This article was written by Australia Counselling member Narelle Gillies, who works as a Crows Nest counsellor with teens and young adults.

As a therapist and youth mentor, working with teenagers in high schools and in private practice, I am struck by how often I hear comments like “they just won’t listen to me”. These kids are usually referring to the significant adults in their life, namely parents, other adult relatives, teachers and even school counsellors.

One young girl referred to conversations with her father as “blame and shame sessions”. She felt that though he seemed interested in her school life and friendships, nothing she said was right and in the end they would argue or she would give up trying to communicate with him altogether. So what is it about this age group that so often gives rise to conflict and misunderstanding? And more importantly, why aren’t we truly listening to our teens and validating their thoughts and feelings as they make the transition into early adulthood?

Has it ever been any different?

“Youth today love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, no respect for older people, and talk nonsense when they should be working. Young people do not stand up any longer when adults enter the room. They contradict their parents, talk too much, guzzle their food, lay their legs on the table and tyrannize their elders”.

Though such comments are readily heard today, it may surprise you to learn that this quote was written sometime around 500 BC by Greek philosopher, Socrates. It seems that very little has changed and yet we continue to be surprised and annoyed at adolescent behaviour. Though typically, much attention is focused on the failings of the young person, it can also be miscommunication and inconsistent parenting that exacerbates problems and leads to family disharmony.

Understanding the tasks of adolescence

A useful framework for understanding the emotional and psychological changes that occur in human beings over time, particularly adolescence, can be found in Life Span Development theory. Danish analyst, Erik Erikson suggested that over the lifespan, humans develop in eight psychosocial stages. Within each stage, the individual is confronted with a conflict or developmental task which must be adequately resolved as it shapes the direction of their future development.

During adolescence, Erikson suggests that the task for young people is to develop self-perception and a sense of belonging, describing the teenage years as a time of identity formation. It is a time for recognising ones strengths, weaknesses and roles within the family and society at large.

Accompanying this of course is puberty and its associated biological changes, the challenges of which certainly have the capacity to produce significant changes in behaviour. During this phase of enormous change and expectation, is it not reasonable for teenagers to become volatile, less communicative and more challenging? It is a normal part of their development to push boundaries, take risks and strive for independence. Their brains and bodies are works in progress.

Moodiness, impulsive and unpredictable behaviour, social pressure and physical change are a normal part of this process and though sometimes difficult for adults to understand, if managed carefully and respectfully, this period can indeed be successfully navigated leading to a mutually satisfying relationship.

Ideas about parenting teenagers

Young people need at least one caring adult to help them negotiate the challenges in their lives and to understand their behaviour without judgment. The adult’s goal is to raise self-esteem and provide guidance for good decision making. By truly listening and focussing on the needs of the teenager, such as their desire to be accepted by peers, the caring adult can validate their thoughts, feelings and behaviour creating a supportive relationship whilst role modelling constructive and mature adult behaviour.

It is important to demonstrate sustained interest in the young person’s school and social life without interrogation. A great way to do this is to avoid asking direct personal questions such as “have you tried drugs?”, instead asking about their peers and the group in general.

For example display curiosity and an unknowing approach with something like, “I read that kids around your age are starting to experiment with drugs. Have you heard anything like that or is it something that you’ve come across?” Though initially the teenager may choose not to engage, don’t be put off; comments and questions like this may open the door for discussion later on as long as they start to feel that you are open to learning more, without accusation or blame. Another way to think of this is to make them the expert.

Clear communication is essential

Expectations of conduct and achievement should be communicated clearly, whilst allowing for mistakes and set-backs. Young people need to know that failure is a normal part of life and has nothing to do with their self-worth or identity. By providing teens with clear boundaries, encouragement and unconditional support, we are helping them to trust themselves and others, not to mention setting them on the path to longer term emotional and psychological health. It may also be reassuring to know that teen/parental conflict tends to decline from roughly the age of 17 years onwards.

So in the meantime:

  • expect challenging behaviour from your adolescent – it’s a normal part of their development
  • listen carefully and try not to interrupt, even if what they are telling you feels uncomfortable
  • ask non-direct, general questions – teens love nothing more than to educate their parents
  • create an environment devoid of  judgment or blame so that the young person feels safe to make mistakes
  • understand that the transition to adulthood takes time, conformity will not occur overnight, nor will logical reasoning and rational behaviour
  • stay calm and supportive, in doing so you are role modelling healthy adult behaviour and helping your teenager develop a sense of self-worth

Author: This article was written by Australia Counselling member Narelle Gillies.

photo credit: martinak15 

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