Stressing about your teen-to-be? Here's how to prepare for the wonder years...
As parents we're taught to dread the teenage years. The hormones, the arguments and the attitude have always haunted parents' nightmares, but add a global pandemic and the very serious downsides of social media in the mix and you have a seriously toxic environment for these age-old dramas to play out. But what if we could enter these years with wonder, curiosity and even excitement for the amazing people our children are developing into?
"A positive mindset is probably the most crucial factor," says positive psychologist and teenage specialist Dr Andy Cope, author of The Teenager's Guide to Life, The Universe and Being Awesome. "Essentially kids will role model the behaviour they see around them – it's called social learning – so the biggest thing you’ll ever do for your children is to role model positive, confident, optimistic behaviours yourself. There's an idea called 'emotional soup' which says in any social situation – including families – everyone is having a say in the flavour, the emotional tone of the family. As parents are you adding positivity, optimism, confidence and hope, or are you adding panic and anxiety?"
Your role in boosting up your teen is bigger than you may realise. "Parental language is really important," says Andy. "You should be eight times more positive than you are negative. So, you can have a grumble, but every time you catch yourself saying something negative you balance it out with eight positives. That comes down to noticing the little things they're doing really well." This can be hard and may require a little self-care to make sure you support your own feelings of wellbeing. "We're bombarded with messages that we're not enough," says Andy. "Positive psychology comes from the starting point that 'You are enough – you are amazing – but the world is going to make you forget that. You have to learn positive strategies that buffer you against the external world."
When the going gets tough there are some great resources to support parents and teens. Young Minds is a charity fighting for young people's mental health and can support you through hard times. Private mental health services can help when you're worried about your child. "It's usually challenging behaviour with children that leads parents to therapeutic work," says play therapist Lucy Lewellyn. "For some families home can be a war zone; everyone is at cross-purposes and adults can argue about their managing of the child." As part of her practice Lucy uses a branch of play therapy called 'filial therapy', which trains parents to hold a half-hour, one-to-one child-led play session with each of their children every week, but she recommends all families build a little more play time into their week. "By just taking time out and spending time playing with a child you have that shared experience of doing nice things together. There's evidence that filial therapy not only improves child-parent relationships but also parent-parent relationships. You get more of an understanding of the child, but also yourself."
Neurologists have proven that teenage years are a period of intense activity in brain development, a lengthy refurbishment that can lead to risk-taking, impulsive behaviour and intense emotions. As frustrating as these changes can be to live through, they're a necessary and inevitable part of growing up. "Teens live in a different reality to us, says Andy. "Chemical imbalances mean their highs are higher, and their lows lower. Parents need to be mindful of that and compassionate and tolerant. Teenagers are breaking away from their family and joining a new tribe, basically. For them it's more important to be part of a group of friends than their family. That's really painful as a parent – they start disrespecting you, taking risks and challenging authority – but it's what teenagers have always done. The message for parents is just chill. Kids go through it, but they come out the other end."
"Growing up has always been a contact sport," concludes Andy. "There's peer pressure and hormones...add in social media and the pandemic I think it’s just harder to grow up right now. But if you can create the right family environment – the right soup – you can inoculate your children against the pressures of growing up."