Have a Question? Need Parenting Advice? Ask Michael Hawton

For teenagers, there are numerous challenges. Of course, developmentally, teens are trying to forge their identity often separate from their parents. They are seeking independence and learning to make decisions for themselves. They are inclined to seek novelty and to push boundaries – and these tendencies can expose them to danger.

As well, modern teenagers are more exposed to life’s problems: terrorism, climate change and an increasingly disrupted employment future. Technology brings challenges in many forms, including stealing sleep from young people, exposing them to bullying and the pressures from an idealised world of marketers. Some of these issues can be managed by a teenager’s parents.

The two biggest challenges facing parents of teenagers today are:

  1. figuring when a problem is a problem, then,
  2. having the time, energy and a method to properly manage that problem.

So many problems get put-off when they are emerging that, by the time parents get around to dealing with them, they have become entrenched.  I also think that parents run out of energy to keep solving problems. Many parents are reluctant to confront problems because they seem irresolvable or because they aren’t sure about how to solve them, without risking a heated conflict and further estrangement of their teenager.

Are teens more resilient than they used to be? 

Teens are probably more resilient than when they were children, just because the part of their mind that can get perspective has improved. But clearly there are other issues that suggest that teenagers may not be as resilient as they used to be. Technology is making it harder for parents to ensure that their teenagers’ mental health is being looked after.  With estimates saying that over 70% of teenagers are not getting enough sleep – and a lack of sleep is associated with anxiety (although lack of sleep is not the only cause of anxiety).  Ensuring your teenager gets proper sleep and maintaining some control over how technology gets used at home is something I cover in my book.

When does parenting a teen start? 

Parents who have invested time and energy into parenting their younger children have a strong foundation for parenting their children as they reach their teens. That said, it’s very clear that behavioural problems in teenagers tend to get their start when those teenagers were children.  What might start off as naughty behaviour at 7 years old can tend to emerge into more complicated behavioural issues by the time they are 12, if nothing in the family system changes. Research into ‘the kids who do best’ is clear.  Children who have parents who are warm and firm do best.  Being ‘warm’ is about loving your children, showing them affection, listening to them and looking after them well. Being ‘firm’ is about having some clear rules that parents communicate to their children – and implement. These rules are largely to do with respect: respect for your parents and teachers and respect for your family and yourself.

What is the biggest misconception about teens today?

The biggest misconception I see is that teenagers’ minds somehow go ‘off-line’ for a period of time – and that somehow they are unable to exert some self-control, because hormones or stress or lack of sleep make them less responsible.

But the way I see it, if they are growing in maturity and if their brains are developing as they should, their ability to contain their behaviour should be improving. That is, they can think better before they ‘lose it’, compared to in their childhood. The teenage brain still has some growing to do before it reaches full maturity sometime in the early twenties. Parents have an important role to play in their teenagers’ lives. Sure, parents need to gradually give teens more responsibility and independence as they grow older, but they also need to keep in mind that often times they have a wisdom and experience greater than their teenagers to see what’s ahead or to predict consequences.

Five tips for raising happy, well-adjusted teenagers

  1. Parents can help their teenagers navigate the ups and downs of adolescence.
  2. Your relationship with your teenage son or daughter needs to be nurtured. Spend time with them, try to connect with them over things that interest them and set up rituals that you both enjoy, like going out for pizza or playing a game of soccer or table tennis with them.
  3. Lead by example. If you don’t want your teen on his or her phone at the dinner table then make sure you put your phone away. If you want your teen to speak to you respectfully, then give them the same respect.
  4. If you have a problem, approach it calmly and think through possible outcomes. Use the method in my ‘Engaging Adolescents’ book to prepare for a difficult conversation.
  5. If your son or daughter appears to be to be having serious mental health issues or problems at school or with friends that they won’t talk to you about, then get professional help.
  6. Keep the lines of communication open. Learn to be a good listener. Not all communication from your teen needs you to judge or solve it. Just tune-in and listen.

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