Top tips for understanding your teenager in the ‘new normal’

Being a teenager is tough at the best of times. But this isn’t the best of times. So, as a parent, how do you continue to support your teenager? What do their behaviours and emotions tell you about what’s going on for them? And how do you untangle those which are an understandable response to the restrictions of the pandemic, those which are typical of the teenage years, and those which might warrant more specialist help?

Your teenager may feel rage at the 'injustice' of lockdown restrictions, or seeing their future plans changed. Or they may feel anxiety about being exposed to crowds at school. These can all be legitimately felt by young people right now as such experiences come at a time when their independence is meant to be developing and choices were meant to be available to them. For many teenagers, these new limitations have come as a real shock.

There are many opportunities for a ‘teenage storm’ during adolescence. Even calling it this (or ‘a meltdown’, or ‘losing the plot’) means that you may have created your own language for it. Be careful that, in 'you' choosing a name, you don’t pour petrol on a fire. Instead, try talking with your teenager at a calm time to find out what name 'they' would use for such moments, so that you build a shared language.

This article is not about arguing the details of any particular disagreement. Instead, it’s about recognising the situation you’re in and working out what to do next. We’re talking about when, as the parent or carer of a teenager, you find yourself at odds, at loggerheads, in conflict with each other. Typically, this can happen very suddenly. In an instant, you have both ‘taken up positions’ and there’s what feels like a great divide between you. It is in such moments that it feels as though everything is at stake.

So, at times like this, what should you do?

1. Firstly, don’t do anything

Let it rest a while. See if things make more sense later in the day or tomorrow. One of the things that we understand about the human brain is that the kind of thinking that does this sense-making is ‘designed’ to switch off under conditions of stress. This includes any thinking which involves imagination, perspective taking, and slowly putting together a story of ‘how this person and I came to be saying or doing these things.’ Why? Because it’s about survival. (If a sabre-toothed tiger was coming towards you, this kind of slow, reflective thinking would be more likely to see you end up as tiger food than help you escape.)

Faced with a furious teenager, our minds still switch quickly to certainty. We find ourselves thinking ‘I know exactly why you are saying that!’, and/or taking sudden decisive action (‘So you’re grounded!’). This is sometimes called 'certainty-thinking' and 'action-thinking.' It's based on minimal reasoning or understanding, but at the time it feels right and deeply reassuring to do it. It may even feel empowering to us in the moment, even though just making us as parents or carers feel better was never the primary intention! This is exactly what happens when our minds slip into an ‘everything is at stake’ state.

The problem is that this survival thinking still fires up at times when the threat is mostly not about immediate survival, but something much more complicated. It’s about the challenge of being able to make sense of something and (through making sense of it so that the other person feels understood) being in a better position to exert a genuine and helpful influence on that person about whom we care deeply. This is an important point, because making sense of someone (so they feel understood) is the key to being able to have a benign influence on them.

Strangely enough, the more we care, the more prone we are to lose our ability to hesitate and reflect in ways that might achieve this. It is a natural paradox and happens precisely because so much is at stake! My advice is not to care less, but to understand how caring - loving, really - can affect us and the way we behave.

2. Work out what’s going on

Next, ask yourself what’s really at stake here. Young people are prone to getting overwhelmed and that’s normal. The teenage years are to some extent about working out the boundaries - what it means to become independent, take responsibility, and cope in a world that (for them) is starting to get serious. For your teenager to learn this, it requires a certain amount of ‘walking the line’, so they learn where that ‘line’ actually is.

Learning requires experience and repetition, as well as information. Just telling someone something is rarely enough to produce lasting change. In the pandemic, these ‘lines’ are suddenly drawn a lot closer. This might well create more opportunities for conflict or misunderstanding, and many families have faced this over recent months. Meanwhile, for some adolescents, the ongoing restrictions have removed them from external stresses (like having to socialise with their peers). But, in truth, they needed to explore these challenges to find ways of coping.

Bearing all this in mind, when should parents be worried about what’s happening to their teenager? Questions to ask yourself include:

  • Is this incident a one-off, or is it happening repeatedly? If so, is it happening weekly, daily, or hourly?
  • Is it occurring in all areas of their life (friendship groups, school, home), or just in one?
  • Is it affecting their overall function (their ability to make and hold friendships, to progress in education, to maintain physical health and safety, to enjoy things, to stay on the right side of the law, etc)? Or is it interrupting just one aspect of their life, while others are progressing fine?
  • After a ‘teenage storm’, are they able to reflect on what happened?

Answering these questions may take some time and may require conversations with others (teachers and trusted friends). But proceed with care, as teenagers may legitimately be anxious about confidentiality. Try talking to them honestly and sharing your intentions, which should be to better understand what’s going on and how you can best support them.

3. Check that you have understood

Don’t assume you know what your teenager is really worried about. Check that you have understood. We know from research that when a young person feels genuinely understood (or finally feels that their worries or frustrations are seen as valid and worth trying to understand), there is an increased likelihood of them focusing their attention on the mind that has understood them (ie. yours!). Moreover, they are more likely to trust what comes next (eg. your suggestions for doing things differently) and consider these worth a try.

Finally, remember that the minds of parents and carers are not so completely different from our teenagers’ minds. We also fall into states of undue certainty or ‘quick fix’ ways of thinking. However, adults generally have more of the ‘wiring’ in the front of their brains that helps resist this (brains tend to settle into ‘adult’ form from around the age of 24). Although these parts of the brain are developing in adolescents, they’re not yet fully mature. We know that one of the things that actually helps a brain to mature is being exposed to thoughtful and reflective minds, (i.e. yours!)

In setting out to be the best possible parent to our children, we can model behaviour to them which demonstrates us getting our own minds into the best state for problem-solving. Our minds are rather like temperamental cars - they need to be not too hot, and not too cold. And this applies as we support our older child through their teenage years too, as much as it did in the years which came before.

Dr Dickon Bevington is a Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at the Anna Freud Centre and in the NHS.

For further information: The Anna Freud Centre have resources for parents and carers here: https://www.annafreud.org/parents-and-carers/

Young Minds also have resources for Parents via this link: https://youngminds.org.uk/find-help/for-parents/

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