs and views. How did we really feel when our daughter snuck out of the house, or wore that mini skirt to that party? Why do we struggle to say no to gaming sessions that have gone way over their allotted time?
It is very likely that the struggles we experience with our teenagers stem from our own childhoods and in exploring them we can identify with our true and individual versions of parenting. Coming to know ourselves on a deeper level like this allows us to grow in confidence, as well as love and compassion for the young person changing, discovering and unfolding in front of us. As a therapist, I witness this all the time in my practice; changing ourselves first leads on to a powerful change to and rediscovery of the important relationships around us. What can be better than to do this in service of both yourself and the blossoming young adult in front of you.